Disney Détournement: Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

6 years, 9 months ago
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Feature pic by Broly1337

For anyone who’s dreamt of going to Disney World and never leaving, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (2003) is the book for you. Cory Doctorow’s increasingly relevant novel is a precious literary artifact, functioning as a potent science fiction missive, a satirical challenge to copyright laws, and as a prophecy of the coming age of transhumanism and reputation currency. Such an amalgam of speculation and social activism is unusual–we wish to hell there were more subversive scifi novels like this. After he finishes part 3 of the Little Brother series (surely he’s working on this), Doctorow should take on the Star Wars empire.

Key concepts in the novel:

Bitchun Society

A 22nd century technologically advanced America in which we basically live forever by enhancing our bodies and uploading our minds into “force-grown” clones; we live for centuries. Scarcity of resources is no longer a problem, due likely to nanotechnological advancement. Corporations and bureaucracies have been replaced by loose confederations called adhocracies. The Bitchun society “[doesn’t] need to convert its detractors, just outlive them.”


In this post-scarcity society, wealth is relative to Whuffie, a reputation-based currency that is gained and lost upon favorable or unfavorable actions. Whuffie “recapture(s) the true essence of money….by measuring the thing that money really represent(s) –your personal capital with your friends and neighbors—you more accurately gauge your success.” Without Whuffie, it’s hard to catch even an elevator, much less a smile from a stranger. Since everybody has a HUD, a brain-implant giving them an interface with the Web, one’s Whuffie is immediately accessible.


A form of suspended animation hyper-freeze where people can check out for a while, thousands of years if they want. Alternative to suicide in the age of immortality.


An exciting new synthetic memory-and-experience imprinting technology espoused by a rival adhoc group. In the Hall of Presidents, for example, ‘flashbaking’ allows one to actually experience being Lincoln. As the story progresses ‘flashbaking’ is said to be getting big at clubs, allowing dancers to really become the music. Imagine that rave.

Designer faces

Popular among teenage girls (a concept made all the more nauseating by its likelihood).

Image by FireEquinox

The story itself is about Jules, a young man barely a century old who has lived long enough to learn ten languages and compose three symphonies. He lives and works at Disney World (literally) with his girlfriend Lily, doing crowd control simulations for an adhocracy devoted to keeping the Magic Kingdom preserved from the kinetic enhancements of the outside world. They live their days among AI driven sims “spinning age-appropriate tales of piracy on the high seas.”

Meanwhile Jules has been murdered and the novel picks up with him investigating the circumstances of his own demise, which he believes is tied to an attempt by a new adhoc to take control of the Park and install the new ‘flashbaking’ technology into the Hall of Presidents and the Haunted Mansion.

Jules argues: “You don’t want to be a post-person. You want to stay human. The rides are human.”

His best friend Dan, a burnt out missionary for the ubiquitous Bitchun society–which has spent his days and centuries converting villages to technologically enlightened colonies–decides he’s sick of the whole thing and wants to commit suicide.

“You can’t be a revolutionary after the revolution,” Jules argues. But he’s too late. Dan will hang around at Disney World just long enough to accrue an amount of Whuffie decent enough to make his suicide mean something—then it’s the big sleep.

Meanwhile, the rival adhoc run by the sinister Debra, presses further into the Disney brand-land, attempting to turn it into a virtualized caricature of its 20th century conception. A coup by Jules, wherein he attempts first to revamp the Park organically by stressing the human element, turns to drunken violence—Jules is caught smashing attractions, which pretty much drops his Whuffie off a cliff. After his implants become corrupted and he finds out that his best friend Dan and his lover Lily are having an affair, Jules hits rock bottom and descends into trans-human madness.

Disney: where nightmares come true. Usually LSD inspired ones.

Ultimately, we find out it was Dan who had Jules killed, at the behest of Debra. This creates a wellspring of sympathy and Jules gets his Whuffie back in spades. Even though his interface is a malfunctioning train wreck, he refuses to restore himself, because doing so would erase his memories of that entire year, his last with Dan. The book is his attempt to manually document the happenings of the previous year so that when his present self finally perishes, his restored backup will have a record of what’s happened. Dan decides not to take the lethal injection, but to deadhead until the heat death of the universe.

In this age of YouTube and rampant blogging, it is humorous to note that Doctorow calls his book a “parable about the inevitability of crappy-but-more-democratic media.” Down and Out is a lucid evocation of the future but it’s also a hard-hitting critique of Disney, the eternal guardian of the copyright, as an impenetrable brand. Doctorow, a technophile with Luddite goosebumps (when it comes to some of the newer Disney simulator rides), reminds us that “Walt (Disney) himself was full of grandiose, hubristic, science-fictional notions. The original plan for Walt Disney World called for a domed city (based loosely on the Progressland Walt built for General Electric at the 1964 World’s Fair) — the original EPCOT (Experiment Prototype City of Tomorrow), in which tens of thousands of employees would live under corporate law whose premises would follow Walt’s nutty and sometimes saccharine ideals for social Utopia” (CreativeCommons.org).

The book, published under a Creative Commons noncommercial license, serves to remind us that copyrighted brands, these indelible monuments to capitalism, are not immune to inclusion in the imagination’s wackiest conversations.

Maybe we can’t have their toys, but we can damn well play with them.

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