Part of an email conversation with my friend David regarding some ideas in my novel.
This is excerpted. David's comments are indented.
I cannot tell whether you are describing a utopia or dystopia (though the tension or differences between the Interconnected and Xombies are a major theme). Perhaps you are evading that specific question and only giving hints in order to let the reader decide for him or herself, which is probably exactly what you intended. Scenes where you present technological and cultural conflict are among the best. Perhaps the most enjoyable scene for me was when Marto was in the café that forbid thexting and had a conversation with the owner (Zeke?). That gave me a glimpse into the differing arguments on decisions to thext or not to thext. It seems to be that Marto and the Interconnected represent the utopia or force of good (at least from the author’s perspective), but I am not sure I can buy that based on what I, the reader, is able to discern and surmise as to who the Interconnected are; I found myself less interested in the Interconnected and wanting more information on the outlier tribes (presumably exploited because the post-apocalyptic world must have limited resources and the interconnected appear to flourish without economic hardship).
First, I am fascinated by the idea of the Interconnected, but I am not the cheerleader that Marto is. I understand it may seem that I am describing a Utopia, and in a climate-changed world, the technologies that provide food, good health and stability and relative (but not modern) comfort to them may seem that way. I don't think there is much of a way around this. I just want you to know I'm aware.
Perhaps there is not a way around it. However, by introducing a high tech. theme like thexting, you force a reader to assume that the surviving culture is very high-tech. This is no regression back to a world of small farms and communities (barter system), but a culture reliant on technology and—this is the most important to an economics minded reader—a culture with high tech. products that need to be produced somewhere (assuming Malaysia, China and Vietnam for now). I have a hard time reconciling that inferred production need with the Merit meter. To me, Merit meter replaces money, but this type of Merit is just as suspect. I see Dirty Merit as being no different from Dirty Money. You will have to eventually convince me of otherwise. . .and that the human networking and administrative capacity necessary could exist on pure Merit.
I don't know if maybe the novel wasn't as clear as it could have been about production, but yes, the Interconnected are high-tech, and no, the technology is not manufactured in Vietnam. Labor and the cost of labor is not a factor for the Interconnected. In general, the technology is manufactured by tiny robots. The homes are built by robots, the vertical and horizontal farms are built and tended by robots, and of course, the robots are built by robots. These robots can be monitored and controlled - though they are autonomous, by the same brain-implanted technology that makes thexting possible. I don't go too into detail (though I do mention it) because as automated elements become more commonplace, they also become invisible to people. I had a revelation when I was in the elevator and Zoë asked me: "dad, is the elevator a robot?" I had to think about it for a long while before I responded "yes." Elevators used to be controlled by people. Now they are robotic, but we don't see them that way - their robotness is invisible. That is how I see manufacturing evolving everywhere. So my assumption in the novel is that high tech and everything else will be manufactured locally, not only because of robotic evolution but because of infrastructure destruction.
The first thing to go after an environmentally caused economic collapse is roads. Roads need constant work. They crumble as the vegetation and harsh weather take their toll. As the weather becomes more hostile, giant centralized stores like Walmarts and Targets fail because the roads and bridges give out, the trucks can't get through, and the buildings themselves deteriorate or get hit by tornadoes. Without a strong economy, government and infrastructure plan, they crumble. In the past, when this would happen, people would starve, but in my novel, some of them adapt. That's why among the Interconnected, everything is made locally. It's also why certain commodities like coffee or mangos are so rare.
Regarding Dark Merit, I have actually been trying to work out how that would work. I'm not saying it's impossible, but it could only be made possible by a system of fake ratings or a cabal of ratings circles that vote people up who don't contribute. The XNA nature of the wetware that is in people's heads is a bit like blockchain on steroids, so there is a ledger, but as Maxtor says it's become so complex that no one can monitor it. This may come up in book 2 - I am actually planning on exploring it - and Maxtor hints at it in book 1 but it's not right to say that it is as obvious as the Dark Money we have now. Merit is purely about accountability and lack of privacy and personal ownership.
A brief outline of what Merit is in my novel:
A simplistic way to imagine it would be to picture a web store like Amazon running purely on ratings and reviews and no money. Everyone has an account on Amazon and everything that gets made is listed there. Not only products but all services are there. Instead of paying for something, the person who makes a thing or offers a service lists it as an offer. They then get to choose to offer it to you based on your ratings alone. If your ratings are higher, the ratings they get back in return are higher as a function of the rating you give for the service or item received. This is what is referred to as "giving Up" rather than "giving Down" in the novel. People who are a "five star" (using the Amazon model) are going to be offered more stuff than people who are a "three star." This is why it's called Merit. Within this system, people who are a 5 are more valuable to society than a 3, because presumably, they are more generous and productive. They make and offer more stuff that is more popular than the 3s and they are rewarded with more access to food, homes, services, etc. This is where the inequality occurs but it is also where the gaming and competition in the system abides. The people in Glenville are all 2s and 3s and so they live in relative poverty of access compared to the 4s and 5s in Reverside, Cos, Sherwood, and The Middle. If your whole community is made of 2s, you can survive, but not in the relative luxury as one made of 4s.
That brings us to ownership vs. access. Among the Interconnected, ownership is seen as a very low merit habit. They call it hoarding. Just because you have been gifted something, doesn't mean you have to hang onto it. Naturally, if you are gifted a sandwich, you will eat it and it will be gone but if you are gifted access to a beautiful home, it's yours to use, but not keep or trade. There is no trade. That home, if you are not using it, would be available for gifting, and if you hoard it, you are seen as less generous and therefore your Merit would drop. It would be better to gift it and take another home that is offered. That way, your Merit rises, and you have more access. What about "my stuff?" you might ask, and I would say, it's all information. Physical things are just inconvenient burdens to the Interconnected. I think you can see some of this behavior among Millenials today.
Merit is its own legal system. It combines law with a sort of propertyless commerce. It may not be just, but it works. Anti-social behavior is low Merit behavior. That is decided by how popular your activities are. If you can find a way to steal things or hurt people and remain popular, then you can skirt the system and be a high Merited sociopath. I'm not saying that's impossible, but it would take some higher level of genius to pull it off out in the open. Again - we may see some of that in book 2.