Exit Strategy, the latest novel by cultural critic and author Douglas Rushkoff, is a strange beast. Billed as a satirical retelling of the biblical story of Joseph set in the near-future, the novel follows the career of Jamie, a Jewish boy turned computer whiz, as he navigates the treacherous and ethically corrupt world of high-tech big business.
Instead of presenting this narrative in a straightforward fashion however, the book situates itself as a historical commentary on a textual artifact. The setup goes like this: the manuscript of the story, written by Jamie, is unearthed 200 years in the future. In this fictional 23rd century, relatively little is known about 21st century life and numerous footnotes throughout the book provide explanations of “obsolete” terms like “hippie” and “political correctness.” These footnotes create a space for commentary on contemporary culture as well as – allegedly – giving us insight into the world of the future.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Exit Strategy is that it is an “open source” text. For those not familiar with the term, “open source” is a movement founded by a group of idealistic software engineers, led by computer guru Richard Stallman, which maintains that source code – the instructions that make up software programs – should be public property, along with software itself. Information, the open source movement tells us, wants to be free.
In the case of Exit Strategy, open source means that readers are free to annotate the text of Rushkoff’s central story, contributing footnotes to a central version of the novel hosted online at http://www.yil.com/exitstrategy/ . Some 200 footnotes, many of them written by readers and presumably the best of the contributions, are included in the printed version.
Conceptually, the idea of an “open source” novel is a fascinating one, and Rushkoff is by no means the first to attempt it – although this project is probably the best-known to date. The idea of a story constructed by a community rather than by a single writer seems at first immensely promising and even revolutionary. In practice however, “open source” novels tend not to work very well. Unlike a piece of software, the goals of a story are seldom clearly-enough defined to allow more than a handful of people to meaningfully contribute to the work. Rushkoff attempts to get around this by providing a central story which is simply annotated by the community – but even in this case, Exit Strategy suffers from a lack of cohesion.
Quite simply, the tone and content of the contributed footnotes varies so wildly that they end up being simply an annoying distraction rather than painting a comprehensive picture of the “future society” in which they are supposed to have been written. At best, some of the footnotes are amusing – but taken as a whole, they detract more from the story than they add.
As for the central story itself, Rushkoff’s prose is highly readable, and at times his dark satire is bitingly funny. Describing a nightclub full of high-tech executives, for example, he writes:
The frenetic, well-dressed crowd had become a single, multi-headed organism. I could see it reflected overhead in the mylar sheets. We were a herd of some kind, stampeding in place. Each giant mouth shouting something different, between the heavy thumping of the disco music that pounded all around us. It sounded like the women were screaming, and the men were chanting a tribal war cry.
Ultimately however, commentaries on the dot.com boom have been done better and in a more straightforward fashion by other writers. Although many of Rushkoff’s critiques of modern technological culture – in particular Cyberia and the Frontline series “Merchants of Cool” – are deeply insightful, the observations presented in Exit Strategy (the valuation of hype over reality, runaway investment mania) are by and large common knowledge by now, particularly among the young, tech-savvy set to whom this book is clearly marketed. And apart from this, Rushkoff’s guided tour of the high-tech landscape often reads like a patronizing term-by-term description of the jargon used in Wired magazine.
Because of this, although amusing at times, this book is more interesting as an experiment in a new way of writing than as an actual literary work. And while I am sure that “open source” writing will become increasingly mainstream in the future, this experiment, at least, must be counted as a failure.
Mr. Rushkoff’s book is available for purchase at Powell’s.
About the author:
Matthew Flaming is affordable, biodegradable, non-toxic in most applications, and comes in a variety of convenient flavors and packages including new Literary Purple. More information can be found at www.matthewflaming.com.