Set in 2072, The Boost by Stephen Baker imagines a world in which everyone has a networked computer, called a “boost,” installed in his or her brain. This allows people to conduct instantaneous super-Google searches of not only the Internet, but their own memories, which can be recorded and archived. People can also send messages to one another in a high-tech version of telepathy. In Baker’s world, it is common for two people sitting in the same room to communicate without speaking to one another. Indeed, thanks to highly-advanced virtual reality programs, romantic relationships often take place completely online, with actual physical intimacy reserved for conceiving children.
Baker is a journalist by trade. His book, The Numerati (2008), describes the rise of “Big Data,” while Final Jeopardy: Man vs. Machine and the Quest to Know Everything (2011) tells the story of “Watson,” the IBM computer that defeated the world’s best Jeopardy! players. Though a work of fiction, The Boost shows a similarly-strong grasp of how technology works and how it impacts society.
Politics are at the center of this story, much of which takes place in Washington, DC. In a brilliant satirical note, the country’s most powerful person in 2072 is not the President, but rather a lobbyist named John Vallinger. Vallinger was instrumental in getting boosts legally mandated and holds a financial stake in the technology. He rakes in enormous profits by selling advertising to and collecting personal data from every person in America
In Baker’s world, the authoritarian Chinese government developed the boost and uses it to exert influence over the US. Even in science fiction, I have a hard time swallowing Chicken-Little-predictions that the Chinese will take over the world. (Today’s dire predictions of Chinese world domination echo similar prognostications about Japan in the 1980s, the post-Sputnik Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s and even Nazi Germany in the 1930s.) Although the China of 2014 lags way behind the US in terms of technological innovation, Baker has suggested a plausible reason—a totalitarian desire for complete surveillance—why the Chinese would win the Chip Wars in the 2030s.
The novel’s protagonist is Ralf Alvare, a US government computer scientist working on a national update to the boost. He is repeatedly referred to as a genius, although we don’t see much evidence of this until the very end. Ralf discovers an open surveillance gate in the update, which could give corporations and governments—both American and Chinese—unfettered access to the thoughts and memories of every single person in America. When he attempts to close this gate, he is abducted by thugs who surgically remove his boost, leaving him “wild.”
This was the one place where I struggled to suspend my disbelief. Ralf’s boost was installed when he was one year old, which means his brain (or “wet brain,” as Ralf describes it) was completed adapted to his chip (or “dry brain“). Although we see him struggle after losing the functionality of the boost, Ralf manages surprisingly well without it. Realistically, though, the loss of his boost would probably be more like a lobotomy to someone who has never thought without it. Now to be fair to Baker, this little reality fudge is necessary for the story, and I doubt there would be any more plausible way to hand wave around it.
Ralf goes on the run to Juarez, Mexico, the last refuge of “wild” people in the western hemisphere. Narcos are reputed to rule the region, which is free from government control (beyond the occasional US drone strike). Ralf has just ten days to hack the update to prevent the surveillance gate from being installed into every single brain in America, all the while avoiding Valinger’s goons and coming to grips with his own family dysfunction.
Baker is a gifted futurist whose first stab at fiction is remarkably well written, although his inexperience does show in a few places. There is a little too much exposition in dialogue, for example, as characters tell each other things they both already know for the benefit of the reader. Also, the characters tend to be a little flat, and their motivations are not always clear. But Baker compensates with a fast pace and solid scientific grounding. The Boost is a fun and thought-provoking exploration of the long-term effects of the ever-shrinking computer.