Book review: Cumulus

This is one of those books that is firmly set in the science fiction genre, but striking similarities can be made to current events and current trends … with a little imagination.

First, the book. Written by Eliot Peper it’s set a number of years in the future, in Oakland CA,  it shows a world where one tech company is clearly ahead in the market, in all markets in fact. It has the mobile phone, data, cloud computing, autonomous cars, street architecture, etc. all wrapped up. There is nothing Cumulus is not in to, or leading on, or acquiring in order for it to expand and lead. Every aspect of [our] lives are connected and, ultimately, controlled by Cumulus … a world of “persistent surveillance”.

Cumulus takes place in a near-future Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance. It’s a dark, gritty, fast-paced story packed with political intrigue, world-changing technology, and questionable salvation.”

Spoiler alert – I will talk from here about details of the book and some of the story to it’s end. If you’d rather read the book (good for you!) please come back.

Cumulus can follow you from the moment you wake up (what you want to watch on the smart display in the bathroom) to getting dressed, to the café, to the office and when to order the lift and to which floor, and even unlock the door and boot up the computer (and mask the dividing screens). Even at work the smart displays (walls) can show whatever view or data stream you want (even know what you want and pull up the options before you ask). Cumulus is everywhere!

The central story is, for me, about the level of intrusion Cumulus, the company has, and how this could be used for various means. In the book it’s being used to aid the rich in all aspects of their lives – payments, transport, medicine, social interactions, health, etc. But it’s also the devision that prevents those without status, those without the full Cumulus ‘suite’, from breaking through to the social class barriers. There is a marked divide between the have’s and the have-not’s. Those with Cumulus and those without (but still relying on the infrastructure it provides, in whatever limited form it takes).

It is also used for nefarious means. One individual uses a ‘ghost’ programme to remove him from security cameras, location-based services, even using Cumulus to stop desktop scanners and camera phones working when he’s identified in the frame. Needless to say the analogue world wins over the digital – another main character uses camera film, not digital cameras, and catches the book ‘baddie’ in action and, when trying to scan or digitise the prints, finds out about how far the level of intrusion the ghost programme goes. From realising the digital control Cumulus has over each device they go ‘old school’ and print posters of the individual and post them on lampposts and billboards around the city.

And so Cumulus falls. But not before this character threatens to make all the dirty laundry public. And he has the means as well as the data.

Bring it back to what we have today. We don’t have the one leader that the book has, but it doesn’t take a genius to see how one of the market leaders could someday be the ‘one’ leader like Cumulus – Apple, Google, or Facebook. Each could be just one acquisition away from the deciding factor that gives it an edge over it’s counterparts. Whether this is cloud computing, AI, defence contracts, autonomous vehicles, etc. doesn’t matter.

But, I hear you ask, how could this happen? We’re too well informed and careful about the ethics of the data we create/leave to let this happen. Well, here’s something I’ve thought of, based on existing software and hardware. If I’ve thought of it, no doubt someone else has, and maybe even done something about it.

Here are the players already in the world. All I’ve done is link them together, and you can so how easy this dystopian future could materialise …

Now, here’s how you link them together … if I record my daily commute and upload it to YouTube then YouTube (or A.N. Other provider) can scan the footage and list/bake all the car registrations, along with time and place, in the metadata. The police or other organisation(s) takes this metadata and checks against the ANPR database. Hey presto, a database of cars, where they are/were and when (and even speed and direction of travel is created). Link other scanned videos and you can build journey patterns and individual lives from the data. Now whoever has that database has the potential to know where people are (over time you’ll even begin to predict where we’ll be and when) and where they should be. The smartphone data can also be used to cross-reference individuals and work out who’s in which car, travelling with whom, what they’re saying/doing/surfing, and what they’re doing whilst driving.

In the above scenario I’ve not even added the power of the smartphones we carry with us. Add this to the mix and you could build up audio or photographic evidence of what’s going on in the vehicle, make payments as you pass specific geotagged locations (toll roads, coffee shops, petrol stations, etc.) and even build detailed maps of communities, cultures, behaviours, etc. If you can identify one person, one vehicle, amongst all the ‘noise’, then imagine what you could do … ?

You see where I’m going? It’s almost Minority Report, and it’s definitely an element of Cumulus right here. Once you throw things like contactless payment, access (without knowledge) to our phone’s camera or microphone, GPS locations, social media check in, CCTV cameras, etc. then it starts to get very … um, worrying. The thing that’s scary, like in the book, is that these tech behemoths are currently operating in a vacuum between the law and ethics. There is no one keeping them in check (do you really believe they’re doing it themselves?) – if we accept the T&Cs without questioning them do we have the right to complain about how they use our data that we freely give up? Before long will we have handed all our rights over, without realising?

I love this book, I kind of wished it had been longer and gone into more details about the tech and it’s intrusion in the everyday lives. I am also inclined to read some of Eliot’s other work now – I like his style and I most definitely like the mind behind the stories. I’ think I’ll continue with Eliot’s earlier work the ‘uncommon stock‘ series now.

Yes, this Cumulus book is sci-fi, but it could so easily become mainstream if we let it?