Ready Player One is a fun book. Really, I liked it. I even said so on Goodreads, giving it 4 out of 5 on my review. But as I mentioned there, I had one major problem: the dystopian world Ernest Cline proposes is absolutely idiotic. As I wrote in my review, it was like his economic research was done in a Reddit Occupy Wall Street echo chamber, and his business acumen was gleaned by looping through reruns of MSNBC.

In other words, it was a hodgepodge of the craziest of liberal economic ideas.

Like a dog in a preschool during snack time, I’m not sure where to begin.

Best Disney Short Yet

Let’s get the tangential grievances out of the way. The book sets up our protagonist’s beliefs with a multi-page rant running through nearly every en vogue liberal idea. Ignorant¬†religions, climate change dangers, evil corporations, etc. It was unnecessary and grating, with zero relevance to the rest of the story. Imagine picking up an thriller and having to wade through two pages of Drudge Report headlines before getting to the main story.

No thanks. If I wanted to read a liberal rant, I’d go to ThinkProgress, thankyouverymuch.

I wonder if it the book would have been published if the author listed off right-wing talking points instead. Based on my understanding of the publishing industry, my guess would be “no.”

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s move on to the items that persisted throughout the book. The book is supposed to be some 30 years in the future, where the world has been fundamentally changed by two main items: (a) the global energy crisis, and (b) the OASIS system.

OASIS is an immersive World of Warcraft/Second Life game that has replaced nearly all person to person interaction. This change is important and central to the story.

The global energy crisis happened when all the world’s oil was somehow used up almost overnight, turning the United States into a dystopia where everyone is forced to live in run down city centers, where anything outside these major hubs has been converted into a Mad Max type world. People can now only eat with government food vouchers, and all power has been concentrated in the hands of a few corporate powers. This change is beyond moronic.

Oh, and global warming. Or something. That part isn’t explained past “the polar ice caps melted.”

Oil Reserves

Based on a quick Google search, the common consensus is we have about 53 years of oil left USING CURRENT PRODUCTION MEANS. I had to put that last part in all caps because everyone “in the know” realizes that technology is constantly improving, and our extraction improvements help us extract more and more oil out of the ground.

That means in 2040, the setting for this story, we’ll still have oil.

If Oil Disappears 

Even assuming we managed to use up all our gas by then, let’s think about what would happen first. There are a bunch of amazingly smart people with huge financial incentives monitoring the amount of oil we can suck out of the earth, now and in the future. If we do run out of gas one day, which is theoretically possible, we’ll see it like an ocean liner coming to dock on a clear day, not a seagull turd landing on our collective shoulders.

And if that oil goes away, where will it leave us? Will we suddenly forget all of our other energy production means? Of course not.

Ironically, Ernest Cline intuitively understands this, which we discover later with Aech. But I won’t get into that for fear of spoilers.

We use oil to produce energy for two reasons: it’s cheap and it’s reliable. We have quite a few other means of energy production, such as solar, wind, nuclear, coal, hydroelectric, and probably many more that I’ve forgotten or haven’t been invented yet. At this point, those means of production are less popular than gas for various reasons (expensive, not efficient enough, changes water flow, ¬†Godzilla, etc.) Creeping gas prices slowly make alternatives more desirable. At some point, as gas prices shoot up, there will be a trillion+ dollar incentive to come up with a good alternative.

“Uglies” by Scott Westerfield makes a bit more sense, where the oil starts exploding because of some weird virus. Then you get rid of gasoline without assuming everyone in the world turned idiotic overnight.

Mad Max

Let’s say there’s a huge energy crisis. Why would the world suddenly become more urbanized, something that only started in earnest during the industrial revolution? Wouldn’t people spread out instead, trying to become more self sufficient?

Oh, but the non-urban areas have become overcome by bandits! Again, a throw away line that doesn’t jive with Aech later, but whatever. How did we get there? Did the police forget how to enforce the law? Is law enforcement tied to the price of gasoline in some inexplicable way?

I don’t get it. The “wild west” wasn’t exactly the forefront on civilized society (I once read anthropologists blame that on the lack of women), but they managed to survive without gasoline for quite a while.

Corporations

The IOI (can’t remember what it stands for) is supposed to be a futuristic Comcast that’s managed to take de facto control over the US.

There are so many problems with this. Let’s break it out into subparts

Competition

There’s really only one reason Comcast has managed to be so successful; they operate a semi-regional monopoly. A regional monopoly occurs where it is impossible or impractical for multiple companies to provide the same goods or services in a given area. Things like electricity, home gas, and sewers are typical regional monopolies, since it’s nearly impossible for two or more companies to provide competing access to the sewer lines of your home.

Internet is a semi-regional monopoly because, while it might be impractical for multiple cable lines to be run out to your home, there are a couple competing technologies (DSL, Fiber, Cable, Satellite, Wireless). Since cable is currently the leader in price to performance in most areas of the country, the cable operators are doing quite well. Fortunately, we have a few disruptive technologies on the horizon, so hopefully those will help us out. It might not be 100%, but it has a better chance of success than government regulation.

However, just because these internet providers almost guaranteed to do well when it comes to that service, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to expand their fortunes into other areas. In fact, companies that try to expand past their core contingencies (there’s some business lingo for you) typically fail. Apple has something like three products they do really well, which lock you into an ecosystem that they do okay. Think about that: they have very few products, and they’re the most valuable company in the world. Microsoft and Google have one or two core products that subsidize mediocre or even abysmal performances in others. Juggernaut GE is successful because Jack Welch trimmed it down to its essential core, and behemoth P&G is going through a similar process right now after years of realizing that it couldn’t possibly handle all the disparate industries it entered.

That is to say that Comcast, I mean IOI’s success in internet connection means jack squat in any other field. Remember that NBC was picked up because it was failing, not because it was a resounding success, and it’s not like Comcast has done much to push NBC’s needle towards network dominance.

Besides, the anti-trust hawks (plus several huge competitors) are watching the Comcast/NBC merger like crazy. Do you think they’d really give up because of an energy crisis?

Indentured Servitude

You’re in debt to a company, so you become a slave to them until the debt is paid off.

One word: bankruptcy.

Another word: seriously?

Anyone who believes the country will suddenly forget an embarrassing history of slavery, a tradition of freedom, a civil war, and basically the entire Constitution because an oil crisis and a few bucks from a large corporation doesn’t understand how things work.

Money

While we’re on the topic of money, everyone talks about how evil corporations have so much control over the government. My question is, which corporation? There are millions of them, including thousands of big ones, and they have different interests.

Currently, the largest corporation in the world is worth a little less than a third of what the US brings in tax revenue EVERY YEAR. Do you really think that a single corporation is ever going to have enough money to steer the country?

Look to the Past

While it’s never a guarantee, a good way to figure out if something will happen in the future is if anything analogous has ever happened in the past. So has a business ever had real influence over a country?

My research says “sort of.”

The closest thing I could find was the Medici family. The family, using one successful business venture after another, became fabulously wealthy (and popularized modern day accounting, making them awesome). They used their vast wealth to influence Italy and the Papacy.

It’s not an exact comparison, though, It’s closer to the Godfather than Comcast. The Medici family really didn’t get power until they started putting family members in government. It’d be like Bill Gates using his money to get his daughter elected president. Once he did, I would rate the likelihood that he would use his new-found power to help Microsoft as “low.” Look at the Rockefellers–they made tons of money, eventually using it to get to office, then used their political power to help themselves, not whatever husk of Standard Oil they still own.

To paraphrase Adam Smith, business will try to collude, but they’ll only be successful if the government gets involved.

Their “Evil” Plan

IOI is so evil. You can tell that because they plan to increase advertising and add a monthly fee to access OASIS. Considering that we now know that free-to-play games can actually be more successful than monthly fee games, the second idea seems ridiculous and idiotic. And the first idea, well, it sounds like OASIS is chock full of ads already, so what’s a few more?

In other words, if IOI did get control of OASIS, they’d probably completely screw it up, allowing a competitor to come in, disrupt a terrible business model, and take control.

Government Power

We keep being told that IOI is all powerful and the government is a rotting corpse, yet the government prevents IOI from doing things that would stop the good guy’s plan. I’m guessing the thought process went something like this:

None of this would work if IOI could test DNA. Oh, well, hmm. I know, IOI isn’t allowed to test DNA! Why? Um, because. . . the government? Yeah, the government!”

So is the government completely powerless or not?

I’ll chalk this one up to lazy writing more than anything else.

The Prize!

Finding the Easter Egg in the book awards you the vast fortunes of the game’s creator. The teens in the game keep talking about the money like it’s this vast pile of cash can be used for anything they want. I dismissed this as the ignorance of a group of newly minted adults, but I thought I would address it for anyone else who believes something similar *cough* the author *cough*.

The creator of the game was worth hundreds of billions of dollars. That’s not cash. It’s amazing how few people seem to understand this. Bill Gates, still the richest guy on the block, doesn’t have billions of dollars: he has stock worth billions of dollars. The only way he can actually use those billions is if he sells his company, which he does, tens of millions of dollars at a time.

Our protagonists in Ready Player One are racing to a prize so they can have their cake and eat it, i.e. dive into Scrooge McDuck type fortunes AND keep control of the company away from the evil corporation. Yet the two are mutually exclusive. If the winner actually wants to roll in dough, they’d have to sell off at least a piece of the company.

I’m guessing I know which evil corporation would be the first lined up to buy a significant share of anything that comes up for sale. Assuming we’re playing along with the book’s idiotic rules. In reality, the shareholders would be super pissed that IOI is getting distracted by something so unrelated to what they do (see the response of the Yahoo shareholders in light of the recent Alibaba IPO for an example)

One Possibility

While I was writing this, I was able to come up with one situation where the dystopia makes partial sense, though I’m almost positive it’s not what Mr. Cline intended.

There’s only been a few “energy crises” in the US. In each case, the crisis wasn’t created by energy issues, but by the government’s overreaction to market changes. They’d try to solve the problem of energy costing too much by implementing price ceilings, i.e. people can’t charge more than a certain amount for a product. Such price ceilings always send demand skyrocketing, since energy is artificially cheap, while supply plummets, since producers won’t make any money and have little incentive to meet demand. It’s that interaction that causes shortages. Exactly like the shortage we see in the book. It’s really easy for the layperson to see this as lack of oil in the Earth, when in reality it’s a market failure caused by government action.

Then, for the IOI, the most likely explanation is that the government, rather than exercising it’s trust busting power, regulated it so much that it basically became an extension of the state. This is a fairly common practice around the world: the government wants control over a business, but realizes that running the business is a huge hassle (which is why communism failed). Instead, the government will keep a pro forma distance from a company, essentially running it through demanding laws and regulations rather than owning it outright. With the government as the primary stakeholder, it’s able to get away with things that companies in a capitalist society would never dream (bringing us full circle to the Adam Smith quote from earlier).

This process, as it is more commonly known, is called socialism.

If the author intended the book to be a subtle warning against intrusive government using an unreliable narrator, then bravo. However, I’m guessing his promotion of classical liberalism was completely unintended. Hence my annoyance with this ridiculous dystopia.

Again, I really enjoyed the real plot, the action, the inundation of video games and 80’s references found throughout Ready Player One. It’s just too bad it was marred with poorly researched ideology.