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The fictional story is set in 2050 and takes place in Cary, North Carolina before the narrator flies to Australia. The narrator starts at a minimum wage job at Burger-G before being laid-off, primarily due to the Manna, a computer management system, replacing people in the service industry. He then takes a bus to a small government provided welfare dormitory where he meets a friend. Soon after, he is visited by two girls who tell him that he's invited to live in Australia because his father bought stock in the Australia Project years prior. The narrator then goes on to discover the many aspects of the Australia Project.
In the US, which has a libertarian economic system, most Americans are unemployable and live in cramped housing projects, where they are fed and kept safe like farm animals. Birth control medicine in the water prevents them from having children. In contrast, in Australia, everyone has access to the goods provided by automation.
Manna is meant to be a thought-provoking read or conceptual prototype rather than an entertaining novel (see exploratory engineering for more on such writing). The novel shows two possible outcomes of the 'robotic revolution' in the near future: one outcome is a dystopia based around US capitalism and the other is a utopia based upon a communal and technological society in Australia. Essentially, the two differ in that lower-class humans in the dystopic society have been left unmodified and are controlled by AI "managers" to the point of slavery, while humans in the utopian society more directly and efficiently participate in the management of the society as a whole and most or all willingly accept implanted AI aids.
Some technological and social themes explored :
- brain-computer interface
- enterprise resource planning
- class structure
- effect of artificial intelligence and robots on society
- proper and improper uses of technology
- the failings of capitalism to cope with technological development
- welfare economics and a basic income
Positions and assumptions presented in the novel include:
- Insertion of an AI management system between workers and decision makers results in a loss of upward mobility in a society due to the impossibility of workers ever becoming actual managers.
- The acceptance of nervous system modification and integration of human and machine consciousness into what is considered "human" is accordingly presented as a path to liberation and practical egalitarianism.
- Capitalism is inherently hierarchical and cannot be easily reconciled with abundance, it will by definition move more resources into the hands of the property owners and destitute all others - the novel shares this assumption with classic Marxism.
- Privacy is largely incompatible with human safety in a utopian environment.
The book can be read online for free (see link below).
- White, Mark (29 May 2016). "'I wasn't interested in just following the rules': Data scientist Jeremy Howard and the 'next internet'". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 30 November 2017.
- Manna - the book integral text on Marshall Brain's website