From sci-fi to start-up: the origin of Charity Engine

Blog - March 8, 2013 by Mark McA

Many years ago, I started writing a couple of sci-fi novels. One of them was called Off-camera, a story about the near-future in which everything (and I mean everything) is recorded. In that story, the DownTime Corporation is remembered as once the world's largest company, noted for using the downtime of billions of idle computers to discover the secrets of clean fusion power. Unlimited cheap energy has basically conquered poverty, hunger, climate change, pollution and even war. Everyone has all they need.

(Strictly speaking, it was badly named. Downtime means switched off. But hey, the 'IdleTime Corporation' sounded worse...)

Halfway through the novel, I figured that such a company would actually work in real life - so I stopped writing about it and started trying to create it instead. The name had to change, obviously, but that was the beginning of Charity Engine.

So, for all you sci-fi fans out there, here's the synopsis of the book. It's also a bit more relevant now that Google Glass and other wearable cameras are becoming mainstream, so who knows? If Charity Engine doesn't succeed, I might even finish it... ;)


It is the feasibly not-too-far-off future. Humanity has entered the Online Age with the perfection of life-cams, tiny implants around the optic and auditory nerves that can send perfect video and sound directly to the brain. In effect, everyone has the Internet, cable TV, a cinema, a hi-fi, a videophone, etc. inside their head at all times. These superimposed layers of extra-sensory input are known as IR - Information Reality.

Being able to receive information by nerve induction - anything from simple text to fully immersive 3D simulations - is only half the story. Even more significant is that the technology works both ways. What you see, the implants see. What you hear, they hear. By law, everyone receives life-cam implants at the age of six months and they cannot be turned off, ever. Human eyes are the TV cameras of tomorrow and they are always on. Privacy no longer exists.

It is not a total free-for-all, though. The billions of simultaneous life-cam broadcasts are collected, stored and protected by the venerable Department of Social Scrutiny, its electronic mountains recording every human existence. The DSS may be responsible for the entire fabric of society but it isn’t a sinister, totalitarian organisation or some secret police force. It does not make or enforce any laws, but rather maintains order through simply keeping accurate records of human lives. The DSS knows everything you have ever done.

Keeping that information safe, authenticated and secure from prying eyes is the near-sacred mission of the 32 million Bibliotechs who work at the Department, each one carefully scrutinised (what else?) for their reliability and excellence. Only when legally bound to release footage - or at the owner’s request - does the DSS do so. The system has worked flawlessly for over 300 years. Wrongly accused of a crime? You can prove it. Somebody owes you money? You can prove it. The DSS archive is legally the truth itself - and its AI search engines can find anything you ask them.

Humanity has effectively created omniscience for everyman, with wondrous results. Violent crime, for example, is unheard of - and not just because of the certainty of being caught. Misunderstandings rarely happen anymore. People interrogate great databanks with blinks and glances, the IR solving disagreements in seconds. The Online Age is one of total communication. War, ignorance and fear are obsolete.

In this perfect world lives Major Walmer Maccan - but not for long. His position of power has allowed him to go illegally off-camera for short periods, researching a long-held suspicion about the DSS. During one of these rare and stolen moments offline he finds out an unholy truth: the DSS has riddled the planet with hidden germ weapons and Humanity could be wiped out at any time. He also discovers the mass extermination will be triggered if the archives record anyone uncovering the plot. His only option is to remain permanently off-camera, telling no-one why, while he attempts an audacious plan of his own. Unfortunately, being off-camera for longer than a week means condemnation as a renegade, to be shot on sight...

Civilisation is on a knife-edge but hope is not lost. The Major is one of the elite few who could possibly accomplish such a mission. He’s a librarian.


Dennis Nawrot ID: 6360 Posts: 32
04 Dec 2013 07:41 AM

It sounds like a good story.  You should finish it before its content is no SciFi anymore... in fact, actually there seem some not-so-venerable Departments of Social Scrutiny already existing...

There would be no Icons in the Web, when Gibson would have waited to long. Try to finish it =)