Book Review - Manna by Marshall Brain


Marshall Brain (founder of HowStuffWorks) and his novel Manna: Two Visions of Humanity's Future were recently featured on KMO's C-Realm Podcast. In episode 457: Techno Extortion, KMO and Brain talk about the book as well as the United States' current trajectory with regard to jobs, automation, profitability, and societal well-being. I was intrigued by the conversation and decided to read Manna. Although the book is available for free at the above link, you can also purchase the Kindle version for $0.99, which is what I did.

Manna shows us two very different worlds. Each is possible for us to create (or find ourselves in) from the current world we live in. In the first world, robots begin eliminating human jobs in places like retail stores, fast food restaurants, construction sites, and transportation. The key technology that fuels this is inexpensive computer vision systems, and more than half of the jobs in the United States are eliminated. Tasks like restocking shelves, cleaning bathrooms, and taking out the trash are dictated by a management software called "Manna" that speaks through an earpiece each employee wears while on the job. All human managers are eventually replaced by this software. Without getting too much into detail about this world, it could be described as dystopian, and it certainly seems plausible to me, especially because I have experience working in similar jobs. I could definitely see how the management team could be stripped from the job and replaced by a cheaper, more efficient, less forgiving computer system.

The second world is more of a utopian society, where robots are not in control of the humans. Instead, the humans control the robots and use them to make life easier. People living in this world must agree with the following core principles of that society:

  1. Everyone is equal.
  2. Everything is reused.
  3. Nothing is anonymous.
  4. Nothing is owned.
  5. Tell the truth.
  6. Do no harm.
  7. Obey the rules.
  8. Live your life.
  9. Better and better.

There are drastic differences in economics, transparency, energy usage, ownership, honesty, and life quality between the two worlds. It certainly seems to me like we are headed more in the direction of the dystopian world rather than the utopian world, but in the book's Postscript, Brain mentions that the utopian world is still a possibility for us to manifest.

I enjoyed the book. It's a very quick read, and it is thought-provoking. The writing left a little to be desired, because it seemed a bit over-simplified and repetitive to me. I've tried my best to not give away too much of the plot in this review, because there isn't much plot or character development to find in the book itself. I would definitely suggest this book though, because I imagine that it would be eye-opening for the average person. For me, it painted a stark contrast between the two different roads our global society could take, and highlighted a lot of the current issues that we face.

4/5 Stars. 79 pages.