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I've searched here, Google, Wikipedia, etc. without luck. I would have read this book after about 2004 but probably more than 5 years ago.

As best I recall the book has a near-future setting, but most people wear augmented-reality goggles as part of their daily life. If you travel through a city, you can see advertising overlaid on blank walls that's published to everyone, but you can also subscribe to specific channels of overlays; how the city appeared in a specific era, for example, or how it was represented in a famous game/movie. Some people publish AR travelogues, marking up reality for other people to view. There is also widespread use of 3D printing technology, something of a maker culture.

The protagonists are recruited/instructed to recover some MacGuffin - something dangerous in the wrong hands, like a bottle of radioisotopes or the like. I think this takes place somewhere in the western US.

As they chase leads, they discover that hidden in the real world, there are hidden economies. You need to have correctly-programmed goggles even to see them; the economies function using various game-type economic/social systems and perpetuate themselves by printing their own goggles to control access. This part of the novel takes place in the EU, I think.

The protagonists eventually manage to track their target to a ship (I recall it being in the North Atlantic) and there's a fight which ends with them tossing the MacGuffin into the ocean.

I'd like to re-read this book, since I'm very interested in how the hidden economies/secret societies worked. If I'm not conflating a completely different story, there was even a secret society that functioned by passing around copies of a book, and rigorously following the instructions in that book. (The implication was that the book itself was somehow an intelligent agent processing itself by means of its followers.)

  • This reminds me of Gibson's Spook Country, but augmented reality, while important to the plot, is less than ubiquitous, and the radioactive isotopes and the ship play a completely different role in the plot. – FuzzyBoots Jun 7 '18 at 22:20
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    [spoiler] In Spook Country the "good guys" use radioactive bullets to poison a shipping container full of money being hidden by the "bad guys." It's not that novel. :) Your systema is good, but not good enough. – DavidW Jun 7 '18 at 22:22
  • Indeed, even if it is two stories conflated, it doesn't make sense to mark it a duplicate of one of them, which seems to involve lesser aspects of the query. – FuzzyBoots Dec 10 '18 at 12:14
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I believe you might be conflating several of the stories of author Karl Schroeder.

The plot you remember about societies forming out of different AR networks and a search for dangerous material that takes an investigator to one of these, is from his short story "To Hie From Far Cilenia" (which was published in a collection called METAtropolis, a series of linked short stories by different authors in the same near-future world, which might account for you thinking it part of a novel... I've never read the larger book, only Schroeder's story).

A synopsis from a review here gives some of the salient points:

In the story this is accomplished with special glasses and ear buds. To track down the plutonium a virtual game called Rivet Couture, which is a steam punk world. Once the glasses are on modern buildings are removed and Victorian buildings take their place, traffic noises are replaced by the sound of horses and wagons. This is all superimposed on the real world so when a person walks across a real street that street is also "real" in the virtual world only a delivery truck is replaced by a team of horses.

It was all very cool and the characters could, and often did, take off their glasses just to look around and see where they were in the real world. The beauty of the world was the blending of the real with the virtual and just how authentic each one really was.

The notion of a society springing up from a book comes from his novel Lady of Mazes, which is set in the far future (but also extensively uses people living with constantly shiftable augmented reality in one way or another). From this excerpt of a review:

Livia and the others are soon drawn in to the Byzantine politics of the Archipelago, where the invisible hand of the anecliptics assures a sterile peace and order. Only the Good Book, a role-playing system of subtle self-organizing potential, seems to offer humans a chance of escaping the anecliptics' benign control. But the Good Book is more than it seems, and discovery of its secret...

  • Aha! Year's Best SF 16 I'm probably partly conflating other stories in that collection; that would explain why I thought it was more than a short story. I wish I could give you more than 1 upvote; "Lady of Mazes" was going to be the next story I asked about! – DavidW Jun 8 '18 at 14:52

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