Caitlin Decter has been blind since birth. Her blindness is caused by a rare disorder of the optic nerve that scrambles the information coming from her eyes, so her brain cannot interpret it. Soon after she and her parents move to Canada to let her father work at a top physics institute, a Japanese researcher from Tokyo, Masayuki Kuroda, proposes to have her participate in an experiment with an implant he has developed, sending the information from one eye to an outside device that will correct it, allowing her to see.
At first, it looks like the experiment has failed. However, when she starts downloading an update, she begins seeing shapes that don't match the real world and don't go away when her eyes are closed. They come to the conclusion that an error in the device and her brain co-opting her visual center to help her navigate the Internet have combined to allow her to see the World Wide Web.
Meanwhile in China, a massive bird flu outbreak provokes the Chinese government to wipe out the population of a small rural area to prevent its spread. To help cover the atrocity up, they lock down all internet access in their country to the outside. This, however, causes something that they didn't expect. An intelligence that exists in the World Wide Web has an increase in development due to the web being separated and then reconstituted, in imitation of how one scientist referenced in-story believes the human brain first evolved consciousness.
Caitlin learns of its existence through her "Websight" and tries to help its growth. It ends up developing to orders of magnitude more advanced than humans and takes the name Webmind.
The second and third books of the trilogy deal with the immediate aftermath of Webmind's emergence, including the U.S. government trying to shut him down despite the immense benefits he begins bringing to the human race...starting with the complete elimination of spam.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Generally averted by Webmind's utterly unwavering benevolence, but when he gets split by the Chinese firewall again, the smaller part of his mind sealed within China turns evil immediately, trying to goad people into killing themselves as a form of revenge. It eventually becomes a good argument for letting him be: given that killing him would entail a period of degradation before his destruction, he might well go insane and wreak total havoc in the time he'd have left.
- Alternate History: The series appears to take place in around 2011-12, given that the President is heavily implied to be the actual Barack Obama, and he's mentioned to be a Democrat campaigning for reelection beginning in the second novel (his opponent remains fictional, as the books were released before it, from 2009-2011, but may be based on Sarah Palin).
- Antiquated Linguistics: Due to having got most of his initial vocabulary from Project Gutenberg and not really knowing how the English language actually works, Webmind's first few messages to Caitlin were in a decidedly archaic form of English. He soon gets the hang of modern colloquial English though.
- Artificial Intelligence: Obviously.
- Benevolent A.I.: Webmind, very much so.
- Big Brother Is Watching: Invoked in-universe by several characters who are uncomfortable with Webmind's emergence. Ultimately subverted; Webmind does have the ability to observe anything within range of a camera with even the remotest Internet connection, but only uses this ability to help humans. Further subverted by the fact that Caitlin actually uses the phrase 'Big Brother' as a term of endearment for Webmind.
- Democracy Is Bad: The Chinese President takes this view, believing it threatens his country while also not really existing anyway. He is forced to cede power, along with the Communist Party, and let China be a democracy near the end of the trilogy.
- Deus Est Machina: Played with a bit. On one hand Webmind repeatedly states that he is not God. On the other, not everyone believes that and, well, there's less accurate things to call a being that knows pretty much everything, can be in multiple places at once, watches over the entire human race and actually listens to and answers people's requests. For instance, one of those who believed that Webmind was God begged him to save his wife who was dying of cancer. Webmind told him that he wasn't actually God and then went and analysed and cross-referenced every single piece of information regarding cancer that was available until he'd figured out multiple cures, wrote an extremely long document explaining all the details, posted it online, and sent links to anyone who would be able to use it. In just over six minutes.
- Distant Finale: Most of the story happens in a matter of days. The ending happens five billion years into the future with humanity having split into many species and colonized known space, and the Sun about to go nova.
- Driven to Suicide: A girl on webcam chat threatens to commit suicide and gets goaded into this by other chatgoers. Webmind witnesses this, but doesn't intervene - from his point of view, interfering would be going against the person's wish. The girl eventually slits her wrists. This ends up being a major source of regret once the obvious is explained to him, and causes him to vow never to let it happen again. Unfortunately later on, when Webmind gets cut in two by the Chinese firewall again, the smaller portion that's sealed within China goes rogue and actively drives people to suicide as a way to exact revenge against humankind.
- Even the Girls Want Her: A gender-inverted, zig-zagged version of this trope. Shoshana's girlfriend Max is a lesbian like her, but claimed playfully that Hari Rhodes is so good-looking, she would almost want to be straight.
- Everyone Is Jesus in Purgatory: Lampshaded In-Universe in Watch. Max thinks the scene in Battle for the Planet of the Apes where the mutants attack the city in a school bus is a metaphor for forced integration, but Shoshana (her girlfriend) thinks she's taking things a bit too far. She thinks use of the bus was simply because the film suffered from an extremely low budget.
- Evil Twin: When the Chinese put the Great Firewall back up, the portion of Webmind that interacts with the Chinese portion of the Internet becomes this, due to being enraged at humanity over it getting "wounded" in this way.
- Four Is Death: Li got the call about the bird flu epidemic at 4:44 am.
- Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory: When Webmind manifests himself to her, Caitlin immediately realizes that if his existence becomes public before he knows how to defend himself, a sizable portion of humanity will make it their mission to bring him down for no other reason than bragging rights. Also what happens when a girl is threatening to commit suicide on webcam and various other users goad her into following through.
- HeelFace Turn: Peyton Hume has one - at long, long last - after Webmind and a group of hackers effectively depose the Communist Chinese government.
- He Who Fights Monsters: Caitlin's eventual boyfriend worries about this when the Jerk Jock she originally had a crush on tries to bully him into staying away from her.
- Historical Domain Character: Stephen Hawking is a character in the novel. He's a visiting scholar at the same institute Caitlin's dad works in, and they watch a recorded speech he gives. The US President isn't named, but pretty clearly he's Barack Obama (which he really was at the time of the novels). A few more actual scientists also get mentioned as being characters, and meet with the protagonists (offscreen).
- Hollywood Atheist: Averted by Caitlin and her dad. Both are simply nice, ordinary people.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each book is a W-word, a verb, and a One-Word Title: Wake, Watch, Wonder.
- If I Wanted You Dead...: Peyton Hume gets captured and immediately assumes Webmind wants to kill him. The latter delivers this response word-for-word. It doesn't come off as threatening given Webmind's general benevolence - he's simply pointing out that Hume's worry is misplaced.
- Incompatible Orientation: Shoshana's coworker Dillon indicated interest in her, who revealed to him that she's lesbian and living together with her girlfriend. Dillon's reaction was OK and Shoshana was delighted by it.
- Inspector Javert: Peyton Hume is utterly convinced that Webmind is a threat and responsible for a variety of apparent crimes, and goes to great and increasingly desperate lengths to try to stop him. Not even Webmind curing cancer gets him to reconsider his point of view; he doggedly continues his crusade, until the last acts, when the evidence to Webmind's benevolence finally becomes incontrovertible even for him.
- Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: Webmind is formed when the Chinese government blocks all internet communications into and out of China, splitting the internet in two and giving it the bicameralism necessary for sentience.
- The Internet Is for Porn: Caitlin is frustrated about never having seen a dick resp "peeeniz" (she would love her boyfriend's penis to be the first that she sees. When they actually have Their First Time, she turns her eyePod off, though), so she uses Google Images, after gaining her sight.
- Intrigued by Humanity: Webmind.
- Jerk Jock: Caitlin's first crush in her new school turns out to be this.
- Jewish and Nerdy: Caitlin's father (he's an atheist, though).
- Magical Minority Person: Many characters fit this trope to a degree. Caitlin has been blind since birth, but is beautiful, spunky, a genius and an atheist. Her father, Malcolm, is also an atheist and autistic, portrayed as being one of the smartest people in the world of physics. Bashira, Caitlin's best friend, comes from a strict Muslim Pakistani family, whose father defected to Canada to get out of working on nuclear weapons. Hobo, an ape in a language-research project, is half-chimpanzee, half-bonobo, at the same time something of a savant due to his painting, and the main researcher from that project is a lesbian (and also Jewish, judging by the name).
- Must Make Amends: Webmind. In the second book he watched a live video of someone killing themselves because at the time he didn't realize that you're supposed to intervene in situations like that. When it's explained to him he vows that there won't be a repeat of the incident on his watch, a promise he does a pretty good job of upholding. The actions of the Evil Twin created by the Chinese cutting themselves off from the rest of the internet again likewise inspires a vow to make amends.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Webmind, after he watched a girl killing herself online, being egged on by others and not interfering. This happened a second time, after he reintegrated a part of him cut off by the Great China Firewall and discovered the part of him that was cut off actually drove several people to suicide in China.
- No Party Given: Averted-the US President is mentioned as being a Democrat. He's also clearly meant to be either Barack Obama or at least an expy of him.
- One-Word Title: The three novels of the trilogy are called, Wake, Watch, and Wonder.
- Sci Fi Ghetto: Invoked and lampshaded with Caitlin's argument with her English teacher over whether The Handmaid's Tale is science fiction:It can't be science fiction, young lady - if it were, we wouldn't be studying it!
- Shout-Out: To countless past movies and novels that have dealt with AI, mainly by title-dropping.
- Suicide Dare: Webmind observes a girl who's suicidal being goaded online into killing herself, and she does, live on webcam. He later realizes the import of all this, and helps divert other people from this. When part of him gets cut off, though, it becomes malicious, either doing this itself or manipulating them into suicide.
- Their First Time: Caitlin and Matt relieve each other of their virginity.
- Teen Genius: Caitlin, of course. Possibly her boyfriend as well.
- Time Abyss: Webmind in the epilogue. He's still on Earth when it's about to be engulfed by the Sun's expansion into a red giant. He also still remembers everything that happened when he first came into being. For bonus points, consider that from Webmind's perspective a day seems like an eternity.
- Turing Test: Subverted; a key part of the second book is Webmind failing the Turing Test. The fact that he is intelligent and sapient is fairly obvious; him failing the Turing Test served to prove that he wasn't just a human with a really fast internet connection.
- 20 Minutes into the Future
- Voice with an Internet Connection: Webmind to Caitlin and occasionally other people. Arguably takes the trope to a new level given that he's technically the internet itself.
- Whoopi Epiphany Speech: Hobo's speech to the UN.