Futures Imperfect

Reading fiction about the future.

January 9, 2014

I am enormously perturbed by the way personal information is being collected and used these days, both by corporations and by our government. It seemed like a really bad idea to build an Internet infrastructure out of "free" platforms that aren't free at all. When Google collects personal information to "improve our search experience," it warps our search results in disturbing ways. Facebook tries to be the confessional, water cooler, and marketplace for as many people as possible, creating weird rewards for social interactions that encourage middle school insecurity. And then there's that tracker in my pocket, the one that records every place I go and can even be turned into a portable bug by law enforcement. It doesn't surprise me that the NSA couldn't resist adding all that lovely data to its surveillance strategies, though the scope of its hubris does seem staggering. 

There are many critiques of this state of things - Eli Pariser's The Filter BubbleEvgeny Morozov's To Save Everything, Click HereSiva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of EverythingDeborah MacKinnon's Consent of the Networkedand more. Right now I'm slowly working my way through Jaron Lanier's You are Not a Gadget, a short, readable book that is only taking me a long time to read because I stop to argue with every paragraph. And that's not looking at the government surveillance side of things, which has its own literature. 

But what I've found myself reading lately is fiction about the Internet and privacy, and most of it is YA fiction. It's thought-provoking stuff.

The Circle by Dave Eggers is set about ten minutes into the future, but was written before Edward Snowden's revelations. Its protagonist is Mae, a young woman who is thrilled to get a job with The Circle, a tech company that all the fabulous young people want to be part of. (Yes, it's a thinly-disguised Google that has swallowed up all of its social media competitors and combined them into an all-powerful and all-intrusive platform for everything.) The company is run by three "wise men" who as a trinity represent three sides of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism: clever technological innovation, a new-agey benign vision of an ever happier future through transparency and sharing, and a ruthless approach to building a powerful monopoly. Though many readers fault the book for being didactic and lacking well-rounded characters, I liked the way Eggers lampoons the bromides of social networking while critiquing the way it builds in metrics that make us all constantly aware of our place in the pecking order and urges us to build ourselves as brands. It's true that Mae is not a fully-developed character, but that's on purpose. She grows shallower and less self-aware as she gets seduced by the Circle's vision, her edges gradually erased, her sense of identity replaced by advertising taglines and corporate vision statements. Eggers foresees a future in which a single data-sucking corporation can rule them all and overtake the role of the state. 

I gulped down M. T. Anderson's Feed  in a few hours, transfixed and disturbed by it. This National Book Award finalist (in the Young People's Literature category) was strange and powerful, as unsettling a book as any I've ever read. It's narrated by a teenager who, in the opening, tells us in a deadpan, I'm-so-bored voice that he went to the moon with his buddies, but it sucked. Moonshots are as easy as a junket to Las Vegas in this dystopia, though the entertainment is sleazier. What you can't do is swim in the ocean or spend time on the surface of the earth because it has become too toxic. The teens all talk in an annoying patois and they are breathtakingly shallow - but no more so than the adults, and there's a reason for that. They are part of a society devoted to consumerism, and to help with that process the Feed has been embedded in them, making them part of a vast computerized network that entertains them, gives them ways to communicate with each other, and constantly feeds them snippets of news and advertising, turning dreams and desires into profits and making everyone spectacularly stupid. The privatized School(TM) also does its part.

In Eggers novel, the social network encourages people to wallow in adolescent emotions because insecurity and wanting to belong make them better consumers. M. T. Anderson's novel shows us what that abdication of freedom and identity could ultimately look like. The story is a fairly simply YA tale gone wrong. Our hero Titus meets a girl who is different. Her egghead parents tried to keep her off the feed until they realized it was necessary for her future, but she was wired too late and things are malfunctioning. She wants to belong, but she also longs for beauty and imagination. (In a particularly grotesque scene, they visit a farm which invites tourists to "see everything grow," but it's actually a synthetic meat factory, with great dripping walls of flesh that they wander through, unfazed. It's the only kind of farming they know.) It's an inventive, often funny, utterly bleak vision of a future where computer networks designed to encourage consumerism have brought humanity close to its unnatural end. The most astonishing thing about this book is that it was published two years before Facebook was launched.  

The two other YA novels I've read recently are Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and  HomelandDoctorow's protagonist is a nerdy teenager who's passionate about the Bill of Rights and finds himself embattled by a post-9/11 state that is drunk with power. In the first book, Marcus is randomly swept up by Homeland Security after  a terrorist attack on San Francisco. He's tortured and eventually released but with a gag order that keeps him from telling his parents where he's been. He's humiliated and terrified, but also angry and principled, and with his friends he launches a resistance movement that uses X-boxes to create a mesh network to communicate. With a combination of tech smarts and courage, young people work on publicizing the abuses of power and manage to initiate that conversation that we keep hearing Edward Snowden has helpfully started. You know, the one about secret programs sanctioned by secret courts doing unconsitutional things that we aren't supposed to know about.

In Homeland, the economy has collapsed, Marcus and his friends are trapped by college debt and a world without jobs, and a shadowy contractor that provided the brutality in Little Brother is after Marcus again. He's come in possession of a stash of digital documents that he has to make public, but which could destroy both him and the political campaign of a candidate who he supports. The decisions he has to make are timely and fascinating. The fact that it was written before Snowden headed to Hong Kong with documents that would blow the lid off of an unbelievably vast and arrogant surveillance apparatus is enough to send chills up your spine - but even more so is the Afterword, written by Aaron Swartz before his death. In it, Swartz encourages young readers to have faith that they can collectively make the world better. So does Doctorow by giving us something more than a bleak dystopia. He does something harder. He gives us hope. 

Doctorow has a more nuanced take on technology than Eggers or Anderson. It's a tool for oppression, but also a tool for liberation, if we're willing to pick it up, understand it, and use it. As though-provoking as I found The Circle and Feed, I admit to preferring Doctorow's techno-swashbuckling adventure stories that suggest action isn't just for comic books. Taking action is something citizens can and should do.



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