Future of the Internet Symposium: An Iron Cage for the iPhone Age

William Gibson’s essay on “Google’s Earth” deserves to be read by anyone interested in the “future of the internet.” Gibson states that “cyberspace has everted. . . . and [c]olonized the physical”, “[m]aking Google a central and evolving structural unit not only of the architecture of cyberspace, but of the world.” He’s reminded me of James Boyle’s observation that:

Sadly for academics, the best social theorists of the information age are still science fiction writers and, in particular cyberpunks—the originators of the phrase ‘cyberspace’ and the premier fantasists of the Net. If one wants to understand the information age, this is a good place to start.

Some legal academics have taken this idea to heart; for example, Richard Posner apparently began writing Catastrophe in response to Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. With that in mind, I wanted to point to some speculative fiction that I think ought to inform our sense of “the future of the internet.”

Zittrain’s take on reputation bankruptcy in pervasively networked environments feels a bit too whiggish to me. His work is informed by a pragmatic lawyer’s sensibility, inspired by the methods of economics and engineering to maximize benefits and minimize costs. By contrast, speculative novelists engage in a literary version of what might be called “scenario planning” in social science or business. They imagine how a variety of economic, cultural, political, and other developments may interact. Rob Verchick’s book Facing Catastrophe describes the relative advantage of scenario planning over cost benefit analysis in certain situations:

Cost-benefit approaches provide poor measures when they depend on forecasting too many long-term and uncertain costs. . . . .[S]cenario planning broadens knowledge by taking a holistic approach to describing circumstances. . . . .The strong emphasis on narrative allows the technique to capture a problem in its full complexity. (242)

Roger Boesche’s essay Why Could Tocqueville Predict So Well? describes a similar capability in the great French social theorist. As Boesche relates, in Tocqueville’s works, “society is an ‘ensemble’ in which the elements are ‘indissolubly united:'”

[T]he second volume of Democracy in America endeavors to demonstrate how language, literature, the relations of masters and servants, the status of women, the family, property, politics, and so forth, must change and align themselves in a new, symbiotic configuration as a result of the historical thrust toward equality.

In our own time, we need something of a reverse Tocqueville to describe the consequences of a historical thrust toward inequality. How might that larger social force affect reputation online?

One of the most imaginative takes on this problem is Gary Shteyngart’s Supersad True Love Story, which projects the lived experience of persons experiencing pervasively computed reputation in a future America. As one reviewer explains,

[The America] of the novel [includes credit] scores [that] are publicly available on screens posted on every street and can always be checked on the devices everyone carries[.] [These] instruments . . . work like iPhones designed for Orwell, providing instant background checks on anyone you might like to know, along with helpful ratings like that of your perceived desirability for sex or anything else as compared to other members of the group you’re in.

Of course this type of information has implications for “the status of women, the family, property, politics, and so forth” (to use Boesche’s categories), which in turn influence what is and is not included in reputational reports. Shteyngart’s protagonist, Lenny Abramov, relates that his employer has placed “five gigantic Solari schedule boards” in the office. The boards:

[D]isplayed the names of . . . employees, along with the results of our latest physicals . . . our fasting insulin and triglycerides, and, most important, our ‘mood + stress indicators,’ which were always supposed to read ‘positive/playful/ready to contribute,’ but which, with enough input from competitive co-workers, could be changed to ‘one moody betch today” or ‘not a team playa this month.’ On this particular day . . . one unfortunate Aiden M. was lowered from ‘overcoming the loss of loved one’ to ‘letting personal life interfere with job.’ (57-58)

Sober-minded lawyers might dismiss this scenario: whatever happened to HIPAA? But as more corporations tell employees to “get healthy—or else,” this possible future (complete with hip and snarky categories of merit and demotion) doesn’t seem all that far off. What Shteyngart reminds us is that the demands of work are quite flexible, and always-evolving. Without a robust societal sense of the proper realm of private experience, economic imperatives are likely to shrink it inexorably. Unlike the film Gattaca, where extant social structures somehow persist in the wake of massive changes in enhancement technology, Shteyngart’s novel describes a world where relatively small changes in self-concept, media use, and aspiration in an elite can fundamentally destabilize conceptions of privacy.

When we start thinking deeply about Shteyngart’s narrative (or Cory Doctorow’s scenarios in Little Brother and Scroogled), we can better compare Zittrain’s “bankruptcy fix” to Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s related suggestions. As William Gibson explains,

[Schmidt’s] suggestion that young people who catastrophically expose their private lives via social networking sites might need to be granted a name change and a fresh identity as adults. . . . is a matter of Google letting societal chips fall where they may, to be tidied by lawmakers and legislation as best they can, while the erection of new world architecture continues apace. . . .Childhoodlessness, being obviously suspect on a résumé, would give birth to an industry providing faux adolescences, expensively retro-inserted, the creation of which would gainfully employ a great many writers of fiction. So there would be a silver lining of sorts.

To be sure, I don’t find this a very realistic idea . . . I imagine that those who are indiscreet on the Web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies, pocketing nyms and proxy cascades (as sharper cookies already do), slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.

Like Gibson, I find the scenario of retro-inserted faux bios unlikely. Shteyngart’s depiction of a reputation rat race (a Weberian iPhone cage?) is far more gripping. To think more clearly about the Future of the Internet, we will have to complement the engineering and economics literatures with works of narrative, “soft” social science, and direct reports on the lived experience of those grappling with technological change.

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