Nov 19, 2010 -- posted by Ranjit
One of the ways, digital technologies have been thought about since the 1980s is within literature, specifically Cyberpunk, a genre of writings in science fiction.
“Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” – Lawrence Person
It’s fascinating how the entire plot lines of most cyberpunk novels are centered around alienated loners who have nothing but technology to get through the day. For people like me, it is a scary scenario of the future, for others it is a way of life. Last time, I mentioned the idea of a Slow Down! This time, I guess I want to see what could really happen if we go to the other extreme of digitizing our lives. Cyberpunk is certainly not a commentary on the reality of our lives. Hopefully, that dystopic future would never come true. Atleast Orwell’s 1984 is still quite far away becoming a complete reality. Maybe Google could prove that to be otherwise. Who knows! If Google can locate exactly what ads to show you based on the content of your email, I guess, William Gibson’s Idoru is not that far-fetched a future.
Maybe fiction is fiction and it does not accurately represent the reality of our times. But, science fiction mostly gets me thinking about questions that would require an answer somewhere down the line. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, first published in 1818, nobody really thought that we could reach a time when we would develop synthetic lifeforms. Have we made a Frankenstein as yet, NO! Are we closer to making a Frankenstein since 1818, YES!
The things that media can make you do are just incredible. When Orson Welles narrated The War of the Worlds by HG Wells in 1938 as a series of simulated “news bulletins”, which suggested to many listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress, the mass hysteria was phenomenal. Richard J. Hand cites studies by unnamed historians who “calculated that some six million heard the CBS broadcast; 1.7 million believed it to be true, and 1.2 million were ‘genuinely frightened'”. While Welles was heard by a comparatively small audience (in the same period, NBC’s audience was an estimated 30 million), the uproar was anything but minute: within a month, there were 12,500 newspaper articles about the broadcast or its impact, while Adolf Hitler cited the panic, as Hand writes, as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”
Recently, Nicaragua accidentally invaded Costa Rica, crossed the border, took down a Costa Rican flag and defiantly raised their own flag on Costa Rican turf, because apparently Google Maps mistakenly said that the territory belonged to Nicaragua. If the commander of Nicaraguan forces would have just cross-checked with Bing Maps, the invasion could have been avoided. It’s a question of belief at the end of the day. How much do you trust the information that you get on your screen?
This certainly does not mean that digital space does not help. In the immediate aftermath of a disputed Presidential election in Kenya in 2007, there was an outbreak of ethnic violence in the country and a lawyer in Nairobi, Ory Okolloh began blogging about it on her site, Kenyan Pundit. With the the government imposing a significant media blackout, weblogs went from being commentary as part of the media landscape to being a critical part of the media landscape in trying to understand where the violence was. Okolloh solicited from her commenters more information about what was going on, the comments began pouring in and Okolloh would collate and post them. She quickly said, “It’s too much. I could do this all day every day and I can’t keep up. There is more information about what’s going on in Kenya right now than any one person can manage. If only there was a way to automate this.”
And two programmers who read her blog held their hands up and said, “We could do that.” In 72 hours, they launched Ushahidi. Ushahidi — the name means “witness” or “testimony” in Swahili — is a very simple way of taking reports from the field, whether it’s from the web or, critically, via mobile phones and SMS, aggregating it and putting it on a map. That’s all it is, but that’s all that’s needed. Because what it does is it takes the tacit information available to the whole population — everybody knows where the violence is, but no one person knows what everyone knows — and it takes that tacit information and it aggregates it, and it maps it and it makes it public. And this maneuver called “crisis mapping” was kicked off in Kenya in January of 2008. You can create a picture of truth if you have accurate filters to the information that you receive.
In Idoru, a mego-rockstar Rez wants to marry a synthetic personality named Rei Toei, the Idoru (Japanese Idol) of the title. Questions around artificial intelligence and the whole plausibility of this strange marriage defines the plot line of the novel. While this might certainly seem an impossible reality, the digital space does allow you to create your own redefined avatars and personalities. I remember creating this fake Orkut profile of a girl who had somewhere around a 100 friends and she had a fairly decent digital life for a while until I got bored. Why did I do it? That’s a long story, but the point is that you clearly don’t always get what you see in the digital space.
Brian Massumi, a Canadian political philosopher and social theorist, once said that the digital is a sandwich between analog experiences. I guess, till the time we actually value those analog experiences to be the reality of the digital content, cyberpunk would just be a piece of fiction. If not, then we are in trouble. But, I think the best way to see what cyberpunk is all about, is to go to where it all began and why did it begin. The answer to that question lies in the short story by Bruce Bethke who started it all up. I hope the juxtaposition of punk attitudes and high technology lives on, even after the death of cyberpunk as a science fiction genre.