Near Future Internet Dystopia Is Now!
Amazon has developed drones that can deliver your merchandise to your doorstep. Twitter has acquired the Android lockscreen app “Cover”, potentially maneuvering what apps appear “first” for you on your Android devices based on when it predicts you need them. Finally, the Heartbleed Bug is basically a hole in the Internet that has been a potential threat to our website activity security for at least a couple of years.
The increasing ubiquity of the Internet and our dependence upon it are the subject of several novels that have been published over the last few months, all of which serve in varying ways as cautionary tales of mindless dependence in the online world. I’ve been calling the themes of these novels Internet dystopia.
Last fall, Dave Eggers came out with this novel, which detailed the story of Mae, a young woman who starts work at a company, the Circle, that could be described as a combination of Amazon, Facebook and Google, with a little dose of the NSA. The story on the surface is a fast-paced cautionary tale about how Mae ultimately turns her entire life, physically and emotionally, over to the ever-connected machinations of the Circle. Every time I come across someone who has read The Circle, they inevitably suggest that it just seemed “too much” -- that no one would turn over their whole existence to an ever-present online behemoth. Yet, once you begin to engage in discussion about the various scenes in the novel, it becomes apparent that, indeed, what feels a bit like science fiction at first read, is really not so far from reality right now! (Think drones and self-driving automobiles!)
This novel is a sometimes profane and hilarious, yet strangely poignant, satire about what could happen if all of a sudden the Internet disappeared. (This YouTube book trailer will give you a good feel for the tone of the book.) The author is a long-time columnist for Cracked.com, a website offering all sorts of apparently time-wasting opportunities to entertain oneself with the kinds of lists, infographics, and quizzes that we are all guilty of sharing on Facebook and Twitter. Gladstone has as his main character, his namesake, Wayne Gladstone, who teams up with a blogger friend and webcam girl to go off to find the Internet in Wizard of Oz style. Along the way, the reader is shown the fallout of no Internet: groups of people gathered talking in 140 or less characters; others trying to get cats to repeat stupid tricks because they can’t just hit the play button on YouTube; and even more ubiquitous, the desperate search by many for the kind of porn they got used to online.
This is another in the Internet dystopia vein, but it is more of a noir private eye kind of story. Think Sam Spade meets the Matrix. I guess that’s where the main character gets his name! Spademan is a hitman living in post dirty-bombed NYC. When he is hired to kill the daughter of a prominent evangelist, he discovers there is more to the situation and she has the key to protecting many people from being put in indefinite inertia as they hook into the limnosphere, a kind of biological virtual reality that is mostly only available to the very rich. There is a diabolical secret to the virtual “heaven” the evangelist is selling, and Spademan is determined to expose it.
This is my absolute favorite among all these titles. It is a wonderfully imagined novel about what would happen if our personal devices actually became biologically connected to us and ultimately infected language in a way that causes severe “word flu” in the device users. This word flu is really no accident either, but a horrifying result of a business cabal trying to take a monopolistic control of individuals’ personal use of and purchases on their devices. The plan goes terribly awry, and it is up to the two main characters, Anana and Bart, who tell their stories in alternating chapters, to see a solution through to the end…at great personal peril. This book is clever, elegant and robust in a literary sense, with the addition of an exciting and dangerous adventure that our main characters must get through.