I’ve been thinking a lot about the sinister threads of 2020. I haven’t worked out a coherent narrative yet, but perfect is the enemy of good enough, and I wanted to share my notes so far. Briefly:
I have an incredibly privileged vantage point.
The inequalities of capitalist democracy mean that, for many people, the online world is more real than the physical one.
If I still believed in government, I’d be fighting for my team, rather than the policies I wanted to see.
If I no longer believed in government, I’d be playing games or making up my own massively multiplayer conspiracies.
After the World Wars and the Cold War, we’re now in a new kind of online war. Unlike those wars, we’re all on the front line.
The risk of deplatforming—either because of government control of social platforms, or because of bad actors fomenting outrage—is a means of control.
I’m not sure how these threads weave together, and this contains a bunch of hyperbolic leaps of logic. I’d love your thoughts on it.
I ordered sushi today.
I did not catch the fish, which was fresh and delicious. I don’t live by the ocean, but the salmon and tuna were fantastic.
I didn’t make the sushi, which was probably for the best. I’ve dabbled with rolling my own, but can never get the stickiness of the rice quite right:
Learning that takes years.
I didn’t go to a restaurant to eat it, because we’re in a pandemic. For a slight surcharge, someone brought it to me. Thank goodness for delivery apps and mobile phones.
I didn’t really worry about how to pay for it. It was a hundred bucks, all in, but it was a long weekend and we deserved it. I’ve been trying to reinvent the event industry, figure out how to create online rather than in-person content, and recover from a broken leg. 2020 sucks.
I didn’t have to harvest my food, or transport it, or prepare it. I didn’t even have to wash the dishes—I rinsed the plastic and put it in a bin for someone to collect.
I didn’t have to work on Labor Day Weekend, although the shops were open. I work from home, mostly with ideas, always with bits, sometimes with pixels. My bubble is pretty small, in 2020 terms.
And I’m not one paycheck away from bankruptcy. Sure, I’m burning through my savings. I’m pretty sure that I’ll figure something out; I’ve got time and resources to do so. I’ve spent a bunch of money on AV gear, too. But I can still afford to order sushi.
Most of the people I talk to on Twitter are in the same boat. They like the state of the world, even though, as we’ll all roundly agree, 2020 sucks. They want laws to be upheld. Most of the people I talk to on Twitter are like me. That’s what Twitter is for.
If you didn’t have this kind of sushi-in-a-pandemic privilege, your worldview would be dramatically different. 2020 is a crucible of misinformation, social injustice, healthcare stresses, and pent-up frustration that the world isn’t the way it could be. Those seem like nonpartisan things, and yet when I speak to people on either side of the political aisle, their frustrations are fundamentally opposed:
For those who still care about government, politics has become a blood sport, with people rooting for their team rather than the policies they want.
Meanwhile, those who’ve opted out of politics are making their own, parallel, game—an alternate reality that encourages everyone to join in and play along.
Outside my very fortunate, low-risk, knowledge-worker bubble, the real world is pretty awful right now. Is it any wonder much of the population wants to lose itself in team sports or online games?
And here’s where I’m going to veer into science fiction.
Atoms are scarce. Bits are abundant.
In Western capitalist democracies, some people have more than others. This, it must be said, is far from an entirely bad thing. Whether in the battlefield or the market square, competition is the source of most innovation and progress. The alternatives to capitalism tend to be breadlines and inefficiency. Competition in medicine lets us live twice as long as our ancestors. But we cannot defend capitalism without also acknowledging that the scarcity on which it relies has victims aplenty, and is the cause of most injustice.
In the physical world, we can’t all be kings, because there are only so many resources to go round. We’ve overpopulated the planet, and our economic model relies on price elasticity and the invisible hand of the market, even though that hand is a jerk.
We have been, until very recently, a product of natural selection and opportunistic adaptation. I say “until recently,” because two things have changed.
First, we’re evolving memetically, rather than biologically. As toolmakers, we don’t grow limbs, we invent them. A human can dive deeper than any mammal, fly faster and farther than any bird, measure time more than the oldest tree, see more detail than an ant.
Second, we can create digital worlds—video games, online treasure hunts, anonymous chatrooms—and inhabit them as different versions of ourselves. In these worlds, we’re superhuman. We can furnish our virtual houses in Animal Crossing, enjoy immortality in Fortnite, be a minor celebrity on reddit.
The thing about bits is they’re easy to copy. In video games, we can all be kings. Heck, my girlfriend loses herself in Animal Crossing, where she can build a beautiful island under the benevolent watch of Party Leader Nook.
She’s got plenty to worry about—her startup, her family, the book she’s writing. Her boyfriend slowly freaking out while trying to help his friends through their own freakouts.
She had some sushi too.
If you have to harvest food, work retail, put your family at risk in public places, live paycheck-to-paycheck, and collect other people’s recently-touched, might you rather live online? Games, alternate realities, and VR are convincing opiates for the disenfranchised.
We’re all the front line now
We already live online. It has abundances we can’t find in reality. as that becomes our dominant mode, deplatforming is more than just three days in Twitter Jail: We’re unpersons.
The threat of being cut off from our digital selves will mollify us, curbing our behaviour. Protests will be quelled not just by heat canons and threat of sedition, but by controlling our virtual selves.
Facebook has launched a Tiktok clone and is literally buying the popular-in-America top talent, the same way it bought Instagram and Whatsapp outright. And the US Government has said Tiktok isn’t welcome on American devices for National Security Reasons.
What if, just for the sake of argument, Tiktok were spying on people? What if any popular app were compromised, and had control of a large part of the country—or could reasonably be expected to do so in a software update?
Getting your citizens off that platform would be critical. But you wouldn’t want to let on that you knew. So you’d probably partner with your dominant social network somehow. Spend a lot of campaign money on them; come out swinging against their biggest competitors; whatever. This would be great for their business, because the outraged fringes would come to your platform and yell at one another, lining your coffers.
If I could travel back in time 30 years and tell someone in national security one thing it would probably be, “Make sure you compromise, and then unfairly favour, one of the social networks—and then you will be able to protect your country.”
The first two World Wars were fought with guns and planes. The third was a Cold War, fought with propaganda and proxies. We’re in the middle of a fourth World War, fought with tariffs and automation and hacking and outrage. When we are connected to information, there’s no “fighting off in a proxy country.”
When a foreign actor can deplatform a citizen remotely, there’s only the front line. By spreading misinformation and stoking outrage, a foreign government can target an individual and see them tried in the court of public opinion for a crime they didn’t commit. Manipulating context can exact a disproportionate punishment for a simple mistake or minor error in judgement.
And when a domestic leader can cut someone off from civic participation or free expression, they can control the memes by which we evolve. The nationalization of digital platforms becomes a means of control. In China, WeChat is a fact of life, used for everything from work to wallet. If you’re banned from WeChat, you cease to exist. WeChat is now banned in the US.
When we live online, we’re all the front line.
If I wanted to lose myself online
If I wanted to lose myself online, I’d be worried about someone controlling my online life. I’d worry about people telling me the rules of my fantasy kingdom. Whether the women could all look like Barbie; whether the heroes could all look like me. I’d want my individual rights to win out.
If I wanted to lose myself online, I’d be worried about someone controlling my online life. I’d worry about my online world being safe; how I’d block predators; whether I could use the pronouns I identified with. I’d want my individual rights to win out.
But I’d be shut out of mainstream politics.
We may not live in our own VR utopias today, but we do spend a lot of time on social media. We can’t all be kings, but we can all be (minor) celebrities yelling to our crowds. We get love one like at a time.
It’s fun to have a common enemy, someone to yell at and blame for the drama at the mall, that woman who wouldn’t wear her mask, the fact that we can’t afford braces, or why our brother got stopped by cops twice on the way home.
Someone privileged, who doesn’t have to deal with this shit.
Did you have sushi today?