Ready Player One is the roadmap to digital dystopia

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When Ernest Cline's Ready Player One was released in 2011, the reviews were ecstatic, beatific. It was a charming, accessible "nerdgasm" filled with "fascinating social commentary" that, according to one critic, was "the best science fiction novel I've read in a decade."
The book envisioned the United States in the 2040s entirely through the lens of the 1980s, or at least a small part of the era: formative video games, movies and other nerd-friendly pop cultures for people who reached the age of majority during this decade in particular. As the world of the novel descends into chaos and poverty, thanks to climate change and a fossil fuel crisis, most of its citizens spend their days going through OASIS, a virtual reality world created by an "eccentric" boy. of the 80 named James Halliday.
In OASIS, users can be and do almost anything, what the book's hero, Wade Watts, says is the antidote to all social injustice. But thanks to the stupefying influence of Halliday, this unlimited potential is mainly devoted to recreating the media of the 80s ad nauseam. Instead of rewarding innovation, the OASIS is designed to empower those who are most obsessed with the past, reserving their greatest blessings not for their advanced thinkers, but for those who can more accurately recite the entire dialogue of Monty Python and The Holy Grail . (This is a point of the real plot)
If that seems to go backwards, and much more worried about where we've been, where we're going, it's because that's the way it is. But as many of the modern Internet architects declare that the Internet has been broken, offering mea culpa, apologizing for their shortsightedness and irresponsibility, and being convened to the Senate audiences, the book is a document worth reviewing in 2018; not because this new blind spot in the novel has something to say about the place we are in today, but because the ignorance and the wrong optimism embedded in its pages is precisely how we got here. It is instructive now, as a roadmap of how we get to our present cyber-dystopia, and the dangers of building a world for "everyone" on the concerns and fantasies of a few.
While film adaptation helped transform a book on exclusionary control into more accessible international success, the novel itself remains a marvel of self-absorption, and is based firmly on the vague and excessively idealistic values ​​of digital "freedom" who have turned the internet in a nightmare machine.
The book begins with an epigraph: "Because there is no map for where we are going".
Of the numerous lies that it tells, this is one of the most atrocious. There are many, many problems with Ready Player One, but the absence of an accurate and clearly articulated map to know where the book takes us is not among them. His story imagines the future superimposing it on the past – specifically, on the childhood of its author – and is immersed in the utopian misconceptions that also defined the childhood of the Internet. As the online world has moved toward something more like middle age, the notion that the anonymous and irresponsible freedom of the web is a panacea for prejudice seems irremediably outdated. That did not stop Cline, or many of the architects of the online world who were his contemporaries, from insisting that Internet freedoms would be both unavoidable and universal.
Quixotic ideas of Ready Player One about the future of online life are not unique, because nothing is exclusive to Ready Player One.
Quixotic ideas of Ready Player One about the future of online life are not unique, because nothing is exclusive to Ready Player One. It is a messy hodgepodge of more significant and resonant pieces of culture, an immaculate pastiche that rises on the shoulders of more interesting works and demands the applause that they have earned for themselves. But Ready Player One is also worse than that, silently and unexamined, which talks about the original sin of the Internet. If the book has something to say beyond repeating a litany of interesting franchises, it is believing that the internet is a sublime and liberating space where allowing anyone to say and do what they want will inevitably lead to an abstract notion of freedom. While that may have been the case for some members of society, especially the most privileged, in practice, it means injustice and abuse for many others.
The Internet spirit of the 80s and 90s was rooted in an insidious brand of optimism best represented by the 1994 episode of Ghostwriter's "hacker," in which a teenager Julia Stiles lovingly caressed a computer monitor and declared that the Internet was "A world where you judge by what you say and think, not by what you look like, a world where curiosity and imagination equate to power."

That was the internet dream, once. Not only would it connect everyone, it would free them from social power rules focused on the athlete who valued physical force over the brain. And for a certain brand of young, white, nerdy men, it could have been true. For some, the Internet meant leaving behind the luggage of their imperfect bodies, existing purely as intellect. Why would not everyone want that? Why would not that make everyone free?
This notion of digital freedom quickly became an almost constitutional requirement of the right to say and do anything, no matter whom it would harm, or how badly it would distort the very nature of human discourse. "It may cost a lifetime to expose someone to bullies," Facebook vice president Andrew Bosworth wrote in a chilling memo recently leaked. "Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated with our tools And we still connect people The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is * de facto * good ".
The connection at all costs and without limit has been the defining principle of the Internet during the time that has existed, one that has continuously replaced the concerns of decency. It has done so in part because of one of the core values ​​of the internet, which is also at the heart of Ready Player One: the belief that the right to do anonymously what you want is, in fact, a right, and that it is "de facto" good "- at least for a certain class of people.
The connection at all costs and without limit has been the defining principle of the Internet during the time that has existed
"In the OASIS, nobody could say that she was fat, that she had acne, or that she wore the same threadbare clothes every week," says Wade. "The thugs could not throw me spitballs, give me atomic wedgies, or stuff me in the bike rack after school, nobody could even touch me, I was safe here." The idea of ​​the internet as a safe place, where you can be untouchable, immune to abuse, it is the most anachronistic and privileged idea of ​​Ready Player One, shared by many of the people who built their platforms.
"I thought that once everyone could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world would automatically be a better place," Twitter founder Evan Williams told the New York Times last year. "I was wrong about that."
There are no signs of these dangers in the Ready Player One text; While the world outside the OASIS is crumbling, the virtual world remains, yes, an oasis, a utopian extension where everything is possible and everyone is emancipated by their presence online. The digital landscape that Ready Player One foresees has a central root in virtual reality, which was praised in the 80s as the technology par excellence of the future, but which has become much more marginal. But it does not matter: the obsession of the book with the past is so fundamental and inescapable that the dream-dream of the 80s is the only future you can imagine, in form and ideology. "This is the OASIS," says Wade Watts about her online world in a text chat with her love object. "We exist as nothing more than raw personality here."
This is, to put it lightly, not how the Internet worked. Instead of freeing people from abuse and marginalization, online platforms have become tools to amplify existing social inequality and harassment in unprecedented ways. We need to look only at abuse campaigns like Gamergate and the painful realities of harassment on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, to find ample evidence of how incredibly false these visions of the future are, and what they are.
In a climactic revelation at the end of the book, Wade discovers that her best friend Aech, with whom she has been speaking for more than three years, is not a guy at all, but rather a fat, black lesbian. After feeling briefly "cheated," Wade declares loudly and liberally that his true identity "does not really matter." "We had connected to a purely mental level," he reasons, with self satisfaction. "None of that had changed, or it could be changed by something as inconsequential as their gender, skin color or sexual orientation."
It is a dull blur that reaffirms the words that Ready Player One eagerly puts in the mouth of a black woman: that "the OASIS was the best thing that had happened to women and people of color". For Wade, the realities of race, gender and sexuality are simply "inconsequential" avatar skins, those whose problems can be removed as easily as any other. But despite Julia Stiles' 1994 promises, the Internet did not become a world in which things like gender and skin color did not matter; really, he really did not.
And then there's the treasure hunt that drives their story: Wade and his competitors must unravel the clues left in the will of OASIS founder James Halliday in the hope of winning his multimillion-dollar fortune and a majority stake in the company behind OASIS. Although at first glance this looks like a fun search for Goonies, on closer inspection, it is incredibly selfish in the most daring way. At a time when poverty and environmental ruin are ravaging the world, a deep level of self-absorption is required for one of the richest living men to donate $ 240 billion and control one of the most important companies on earth to the nerd. that more fixed in the obsessions of the pets of his adolescence.
This is the narcissistic impulse behind the worst elements of the Internet and the world of videogames: guarantee that they can only enjoy the things they like and enjoy.
It is no accident that this ends up captivating society through the means and aesthetics of the 1980s, ensuring that the cultural artifacts that Halliday likes are the only ones that matter. This is the narcissistic impulse behind the worst elements of the Internet and the world of videogames: not only to look for things that they like and enjoy, but to guarantee that they can only enjoy the things that they like and enjoy. This contest is portrayed, somehow, as something fun and fun, and not as a rich guy who stifles the development of a newer and more vital culture because he really liked Space Invaders and The Last Starfighter.
Cline doubles the same theme in his later book of 2015, the abysmal Armada, imagining that nerds like him are the most important people in the world. The solipsism that requires writing two books in a row about this is amazing and incomprehensible, considering how strongly the nerd culture (video games, computers, comics) has moved into the mainstream, and the enormous economic and cultural influence it exerts. We do not need to create fantasy worlds where the nerds are some of the most powerful people in the world and their predilections are constantly addressed, they already are. And yet, for so many influential men in games and technology, the personal mythology of the underdog persists, even when they have achieved power and wealth beyond imagining.
"We used to be a kind of rebels," said Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher often cited as the founding father of virtual reality, in a recent interview. "If you go back to the origins of the Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses, and we had to create our own world, for us, we were the homeless and we had to fight. We've done everything … But we do not act like that … We're still acting like we're in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is absurd And in doing that, we really become assholes, you know?
The many times Mark Zuckerberg mentioned starting Facebook in his college dorm during the recent hearings in the US Senate. UU It is an excellent example of powerful nerds who cling to the past: the people they were, the world they were and the world they thought they would become, none of which is particularly relevant to the present moment and their urgent concerns. His problem is the same problem that plagues Ready Player One from his first page to his last, like a vengeful poltergeist: the desire to enjoy playful and optimistic nostalgia about his favorite things as the world collapses around him.
That Halliday is treated as a figure worthy of admiration and admiration and not as the villain of this story is still the biggest hole in the plot.
Halliday, we later found out, cut all ties with his best friend and business partner, Steve McLean Morrow, because he was sexually obsessed with Morrow's wife, Kira, and he felt friendly with the area, although he had never told them to none of them about how he felt. Both Morrow and Wade agree that this was a reasonable course of action given how hot and amazing Kira was, and it is never discussed again. That Halliday is treated, without exception, as a figure worthy of admiration and admiration and not as the villain of this story is still his biggest hole in the plot.
The deification of technological "visionaries" like Halliday walks hand in hand with a strange contempt for corporations; IOI, the largest Internet provider in the world, is constantly demonized throughout the book. Wade comes to a meeting with his CEO specifically so he can shout "you can not buy me" and "you and the other SuX0rs can go to hell." (It is not clear exactly how he pronounced the zero in the chat voice, but there are many things that are not clear in Ready Player One).
This apparent anticorporate stance resonates strangely with Wade's total devotion to the media that is made, in general, by corporations, and his consistent deification of Halliday and his company, GSS. Ready Player One ends (spoiler!) With Wade winning the contest, fortune and control of OASIS, passing the scepter of his Halliday corporate monarchy to his most obsessed fan, who solves everything in a way that can only be described as Phase 2 of the briefs gnomes business plan.
"Back in the '80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists," Lanier said. "But we also love entrepreneurs because we love Steve Jobs, so you want to be a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it's absurd, but that's the kind of absurdity that the culture of Silicon Valley has to deal with."
Approximately half of Ready Player One, Wade reveals his OASIS password: "No one in the world gets what he wants and that's beautiful," a reference to a 1987 song by They Might Be Giants. It is a strange and contrary feeling to back in the context of a fantasy about getting exactly what you want: the girl, the money, the world.
"I'm entrusting the OASIS now," says a previously recorded version of Halliday when Wade finally wins the game that has been designed almost exclusively for him. "Your avatar is immortal and all-powerful, whatever you want, all you have to do is want it." He gets exactly what he wants, and it's beautiful for him without any complicated friction on the part of everyone who has been left out. his idealistic fantasy about the internet, which is precisely the problem.
This fiction, once again, lies at the heart of Silicon Valley, where many of its leaders seem to want both: to be the rebellious upstart even when you've become The Man, to deny responsibility for the way your creations have reformed society because you still want to think of yourself as a kid who does shit in your garage, and nobly determined to change things for the better, even when you do not have a clear idea of ​​what "better" means to someone who is not you . This did not diminish the arrogance or the illusions of the most empowered people to define the landscape online, and now we live in the online dystopia that their ignorance has forged.
While some, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, finally admit that their platforms "did not have a sufficiently broad view of our responsibility", the principle of the lack of responsibility as a tool of liberation, often framed in the language of " freedom of expression ", remains a fundamental value of the internet; It does not matter that this "freedom" is deployed widely and actively to intimidate and silence others on a large scale.
Last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was asked if open racism was against the rules of the platform. "It is not," he replied. Cool What point, if any, does it have "freedom of expression" when it makes a large part of the population tangibly less free and less able to speak without terror?
Last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was asked if open racism was against the rules of the platform. "It is not," he replied.
In Halt and Catch Fire, AMC's brilliant ode to the beginnings of the Internet, Joe Johnson, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spoke fluently, was prone to give long, starry-eyed monologues about the connection and the community he believed in. it would offer Internet from its privileged position. point in the & # 39; 80. However, when the show jumped forward in the 1990s, many of its former visionaries found themselves increasingly out of step with the world they helped create.
"Is this what you saw ten years ago? Because it's not what I saw for myself when you showed up in my garage," Gordon, Joe's former business partner, asks him at the end of the series. "That's the point," Joe replies. "It was never about where it ended, it was about how he felt."
Maybe it should not have been about that. Perhaps the heady brilliance of feeling like a hard-scrabble disruptor was no more important than the reality of the spaces these innovators created, and how they could be turned into weapons, particularly against their most vulnerable inhabitants. But the most premonitory and terrifying moment of Halt and Catch Fire is not an elegant speech about the beginning of the Internet age, but the suicide note left by a discouraged encoder, entitled "You're Not Safe":
"Beware of false prophets who will sell you a false future, of bad teachers and corrupt leaders and corrupt corporations," he says. "But above all, take care of each other, because everything is about to change." The world will open wide. The barriers between us will disappear, and we are not ready. We will hurt each other in new ways. We will sell and we will be sold. We will expose our most tender beings only to be mocked and destroyed. We will be so vulnerable and we will pay the price. "

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