17 August 2002
Pessoa in cyberspace
The future didn’t turn out like it was supposed to. Religiously hoarding my 2000AD comics in the early 1980s, I was convinced that by the turn of the century we would all be flying around multi-level tubular metropolises in anti-gravity hovercars, wearing padded jumpsuits and eating pills for lunch. None of that, lamentably, came to pass, but something weirder happened instead. Rather a remodelled physical world, we got an entirely new world, that hovered ghostlike behind or beyond the real one. It is the e- or i- or virtual world of voicemail, texting and the internet, a strange new topography of social structures that nobody decided they wanted but that few who inhabit it would now do without.
James Gleick, the popular-science writer responsible for Chaos and Genius, has been observing these developments closely. What Just Happened is a collection of articles about the new digital world that he has written for the New York Times over the past decade. Such journalistic recycling, under normal circumstances, hardly deserves to be called a book at all. But it turns out to be a virtue that Gleick’s reports are not shaped by a dishonest teleological hindsight. It would be all too easy to write a history of the last 10 years that portrayed a smooth and inevitable progression to the current state of the art, whereas in fact it is a story of uncertainties, dead ends and unfulfilled promises.
Here we can think ourselves back into a timewhere a 14,000-baud modem put you in a high-speed elite, where a magical technology on the horizon called ISDN might give us full-motion video on our screens, and where people used phrases such as “the Information Superhighway” without smirking irony. Here is a world where Microsoft was a minority player in computing, harried on bulletin boards by Gleick himself and others about the unfixed bugs in its first version of Word. (Plus ça change.) Here is an idealistic technophile — Gleick again — who thought that the internet would never make a very good distribution vehicle for pornography.
The articles here are broadly of two types. There is the short, witty encapsulation of some aspect of the cyberlife — fetish newsgroups, webcammed hot tubs, search engines, joke-forwarding, book recommendations on Amazon, eBay and other “online bazaars”, or the silliness of manuals. Though the reader is likely to have encountered such reportage in other arenas already, it is still enjoyable in its optimism and indulgence. By the end of the book the indefatigable Gleick is testing the latest wireless mobile gadgets and relishing “the odd sensation of being entitled to all sorts of facts”.
The second type of article is wider in scope and more intellectually rigorous: Gleick is interested in developing a sort of sociology of the information age. On the one hand, accusations of societal fracture levelled at the new technologies fail to impress him. “Social theorists have been predicting a decline in community and a rise in alienation ever since they began to pay attention to the industrial revolution, and it is far from clear that they have been right.” On the other hand, he keeps returning to worry at this central observation: “Our sense of what can be private and what must be public is being overhauled under our noses.”
Begin with the telephone, and a 1993 article called “The Telephone Transformed into Almost Everything”. Caller ID was relatively new at the time, and some people were already complaining about the invasion of privacy engineered by the fact that the person being called could see who was calling. But, in a characteristically elegant move, Gleick turns the complaint on its head. “Suppose Caller ID had been a feature of phone service from the beginning,” he writes. “If the phone companies now offered a new service that would enable people to conceal their numbers while making a call, would that not outrage privacy advocates? Wouldn’t it open the way to all sorts of intrusions: harassing and obscene calls, for example?”
From the start, Gleick has insisted on a difference between privacy and anonymity. He is certainly concerned about the protection of the former. In a 1996 piece about electronic money, prematurely called “The End of Cash”, he writes disapprovingly of a future where consumers will be forced to leave a trail of evidence behind at every purchase, no matter how trivial, and where this information will be stored somewhere and used to target them with advertising or worse. (It is the principle of the ludicrously named “supermarket loyalty card” writ large.) In the same year, Gleick writes: “Information-gathering about individuals has reached an astounding level of completeness, if not actual malevolence.”
On the other hand, there is the question of whether we should enjoy “the right to vanish, the right to act in society without leaving traces, and the right to assume a false identity”. This latter “right”, enthusiastically claimed by many internet users, troubles Gleick. Indeed, in his view it is either criminal or near-psychopathic. “The growing use of false identity as a standard mode of online behavior suggests a sort of self-loathing, on a mass scale. It seems we so hate the images we project that we feel compelled to detach our names from them.” Well, not really. I don’t see any evidence of self-loathing among the people from all around the world with whom I play chess online, none of whose real names I know. The ability to go by a fictional nickname or “handle” on the internet is a harmless, playful form of self-invention that is no more sinister than dyeing your hair or buying a new pair of trousers.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of public-spirited folk around who dispense helpful information to others on all manner of recondite specialist subjects, and who would not act that way if their messages were traceable to their real-life identity, if only because their bosses would find out they were spending too much office time on internet newsgroups. Anonymity makes these forms of interaction possible — or rather, not anonymity but pseudonymity, or even heteronymity. Most heavy internet users have not just one but several different identities for different contexts. Each is a Fernando Pessoa of cyberspace.
Many do this just for fun, but many others act pseudonymously on a point of political principle. And their motivation is precisely that anxiety about information snooping which Gleick himself so deftly shows is rooted in the reality of corporate and governmental behaviour: they really do want the power to know what we have said, where we have been and what we have bought. The official admission last year of the existence of Echelon — a conspiracy of European states to monitor their citizens’ communications — left this in less doubt than ever before. So what is the concerned activist to do in protest except cloak his official identity and construct a new one? Gleick wants to have his cake and eat it: but if he condemns the ways privacy is being eroded, he cannot condemn the only way to resist.
As we hurtle into a future of pervasive, wearable computing, and screens everywhere pumping out personalised advertising at all hours — a prospect that Steven Spielberg’s new film Minority Report imagines, if anything, rather conservatively — a more trivial but still alarming new problem becomes, as one expert is quoted here as saying: “How do you anti-spam-filter your life?”. As Gleick is the first to admit, all new technologies “harass” us as well as help us. If his answers are not always convincing, he certainly homes in on the right questions.
Probably, Gleick’s somewhat incoherent stance on the privacy issue stems from his folksy concept of the internet. In 1992 he is already saying, of an electronic bulletin board: “The medium creates a modern kind of town meeting — perhaps the only real town meeting left.” And in his Introduction, dated February 2002, he writes: “I may not believe in God or the NASDAQ, but I do believe in the network as global village and as global brain.” But it’s not obvious that you can frictionlessly translate ethical standards between an idealised, Hillary Clinton-esque apple-pie urban community and the internet. Of course it wouldn’t do to take an invisibility pill and skulk around anonymously leaving no traces in a real village. The inhabitants would, understandably, get nervous. But the internet is more like a raucous masked ball held in the world’s biggest library.
And the real problem is not that some people refuse to take their masks off at midnight, but that so few people were invited in the first place. Gleick acknowledges this in the book’s last essay. “If laptops and Internet connections and Web-aware mobile phones remain tokens of privilege, then the gap between rich and poor will grow.” Recently the tech industry congratulated itself noisily on the news that the billionth personal computer had been sold. But as is often pointed out, most of Earth’s population have never made a telephone call, and only a few hundred million worldwide have access to the internet. Electronic communication has wider political ramifications than among those who are wealthy enough to use it.