Tag Archives: pseudonymous

Science Fiction, Mixed Media, and Surveillance

For those of us who have been reading science fiction for some time now—it becomes clear that SF has a strange propensity to becoming prophetic. Many of the themes in science fiction classics are now used as overarching metaphors in mainstream surveillance. Most notably among these is: Orwell’s Big Brother, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Kafka’s Trail. Other common tropes we might refer to is Minority Report, Ender’s Game, and Gattaca.

Though I am not trying to claim that these classics aren’t good pieces of SF literature, they may not do a superb job of covering issues implicit in contemporary surveillance. Imagine George Orwell coming to the realization that the Internet is one humungous surveillance machine with the power of mass, dragnet surveillance. Or imagine Huxley’s reaction to the lulling of consumer affect through branding and advertisement. The power of surveillance tools to control and shape large populations has become a prominent and dangerous feature of the 21st century.

As Richard Hoggart says,

“Things can never quite be the same after we have read—really read—a really good book.”

So let’s stop recycling old metaphors (if I read another surveillance book that references Big Brother or the Panopticon I’m going to switch fields). Let’s look at the work of our own generation of writers and storytellers. What I think we might find is a rich stock of knowledge and cultural data that could illuminate some optics into our (post)human relationship with advance technology.

The reason why I am using mixed media, as opposed to focusing on a singular medium, is that I believe that our relationship with media is not limited to one or the other. Novels, movies, video games, graphic novels and YouTube videos all offer us something in terms of storytelling. Part entertainment, part catharsis premised and constructed through the engagement with the story.  Our generation of storytelling has shifted into the realm of mixed media engagement.  What follows are some stories that I think are critically important to understanding the human condition in our own generational context.

P.S. They are in no particular order.

Disclaimer: Though I tried to be cautious not to forfeit any critical plot or character points, be careful for spoilers:

SOMA 

   SOMA1

SOMA is a survival horror video game released by the developers of Amnesia (another terrifying game), Frictional Games. It is a 2015 science fiction story that both frightens you and an imparts an existential crisis as you struggle to find “human” meaning between the fusion of life and machine. After engaging in a neurological experiment, the main protagonist Simon Jarrett, wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. As opposed to people, Jarrett finds himself trapped with the company of both malicious and benevolent robots—some who believe they are human. The interesting overlap with surveillance here is the focus on neurological surveillance. Scientists (in and out of game) transform the biological brain into a series of data points that represent the original. From this, scientists hope to predict or instill behavior. Or in the case of this game, transform human into machine. This is done by literally uploading the data points of the brain in aggregate to a computer. The game instills a constant question: is there any difference between human consciousness and a copy of human consciousness? SOMA is more than just a scary game—it is a philosophical treatise on the post-human illustrated through an interactive story.

Ready Player One

Readyplayerone

Ready Player One, is a novel written by Ernest Cline, which covers a wide breath of themes: notably the uneasy relationship between surveillance and anonymity, visibility and hiding. Cline constructs a world that doesn’t seem very far off from our own. A world where people begin to embrace simulation through virtual reality (VR) as environmental disaster plagues the actual world. People hide in the sublime. The VR game, OASIS, a world of many worlds, is the home of many clever pop culture references. Mostly music, video games and movies. With an extra emphasis on science fiction. Embedded in this world of worlds is several “Easter Eggs” (surprises hidden in videogames) that act as a treasure trail to the OSASIS late founder’s fortune and ultimate control over the virtual world. Anonymity is the norm of OASIS—a utopian world where the original, democratic ideal of the Internet is realized. A place where anyone can be anybody—without reference to their actual identity. However, this world is jeopardized as a the corporation Innovative Online Industries is also searching for the Easter Eggs to take over OASIS and remake it to generate capital. The theme of anonymity vs. mass surveillance for profit is arguably a major fuel for global debate as all “places” of the Internet are surveilled in increasingly invasive ways. Anonymity has almost disappeared from the Internet, to be replaced with quasi-public profiles (Facebook and Goggle+) that exist to make billions of dollars off of people’s identities and user-generated content. The original dream of the Internet, sadly has failed.

Nexus

RN_rebrand_NEXUS_03-tiny-233x400

Nexus is a science fiction novel written by Ramez Naam following characters who are engaged with a new type of “nano-drug” that restructures the human brain so that people can connect mind to mind. There are those who support the drug and those who are against it. This conflict is followed by a slurry of espionage that exposes the characters to incredible dangers. The theme of surveillance in Nexus follows a new fixation on neuroscience. The ability to surveil the very essential, bio-chemical features of the human mind. As well as exposing mind and memory to others participating in this new psychedelic (psychosocial) drug. This is a level of exposure that far supercedes our experiences with the Internet and social media. Imagine being hardwired into a computer network. The book also follows traditional surveillance themes as the main character Kaden Lane becomes entangled in the conflict of private corporations and state government.

The Circle

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)
Social media in the 21st century has positioned Western society within the context of visibility and exposure. Most people are simultaneously engaged in self-exposure and participatory surveillance—as we post content about our lives and browse and read content about the lives of our friends and family. The Circle by Dave Eggers works this theme through a character, named Mae Holland, who has just been hired by the world’s largest IT company located in a place called the Circle. The Circle is a place, much like a University campus, with literally everything on it. This place boarders utopia—a place where work and play blends. However, following the mantra “All that happens must be known”, social media penetrates the lives of those who exist in the Circle in pervasive and exposing ways. Very quickly, the utopic illusion slips away into dystopia.

Slenderman

slide

Slenderman was, in its bare skeleton form, introduced to the Internet by Eric Knudson on the (in)famous Something Aweful forum board for a paranormal photo editing contest. However, within a year, Slenderman was sucked into a collective narrative construction across all media platforms. People blogged about it, tweeted about it, YouTubed about it. A massive and ever changing (and unstable) urban legend (or Fakelore) was constructed in the chaos of cyberspace. Slenderman, the paranormal creature, can be described as a tall man with unnaturally long arms and legs (and sometimes tentacles), wearing a black suit, with no face. It is usually depicted as a creature who watches, in other words surveils. It watches from obscure areas, slowly driving its victim to paranoia and insanity. Than the victim disappears, without a trace. Slenderman is the contemporary boogieman. But it also shares a narrative with dangerous, obscure, and mysterious secret police and intelligence agencies. As Snowden revealed to the public, governments, through mass surveillance techniques, watch everyone and everything. Could the slenderman narrative be telling of a deep seeded cultural fear of government surveillance in the 21st century? There are many ways to tap into this story—google blogs, tumblr accounts, and twitter accounts. But also, YouTube series’ like Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, and Tribe Twelve. Also check out the genre called Creepypasta for an extra home brewed thrill.

 

Ready Player One: An Exploration of Anonymity and Surveillance

Let’s talk about anonymity. I had just finished a book recently, a really interesting and socially relevant science fiction called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This book is centered on a technology called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation) which is an immense virtual reality video game. It is comprised of a pastiche (collage) of all of history’s Western pop culture in one seemingly infinite digital space. In other words, this virtual world is a large mash up of Star Wars, Star Trek, Disc World and just about every movie or imaginary world you can conceive of. Very po-mo, I know. What is truly interesting about this world, however, is that its creators—two computer engineers from Gregarious Simulations Systems (GSS)—made the entire world centered on anonymity and Internet freedom. They also provide the game for free to all users. Though there are internal costs and hardware costs in order to use OSASIS fully. It is almost utopic. However, the surrounding physical world has faded away due to neglect and capitalistic exploit and has become frighteningly decadent. So there is a sharp contrast between the utopian paradise of OASIS and the dystopian wasteland of the actual world. As well as the inevitably interconnectivity of these two worlds that make you question if OASIS is actually the utopia it claims to be.

ReadyPlayerOne RD 1 finals 2

Book Cover Art — Ernest Cline

The concept of anonymity in our society (across many societies) is becoming increasingly important. Even more important is the question of whether or not access to such a social status as anonymity is even possible anymore due to the complex issues of surveillance. The ability to surf the cyberweb as anonymous beings is a skill in computer literacy that is lacking in our educational systems. This is incredibly important because so much of our interaction is now on the Internet and connected mobile devices. Our interactions are thus transparent to various groups with the power or capital to spy on us.

What is anonymity? Gary T. Marx (1999) defines anonymity through a series of features. He writes, “To be fully anonymous means that a person cannot be identified according to any of the seven dimensions of identity knowledge”. These features include: access to legal name, access to a person’s physical address, access to symbolic sets (SIN or biometric data), access to other symbols that may not directly link to legal name and address, distinctive behavioral patterns or appearance (tattoos), social categorization (race, gender, sex and sexuality), and possession of knowledge or artifacts linked with a particular group. It is important to note that pseudonymity and anonymity are two different things. Pseudonyms can be traced back to particular social patterns, groups and other symbols or data that can betray a person’s identity.

This sort of internet utopia, even with the (in)famous TOR browser (anon internet browser), does not exist (nor may it ever exist). Even in the OSASIS anonymity is an illusion as characters build fame and notoriety through the use of pseudonyms. As is even demonstrated in the story of Ready Player One—the characters physical locations and identities are betrayed by their psuedonyms and online behavior.

Ernest Cline’s story tackles very important cultural friction that is currently occurring over the Internet. It is a digitized civil war that is taking place between Internet Service Providers, Multi-national Corporations, and National Security Intelligence groups and hackers/hactivists, open-source coders, computer scientists, and activists. The Internet is not a neutral place. Though, the original ideological projections of the Internet devised this digital “space” to be one of the free sharing of information, knowledge and communication. It has been carved up with imaginary corporate and state boarders. And these boarders are likely to be very opaque, intersect, converge and are difficult to discern. And as the surveillance report in Transparent Lives illuminates,

“…In twenty-first-century Canada, surveillance is expanding steadily as personal data flow, in unprecedented ways, between private and public bodies. The blurring between these agencies may be illustrated in many ways, but the effect of driving more surveillance is common to each case. Public and private bodies have different mandates and different modes of accountability, and personal data become vulnerable to misuse and abuse as the data streams flow in new directions.”

Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada – Trend 3

 

This is especially true when data flows over national boarders where our state laws can no longer protect the data of Canadians.

To sum up my point: we live in an era of mass and mysterious surveillance and it is incredibly problematic that we (including myself) lack the computer literacy to traverse the Internet anonymously. This is an incredibly large societal issue in the Western world (and abroad) as many of us conduct most of our work and social life over the Internet. Cline’s novel, among other things, really speaks to this issue of anonymity and surveillance. The Internet provides us with various “spaces” where we can practice sociality outside of the regular contexts of capitalistic and individualistic life.

I would like to also note that there are many places to learn computer science and coding for free:

  1. https://www.bento.io
  2. https://www.edx.org/course/introduction-computer-science-harvardx-cs50x
  3. http://www.catb.org/esr/faqs/hacker-howto.html
  4. https://anoninsiders.net/how-to-join-anonymous-1527/
  5. https://anonintelgroup.wordpress.com/2015/09/10/how-to-join-anonymous/

There are many other resources over the Internet that you will be able to explore through a Google search: including free courses and video games that teach code as you play. I am incredibly new to this world as well. If you have more sources you would like to share, please feel free to comment below. The way forward in preventing the full carving up of the Internet is to learn to become computer literate so we (those who traverse cyberspace) are able to build and protect safe and open-source spaces.


Sources:

Bennett, Colin J., Kevin D. Haggerty, David Lyon, and Valerie Steeves, eds. Transparent Lives: Surveillance in Canada. Au Press: Athabasca University, 2014.  Web. 24 Aug. 2015.

Cline, Ernest.  Ready Player One. Random House, 2011. Print.

Marx, Gary T., What’s in a Name? Some Reflections on the Sociology of Anonymity.  The Information Society, 1999.  Web. Sept 17. 2015.