I think we can all agree that the internet is a miracle. The ability to connect at a moment’s notice to people and information has become so integral to our lives that access is considered a basic human right in several countries. It’s jarring how quickly it has become so thoroughly embedded in our society – within my lifetime, and I am not so very old. It’s no wonder every single inter-generational gathering on the planet involves at least one attempted intervention to save someone from the assumed perils of too much internet.
Unplug! See real people! We’ve all become antisocial! But internet life is unbelievably rich in the social. These relationships are real even if our avatars are not.
“offgrid” by Mari Ness
Mari Ness’s “offgrid” (Three-Lobed Burning Eye #26) imagines a world where the vast majority of society spend most of their lives hooked up to the “grid” – sort of William Gibson’s cyberspace – wrapped in avatars of escalating cost and sophistication. Our hero is an assassin, hired to kill avatars – until she is hired to kill someone offgrid.
Ness’s assassin has a moment of moral conflict when she’s offered the job. “That was murder, plain and simple.” It quickly passes. Ness makes it clear that ongrid life can be just as dangerous and as damaging, even when nobody is attacking an offgrid body directly. Despite her first gut reaction to a “real murder,” the assassin accepts the target deserves it because of the ongrid harm she has done simply by encouraging bullying. “We can credit her with at least twenty-four associated deaths. At least five of those deaths involved children under twelve,” she is told.
The social mechanics of avatar-assassination are ultimately the most interesting thing about the story. What’s the point of killing an avatar if the human behind it can just put on another? Avatars, as it happens, are expensive, and unless you have very deep pockets, losing an avatar means having to downgrade to a less-sophisticated, less-prestigious one. The cost is entirely social, but no less damaging. In a world where the body behind the life is beside the point, how you present is everything. The assassin admits more than one of her targets had “suicided” in real life anyway – what’s an offgrid killing on top of that?
Ness tries to answer that question in the end, suggesting there is something more to “real murder,” though it’s not entirely convincing. The character has been established as fairly morally vacant, on or offgrid. Despite some hints of trauma in the story’s ending, the piece does a better job of pointing out the real consequences of online social lives than it does pointing out the superior value of a meat-space body. Peppered with interesting observations about online social politics, this is a piece which might have benefited from more ongrid and less offgrid time.
“Anyone with a Care for Their Image by Richard Bowes
Richard Bowes’s “Anyone With a Care for Their Image” (Uncanny Magazine #2) is all about the primacy of social politics, though the norms established by the internet have, in his future, carried over into the real world, rather than the other way around. Socialites have “an automaton they can dispatch to fulfill tiresome social obligations,” in the real world, whose experiences they stream or live blog. Despite social unrest and violence in the “real” world, these socialites only have an eye for how to best narrate these events to gain social currency (live blog viewership.)
This is a really fun piece, with an almost comical Anachronism Nouveau aesthetic set at complete odds with a society in collapse; burning buildings, political assassinations, Water Riots, and all. When the narrator’s automaton, Marquette, is attacked at the Flower Exchange, an automated Bicycle Messenger swoops by to gather her up, return her home, and escort them to the powerboat that will whisk them away, fine old brandy and fancy dolls in tow, to sit out the unrest. One pictures the aristocracy fleeing the Revolution, but the immediacy of physical harm is entirely lacking. Living at arm’s length from any kind of engagement with political reality, the narrator is concerned entirely with how these logistical moves will impact his online social presence.
Perhaps with good reason. Our narrator has a carefully-calculated approach to live blogging: he is a bystander and feels “a posture of amused despair is a more durable commodity than rage.” Feeling impotent to change the world, he settles instead for doing what maintains the biggest audience. This social currency has value: after all, Marquette’s rescue and the power boat come from the narrator’s “dear friend,” another blogger. His life might be colourful and adorned with the trappings of privilege, but that is his ticket to survival. He is not a creature of action, but a creature of society. That has its value.
“The Semaphore Society” by Kate Heartfield
One of the best stories I read last year exploring the positive impact digital social networks can have was “The Semaphore Society” by Kate Heartfield (Crossed Genres #21). In both Ness & Bowes’s stories, one is left with the sense that societies that trade exclusively in social credit are open to exploitation by unscrupulous persons, and they probably are. But Heartfield explores the ways social networks can support people, especially those who have trouble navigating social networks in physical space.
Gia has “locked-in syndrome” as the result of a brain tumour, leaving her mostly paralyzed and at the mercy of a snow-screen keyboard and keyboard-to-voice translator. Communicating with people this way is still new to her, and so slow that she is frustrated. When a friend introduces her to a message board of other snow-screen users called The Semaphore Society, she discovers tools that make communicating much easier for her. In a space where her physical body is so much less of an issue, she finds a way to help save a life.
This story demonstrates beautifully how innovative users will use new technology to fill gaps in their needs, as well as how digital social spaces can remove barriers for people with difficulties in the physical realm. Nobody admonishes Gia for spending too much time online. Yet why would anybody else have any better a reason to “unplug?” Are our able bodies really that much more important than our intellectual connections? The piece is short and simple, but it is also constructive and optimistic about current technologies and trends.