Days of Future Present
From time to time, it is important to remember that we are living in the future. At one point in time, the year 2001 was a science fiction vision of the imagination, refashioned time and again in the image of various writers, filmmakers, and prognosticators. Even those who are not familiar with science fiction, indeed even those that claim to hate the genre, cannot have escaped awareness of at the very least the film version of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001.
One of the myriad reasons such stocktaking is important is that it helps us evaluate our current situation against the possibilities that remained endless in the past. We have the luxury of hindsight to marvel at our own naiveté as well as pat ourselves on the back for achievements even science fiction couldn’t quite imagine. And, in this strange prescience of present, we can look ahead to our own futures, the possibilities of which are ever-yet endless and make out own predictions.
What those who ignore or revile science fiction may not be aware of is that the genre, at its best, is more than just the sum of its technological marvels and action adventures. Even the most thoughtful and haughty SF fan (the term “sci-fi” is seen as derogatory to the genre’s true adherents) would be remiss to deny that these features weren’t some of the initial attractions. SF generally attracts technophiles who love newfangled gadgets and a good adventurous melodrama.
One of the real strengths of the field is that science fiction is also social fiction. Not only are the technological advances of tomorrow imagined, but so too are the possible social worlds in which these inventions will exist. The social dynamic is always one of the most intriguing elements of any good SF tale.
In 1984, a date that doesn’t ignore its own irony, William Gibson’s Neuromancer helped launch a whole new sub-genre of science fiction which came to be known as “cyberpunk.” Working in tandem with such authors as Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, John Shirley, and a small cadre of others, Gibson introduced the concept of “cyberspace,” a virtual reality of computer networks that existed parallel to our own everyday world and which humans interacted with regularly. At the time, “cyberspace” was little more than a skeleton idea, but by the year 2001, all the various forces of media and imagination have conspired to flesh it out into something much more complete. Today, even those who would not pick up a science fiction novel to read are probably well acquainted with the Internet and have heard the term “cyberspace.” At least in terms of the technological advances we’ve made, we currently live in the future of less than twenty years ago.
From the beginnings of the cyberpunk movement to the advent of the Internet as a household appliance, cyberspace has captured the imaginations, and the dollars, of more than just a few SF geeks. It has revolutionized industry, for better or for worse, changed the way we relate to media, allowed us to communicate and interact with the globe on an unprecedented scale, and enabled business, entertainment, and artistic explorations in a way that was hitherto impossible.
Amidst this heady sea of swirling change, running at a rate that was often too rapid for any one individual to comprehend fully, speculation about the future escalated as well. Not only were we living in the past’s future, but we were now excited to re-envision our new future as each advance pushed things further and further into uncharted territories.
Ironic, then, that it was also William Gibson who published a short story titled “The Gernsback Continuum.” The title referring to Hugo Gernsback, an early publisher of pulp science fiction, the story concerned the wild fantasies of the post-WWII technology boom. Gibson glibly reminds us that folks back then thought that within twenty or thirty years, we’d all be using moving sidewalks that rose into the sky, getting to work in flying cars, and colonizing the moons of Saturn. In effect, we’d be living like the Jetsons. Gibson’s own imagined future in Neuromancer is never definitely pinned down to one particular date, but in it the world is ruled by mega-corporations, the streets resemble a scene from Bladerunner, and a post-authoritarian anarchy dominates everyday life. And yet, Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum” nudges us, we never got the Jetsons, so it might be a bit presumptuous to expect the world of his Sprawl any time soon.
Peter Ludlow’s new book, Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias, deals with the topics of people who believe that we’re on the verge of Gibson’s techno-libertarian future. And contrary to what you non-SF readers might think, there are a lot of such individuals, and they’re powerful. Inspired by the glut of futurist writings that accompanied the Internet boom of the mid-90s, Ludlow has compiled a group of writings that discuss the potential social issues of the impending future.
Included in this volume are discussions on the rights of free speech and total privacy in the Internet age, the use of encryption technologies to get around the impositions of government, the possible obsolescence of the nation-state, self-governance and community law within cyberspace, the potential for human transcendence of organic life, and the viability of utopian visions of the future. All in all, simultaneously heady and far-fetched stuff. Yet, as Ludlow points out, these are the concerns of some of the major players in the technological community, those who fuel the information economy and continually provide us with gadget advance after gadget advance. If they seem like a new breed of science fiction stories, they are, but like science fiction before it, these are also social predictions as well, made by people who might have more than the usual influence on determining social direction.
Ludlow’s aim is not to delve into the technological capacities for realizing any one of these dreams. His is a social scientific mission. Instead of putting in blueprints and plans for implementing new technologies or even discussing the action plans of the various businesses who might actually develop new technologies, Ludlow presents the tracts and manifestoes of self-styled visionaries. In part, this is because the mechanical capacity to achieve these developments is entirely secondary. It is the dreams themselves that is more important, and more interesting. At least as far as the realm of social science is concerned, it is the ideology that is most revealing.
So what do we wind up with here? Well, we start out with the much-discussed “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” by Electronic Freedom Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow. There’s also Timothy C. May’s “The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto” and Eric Hughes’s “A Cypherpunk’s Manifesto.”
These short, infamous pieces of hyperbole are then followed by a whole slew of pieces written to counteract the rampant enthusiasm and idealism of their authors. There are more thoughtful pieces later by authors such as Dorothy Denning, Jedediah Purdy, and Hakim Bey. Some are obviously written with fanatical zeal and fantastical visions in mind. Others are purely reactionary and argumentative. Still others are more complex and discursive, inviting a more complex treatment than is allowed here.
In fact, because of the nature of this collection, Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias is a difficult book to summarize or analyze. Article A is presented and Articles B, C, and D either refute or analyze Article A, or Articles A, B, C, and D all take a different spin on the same subject. Essentially, Ludlow is pointing out that an entirely radical social perspective on governance and freedom rests behind the more mundane facts of the Internet explosion. A group of close-knit programmers, writers, artists, and businessmen (and almost all are men), who have come to be known collectively as the “digerati” (which, just so you know, doesn’t come up as a suspect word in Microsoft’s spell-check) and have coalesced around the hyperbolic fantasies of Wired Magazine, together have envisioned a future where the government of nation-states has been circumvented by global networks. Anarchy is the order of the future, cyberspace is a sovereign entity, and communities will be self-governed and virtual rather than real life. In effect, they argue that we’re heading rapidly towards the vision that Gibson and others so eloquently presented in cyberpunk science fiction. And they relish the oncoming changes with the dedication of Star Trek fans at a convention. In order to be balanced and show both sides of this coin, Ludlow also includes a decent run of articles that either condemn these notions as dangerous or simply refute their possibility.
Ludlow is presenting this text as both a collection and an academic textbook. One of his primary concerns is to introduce students to these issues and the arguments used by both sides. In that respect, this is an admirable work of collected primary texts rather than a secondary, dry analysis. On the other hand, Ludlow himself may as well not be present. In his preface and introductory chapter, Ludlow says enough that he obviously finds these topics fascinating. He also more or less comes down on the side of the digerati, implying that he believes at least some of what they’re saying is feasible and possibly worthwhile. There’s also the matter of the arrangement of the articles. While the bombastic claims are presented first and their detractors are presented next, each section in the book is concluded with a piece that is finally more even-keeled and middle of the road in its approach. The last two pieces, “Temporary Autonomous Zones” as excerpted from Hakim Bey’s underground classic book of the same name and an interview with Noam Chomsky on libertarian social policies, reveal that even by not saying anything himself, Ludlow’s affinities are clearly with the futurists.
If there’s one thing missing from this book, it’s a sense of irony. Perhaps it would have best ended with Gibson’s “Gernsback” short story. Many of these pieces were written around 1996, at a time when the Internet was more or less brand new as a social phenomenon and the horizons seemed boundless. Even five years later, we are already able to look back with hindsight at our own recent naiveté. The more contemporary pieces, particularly Mark Dery’s “Bit Rot”, adopt a tone that is more balanced to the actual practical ways in which the Internet has, and hasn’t, affected our lives. The unbounded new frontiers have started to reveal their edges. Wired Magazine no longer concentrates on an Extropian future, but now looks back to five years ago with some nostalgia and not a little regret for things that didn’t occur. And it should be clear to anyone who has prior interest in libertarian anarcho-capitalism that these ideas aren’t new or exclusive to the computer age. Even with the renewed vigor, and influx of capital, the supporters of this viewpoint have a long history, something that all of the contributors to this volume seem to forget.
As an example of the ways in which new technologies inspire us to rethink our social boundaries, this book presents an excellent window into the yays and nays of the possible future. Whether or not it is probable is likely to be secondary as well. Hopefully, when students are assigned their copies of Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias, they’ll reflect on their own youthful idealism and the giddy noise made about the Internet as they were growing up.
Perhaps then they might get the irony of living in the future.