If you want to build plausible dystopian fictional worlds, a useful habit may be to step away from social media for a few days at a time.
The old debate seems never-ending: was Orwell right, or will Huxley’s vision become reality? One answer is “yes”. It’s a question of timing.
Nation-states have attempted to control citizens since the beginning of centrally governed societies, but brute force inspires resistance. After World War II, mass psychological manipulation (the “pleasure principle”) delivered mainly via television became manifest in a phenomenon called “consumerism”. Here we trace a path from the birth of the Web to our present-day predicament.
Circa 1994, the World Wide Web arrived. Advertising morphed into banner ads, popup windows, and marketers’ new mantra: “information wants to be free“. What was once a resource for hackers and scientists became a tool for consumerism. Thus was born the Silicon Valley hype machine.
In the late 2000s, network effects shifted the Huxleyan engine into a higher gear. Facebook became omnipresent. Google became a monopoly. Social norms began to shift. At first people complained about oversharing and TMI. Soon everyone was playing the Internet popularity game, as Facebook surfaced relatives you wouldn’t bother to call and peers you barely remembered. Tumblr spurred GIF collecting as form of a mainstream meme culture; Twitter was for ranting at sympathetic strangers.
Silicon Valley’s confidence game hides in plain sight: free = surveillance. Every tweet and conversation is recorded, saved, bundled, sold.
“Building an internet where we didn’t have to pay for anything, because our attention was going to be the commodity that was traded, is one of the most destructive and shortsighted decisions that we could have made.” – Ethan Zuckerman
Circa 2011, another shift occurred. Web 2.0 meant that modern web pages became “asynchronous” — they send and receive data without needing you to refresh the page. This also means they can run programs and collect data without your knowledge or intervention.
Soon after his passing, Steve Jobs’ mythical legacy began. A generation of kids’ parents — and crucially, young girls — became convinced that they needed iPhones. By 2015, seventy-three percent of teens had access to a smartphone. Where young girls run, young boys follow; an entire generation of teenagers has been indocrinated into living through social media.
At the same time, nation-states commenced cyberwar.
In 2013, Edward Snowden released a cataclysmic cache of documents about government surveillance. Yet Facebook, Google and Twitter grew apace.
Between 2013 and 2016, government contractors and research-based firms like Strategic Communication Laboratories Group and Cambridge Analytica quietly amassed information on millions of Americans, mainly via Facebook and Internet advertising data.
The presidential campaign that led to victory in 2016 openly engaged in an information operation named Project Alamo. It wasn’t a political campaign as much as marketing and persuasion on a national scale. The campaign’s themes were emotional pushbuttons of the advertising industry: fear, greed, and narcissism. Invading our screens primarily through social media for the first time in history, we all witnessed a new evolution of the pleasure principle, designed to appeal solely to a specific demographic niche. Issues themselves were a sideshow. Every tweet and headline further polarised, multiplied and amplified the opinions of millions, yet rarely ever changed minds.
Orwell creeps back in: Project Alamo was well-known for using Facebook advertising to engage in several voter suppression attempts, mainly profiling and targeting young white liberals, young women, and African-Americans.
Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.
Side note: the same groups that designed the Brexit campaign were also key architects of the winning 2016 American digital strategy.
2018: the current U.S. president has attempted several nationwide Muslim bans, and is using all possible means to deport Mexican-Americans. The current Department of Justice has decriminalised hate groups, oversees a boom in the private prison industry, threatens and harasses African-Americans, and menaces immigrants under the rhetorical pretenses of “law and order”, “pacifying gang violence” and “cracking down on drugs”.
From Day One of Trump’s campaign, he pushed heavily for a crackdown on undocumented immigration, and once in office, Trump ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ramp up its enforcement efforts.
For years, ICE has outsourced the bulk of its detention operations to the private sector.
Last year (2016), then-Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson followed the Justice Department’s footsteps by asking his department to look at its own use of private prisons. What resulted was a sweeping assessment of their use and an accounting that showed some 65% of people ICE detained were kept in for-profit facilities.
The current occupier of the American White House is a known sexual predator, as are several members of his administration. He spent the entire 2016 campaign gaslighting and attempting gender-based shame tactics against his female opponent, using Twitter as his megaphone. “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing… Twitter for Mr. Trump. And Facebook for fundraising” said Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale.
He is also in perpetual re-election mode. In addition to wielding personal social media data of over 240 million Americans, the former reality star and real-estate vulture bilionaire presently has powers of quasi-state media, immigration authorities, technologically sophisticated hate groups, police and military force at his disposal.
Orwell and Huxley have now joined hands.
Huxley was right, and Orwell was right, in that order; but they’ve joined hands now, and the old dystopian vision is just the beginning.
Recent events involving AltSciFi — an informal group of artists and techies building an independent sci-fi zine project — show how old arguments about “Orwell verus Huxley” no longer even ask the right questions. It’s no longer rebellious artists versus the authorities, or the people versus The Government.
It’s now artists versus artists, and “the people” versus anything that isn’t a massive corporate brand.
This internalisation and weaponisation of opinion arises due to a noxous blend of narcissism, carelessness and gullibility that can be considered the dark triad of social media. Here our scope tightens from the international level to the scale of small groups, private individuals and independent artists.
Hostility to Self-Published Work, and Gratitude for Empty “Success”
Over the past three years, and especially this past year or so, you may have seen prototypes for an indie sci-fi project posted on Reddit.
It’s fascinating to see how essentially any self-published or independent work is downvoted and/or trolled, whereas Hollywood press releases are happily posted and received hundreds (or thousands) of upvotes.
Every now and then, someone comes to Reddit to thank “you guys” (as women are clearly nonexistent on Reddit) for helping them get reviews or sales on Amazon. But no one ever posts actual numbers. It’s almost like Reddit is a self-confirming echo chamber where you go for attention — then go back “thanking” people in order to get a second round of attention. The best echo chamber is a hollow one, as are most “success stories” posted there.
Irrelevance: How Frustrated Artists Become Copyright Cannibals
In the “attention economy” of social media, artists have fallen prey to two dynamics: the idea of “staying relevant”, and the urge to become mobs of pseudo-legalistic copyright trolls.
“Relevance” is a quasi-marketing term that describes artists’ obsession for keeping “top of mind” awareness in others. Do people think of you when they see pretty-yet-redundant Blade Runner 2049 fan art? Do they remember your username when you post cute new anime sketches on Twitter, or remind them about your painfully earnest Youtube art tutorials and struggling Patreon account?
In reality, “relevance” is meaningless for independent artists. It’s a marketing metric for celebrities and giant corporations that saturate multiple media (TV, radio, etc.) to gain “mindshare” using million-dollar ad campaigns.
On the Internet, we’ve been indoctrinated to become complicit in two parts of a confidence game: 1. Everything should be free; and 2. Attention is as good as payment.
1. In a capitalist world, nothing is free. “Information wants to be free” ultimately means the only people who make money are the biggest corporations that can survive with razor-thin profit margins. In other words, Amazon/Google/Apple/Facebook/Twitter create a de facto cartel that controls practically all consumer information flows across the planet. And literally any government or group that wants your personal data can easily buy it. Big Brother and Big Friend are now one and the same.
2. Attention doesn’t pay for bread on your table and a roof over your head. Artists live in a trap of their own creation: they react blindly against the idea of “working for exposure”, and then burn thousands of hours playing the social media game in order to stay “relevant” (in other words, throwing away time and effort in exchange for “exposure”).
The Dark Triad of Social Media: Narcissism, Carelessness, Gullibility
The “best” narcissists cultivate a carefully designed persona and use emotionally manipulative tactics to mobilise their followers. Rather than corruption and suppression from outside, this is corrosion and repression from within. Struggling artists frustrated by their own irrelevance can thereby “win” at social media by acting like copyright trolls; they “protect” their gullible flock against independent projects designed by artists, to help artists. This happened recently to the AltSciFi project.
Here’s the short version. See if you can spot the pattern:
One malevolent egomaniac didn’t like that her artwork was re-posted on Twitter with attribution, rather than retweeted as she preferred (her original tweet contained perhaps-racist wording that was probably unintentional). Instead of asking for a retweet, she tried to send a mob of her Twitter followers; that was denied by blocking her and anyone who tried to pile on in her “defense”.
So she waited for months until another artist on Twitter found our project, and thus was born a slander campaign about “stealing art” that nearly destroyed the project — before it was ever marketed or promoted to the public (outside of requests for feedback on Reddit).
The entire slander campaign centred on three or four pages on a Github test site that had functioning PayPal links — out of at least twelve pages. On Github (a site for web development and programming projects). That few outside of Reddit had probably ever seen. And we have no inventory to sell. We exist to help artists sell their work; that’s explicitly how our site is designed.
We even had a few links out of hundreds of Tumblr posts, and most of those didn’t even work yet. If you clicked on them, they literally didn’t work. The project has a few paying subscribers from Reddit (“thanks guys!”), but the project won’t be “profitable” for at least a few years based on subscription revenue.
We’re an informal group of artists and techies, obviously not some nefarious “art stealing” operation. But the very fine people of Twitter and Facebook ran a lovely slander campaign anyway, like a bunch of overcaffeinated, malignant tweens cosplaying a proper group of grown-up copyright trolls.
Until recently, a goal of AltSciFi was to amass artists and fans to fund and produce an independent, authentic Ghost in the Shell film. You can find several blog entries on AltSciFi WordPress that describe various scenarios in which we can make this happen.
In 2017, Hollywood released a bastardisation of Ghost in the Shell’s source material that whitewashed the main protagonist, who is Japanese. Perhaps in a moment of foreshadow, it was dismaying to see many artists on Twitter praising the 2017 film’s visuals while ignoring its blatant racism.
It was particularly harrowing to see one artist’s work on the film in particular. That artist will not be directly mentioned here; needless to say, their name will forever be attached to the $110 million Hollywood disaster that is now a hallmark in the Asian-American fight against racism.
Art and politics are intertwined. Asian-Americans made it clear that Ghost in the Shell 2017 was racist and wrong from the start. The artists involved turned a blind eye, and in doing so, chose racism. Now, which artists spread false social-media rumours about AltSciFi and made threats? Surprise! That Ghost in the Shell 2017 concept artist was one. Mister Moral Outrage.
The other artist, who began the Twitter rage-mob, has a beautiful and unique illustrative style (this is a mild overstatement: her approach combines loud colours, fashion sketches and video-game character design). Unfortunately, that style includes painting dark brown skin on anime characters who have stereotypically white features, and clothing them in Japanese-style kimono.
A pattern emerges. Yes, you’re right: the pattern is problematic source material that appropriates Asian imagery without regard for the culture itself.
The mob-starter’s excuse when confronted for believing and spreading false rumours was: “it’s your job to contact me. It’s not my job to check facts.”
Remember the malevolent egomaniac from a few paragraphs ago, the one spreading toxic gossp? Well, the easiest way to end a gossip campaign is to look for facts before making any conclusions. Instead, the gossip grew with each repetition, hardened and ossified into a bona fide art-stealing conspiracy theory.
So, no, darling, it’s always your job to check facts, known as “basic adult critical thinking.” Likewise, it’s always an artist’s job to research and talk to people of the ethnicities whom the artist wants to portray.
The combination of narcissism and carelessness is turned into a weapon by the average person’s gullibility. In the first incident, the sign of a toxic narcissist was the failed attempt to unleash a Twitter mob, followed by months spent licking a wounded ego while waiting for another opportunity. The telltale sign of a second narcissist was the willingness to immediately feign “abuse” (as you can read about here) when she obviously and embarrassingly didn’t even know what the terms mean. Her malleable and gullible Twitter followers were thus transformed into a mindless horde. It really is that easy for a narcissist to do — and far easier than focusing on creating great art that anyone actually wants to pay you for.
Now, one of her unfortunate followers even filed a spurious DMCA takedown notice, thereby exposing herself by lying in a publicly posted, legally binding document. That is the true dark side of this scenario and many similar ones: the malevolent egomaniac and toxic narcissist keep their hands clean, and their gullible social media “friend” (or sympathetic stranger) is placed in an unfortunate and precarious position.
This situation clarifies the reality that the AltSciFi project isn’t about social media popularity, indie artists’ profit margins or even a particular aesthetic (and definitely not Twitter-level anime art).
AltSciFi isn’t about “inclusion.” It’s about using science fiction to imagine a future where human beings are no longer excluded by racism, homophobia, religious hatred or xenophobic violence. And one in which egomaniacal narcissism, tribalistic gullibility and weaponised carelessness are no longer seen as a viable alternative to basic critical thinking.
All humans are human. Art is political. So is science fiction. And so is AltSciFi.
Information wants to be free, but…
The lesson in all this is that the core purposes of the Web have been inverted. “Information wants to be free” said Stewart Brand famously, but now, a handful of companies control practically all expression on the World Wide Web. Artists are now playing copyright troll against other artists. Fans are now either mouthpieces for giant entertainment companies, and/or gladly hand away their privacy and personal data to surveillance programs disguised as advertising. Meanwhile, everyone is desperately distracted by panhandling for Likes, Retweets, Reblogs and Upvotes.
This is the inevitability of dystopia, and it’s happening right now.
If you want to write plausible near-future fiction, here is a great place to start. Orwell and Huxley could never have imagined a reality in which the civilian population would so thoroughly internalise their own oppression and regurgitate it as entertainment.
Now ask yourself what role you play, and what you intend to do about it.
“Information wants to be free,” said Stewart Brand.
“…but your time should not,” replied Steve Wozniak.
Hologram Steve Jobs steps from the shadows of the afterlife to address throngs of fans and journalists at CES 2020. Faded blue jeans and black turtleneck appear as real as the whispered revolution that has obsessed the imaginations of all who eagerly await the fulfillment of their dreams.
“You’ve seen the demo.” The inimitable voice of Hologram Jobs easily commands the world’s undivided attention, ghostly pale hand gesturing to a giant projection screen playing silently in the background. “Now, we’re bringing sci-fi to reality.”
A hush falls over the voices and minds of all who strain to hear each syllable in the standing room-only congregation.
The presentation is brief. Hologram Jobs has taken on the full strength of a messiah in post-corporeal form, looming over the audience, conjuring futuristic illusions in the auditorium’s resonant space. “The future begins now,” Jobs concludes, triumphantly holding the iPhone Air aloft. Its activated backlight leaves the crowd awash in pure white illumination as the holographic apparition dims in return to the enlightenment of nothingness.
Steve Wozniak rolls out on his Segway and stands in the front row, gathering the faithful. “My new iPhone Air is insanely great!” Woz proclaims, tugging the transparent rectangular slab from a worn-out old jeans pocket. Tapping ice-blue buttons, sliding fingertips across the slippery-smooth surface, the phone comes alive under the ancient wizard’s touch. “Jony says we’re going for holography in the iPhone 11s, and Tim wants to put them in your contact lenses.”
The enthralled crowd breathes in unison: “Revolutionary.” Online orders for the iPhone Air break all sales records.