I finally got around to reading John Brunner’s prescient The Shockwave Rider (1975), a sci-fi novel many credit for breaking ground on what would later become the cyberpunk genre. Inspired by Alvin Toffler’s highly influential book Future Shock, Brunner grapples with the consequences of an Internet-like connected society on the nature of identity, power, and most importantly, information itself. (It even contains an oblique reference to the Magnavox Odyssey videogame system of the early 1970s!)
Much like Asimov’s laws of robotics, Brunner attempts to harness technology’s humanistic potential with positivistic propositions; his novel ends with two declarations for a net-connected, utopian-like information age:
“#1: That this is a rich planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.
#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know.”
Share information, save the world: This is a very 1960s conclusion to a book that has otherwise only grown more persuasively contemporary for its pessimistic view of information control. If the computers we built to control information, in response to the industrial revolution, have perversely made society post-industrial, they have also made us personally post-control. The recent Pew survey on digital privacy suggests that we have given up on controlling personal information as a society; we trade data about ourselves for the chance to share likes on Facebook. This is not an entirely trivial trade—either in what we gain or lose—but it has led to the consolidation of incredible data about ourselves in the hands of a few.
The solution in The Shockwave Rider is to make all information public. Nickie Haflinger, the computer-savvy, identity-shifting hero of the novel, creates a computer worm (a term apparently coined by Brunner) to unveil the anti-humanistic secrets of 21st century America’s power-hungry institutions (government, defense industries, large corporations, covert operations, etc.). The impetus to pull back the curtain certainly resonates with our current historical moment, in which whistleblowers and the media are revealing the depths of collusion between government and corporations post-9/11 to spy on our every digital move and collect our data for future purposes unknown.
The rather sanguine remedy celebrated by the novel, a kind of info-topia, as I’ll call it—where everyone can know everything—harbors its own questions. Is complete transparency a safeguard against powerful entities that already have material and means, and lack only message? Is personal information “protected” in an info-topia’s presumed avalanche of equitably available data? Will the similarities and differences revealed in our shared data be used to bring us together in happy community or shared oppressiveness? Or will we be carved up, separated by quantified divergence, and discriminated against?
In my one and only college economics class (mercifully), we were often told to “ignore advertising,” because marketing mucked up the ability to draw conclusions about economic forces. Information, like economics, is perhaps also too intertwined with human motivations (e.g., ideology, politics, profit) to ever be purely divined and evaluated as a “neutral” or independent entity or force. I’m not convinced our species could impartially handle such a substance, much less fashion an info-topia out of it; we would have to be gods to preserve its integrity, or to anticipate all the consequences (good and bad, intended and not) of its application.
Nevertheless, the fantasy of unfettered information does seem compelling—both in the novel and in thinking about the damage government and corporate secrets have done in our current information age. But knowledge is also a burden, and dumping it safely can be an act of self-preservation. Characters in the novel often suffer from Toffler-like “overload,” and they turn to an intriguing organization—a community, really—known as “Hearing Aid” for help. Staffed by the survivors of a catastrophic Bay Area earthquake who live off the fragmented grid of society, Hearing Aid simply listens to callers on its 24-hour hotline, which is insulated from the rest of the net’s prying ears and eyes.
Part psychological, part confessional, Hearing Aid is the info-agnostic loophole in the system, an entity that listens to information but never acts upon it in any way (although Hearing Aid violates its mission when its existence is threatened—the very definition of an info-existential problem, I suppose). If the signal can’t be stopped, to paraphrase an oft-quoted axiom from Joss Whedon’s film Serenity, perhaps it can be re-routed securely to a dead end.
A final question to ponder: Once Nickie’s worm rewrites the net to reveal its secrets, what becomes of Hearing Aid? Brunner doesn’t take the novel that far. But the very idea of Hearing Aid speaks to the need for private thoughts and private conversations—for personal information to remain personal—no matter how benevolent a society’s information culture may be. If speaking one’s mind constitutes information worthy of protection from a prying, paranoid society, what of the mind itself in a share-everything info-topia? Coercion comes in many forms. Why aren’t you sharing your knowledge? Are you anti-social? How can you resist the greater good? That’s a different dystopian novel, one in which Brunner’s two, well-meaning propositions slide from humanitarian benefit into mental conformity and social tyranny. At the opposite, extreme ends of information and privacy control, there is no place for the self to hide.