Category Archives: corporation

two novels revisited

Near future science fiction is a reflexive art: the present embellished to the point of transformation that, in turn, influences how we envision, and eventually create our future. It is not accurate—far from it—but there is power in determining the vocabulary we use to discuss a future that seems possible, or even probable. I read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in 2000 and thought it was a great read back then. I was twenty-five, the internet was tanking, but the online games were going strong and the Metaverse seemed so close. The Metaverse is an avatar inhabited digital world—the Internet on ‘roids—with extremely high levels of interactivity enabled by the combination of vast computing power, 3-D tracking gloves (think Minority Report), directional headphones, and wraparound goggles that project a fully immersive experience in front of your eyes. This is the technophilic dream: a place where physicality matters less than the ability to manipulate the code. If you control the code, you can make your avatar do just about anything.

Now, five years later, I’ve reread Snow Crash. It continues to be relevant. The depiction of a fractured, corporatized society and of the gulf between rich and poor are more true now than they were five years ago. But there is a special resonance with one idea in particular: the Metaverse. The Metaverse is what many people dream the Internet will eventually become. The Metaverse is, as much as anything, a place to hang out. It’s also a place to buy ‘space’ to build a house, a place for ads to be thrown at you while you are ‘goggled in,’ a place for people to trade information. In 2000, in reality, you would have a blog and chat with your friends on AIM. It didn’t have the same presence as an avatar in the Metaverse, where facial features can communicate as much information as the voice transmission. Even games, like Everquest, didn’t have the same culture as the Metaverse, because they were games, with goals and advancement based on game rules. But now we have Second Life. Second Life isn’t about that—it is a social place. No goals. See and be seen. Make your avatar look the way you want. Buy and build. Sell and produce your own digital culture. Share pictures. Share your life. This is closer to the Metaverse than ever, but I hope that doesn’t mean we’ll get corporate franchise burbclaves as well. Well, at least any more than there already are.

I also reread The Diamond Age. This is a story about society in the age of nanotech and the power of traditional values in an environment of post-materialism. When everything is possible through nanotech, humanity retreats to fortresses of bygone tradition to give life structure and meaning. In the post-nation-state society described in the book, humans live in “phyles,” groups of people with like thoughts and values bound together by will and rules of society. Phyles are separated from each other by geography, wealth, and status; phyle borders are vigorously protected by visible and invisible defenders. This separation of groups by ideology seems especially pertinent in light of the continuing divergence of political affiliation in the US. We live in a politically bifurcated society; it is not difficult to draw parallels between the Red state/Blue state distinction, and the phyles of New Atlantis, Hindustani, and the Celestial Kingdom.
The story focuses on a girl, Nell, and her book, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. The Primer is her guide through a difficult and dangerous life. Her Primer is scientifically advanced enough that it would, if we had it today, appear to be magic. The Primer is aware of its surroundings, and aware of the girl’s position in the surroundings. It is capable of determining relationships and decorating them with the trappings of ‘story’. The Primer narrates the story using the voice of a distant actor, who is on call, connected through the media system (again, the Internet but so much more). The Primer answers any questions Nell asks, expounds and expands on any part of the story she is curious about until she fully satisfies her curiosity. It is a perpetually self-improving, self-generating networked storybook, with one important key: it requires a real human’s input to narrate the words that appear on the page. Without a human voice behind it, it doesn’t have enough emotion to hold a person’s interest. Even in a world of lighter than air buildings and nanosite generated islands, tech can’t figure out how to make a non-human voice convey delicate emotion.
There are common threads in the two novels that are crystal clear. Stephenson illluminates the near future with an ambivalent light. Society is fragile and prone to collapse. The network is likely to be monopolized and overrun with advertising. The social fabric, instead of being interwoven with multiethnic thread, will simply be a geographic patchwork of walled enclaves competing with each other. Corporations (minus governments) will be the ultimate rulers of the world—not just the economic part of it, but the cultural part as well. This is a future I don’t want to live in. And here is where Stephenson is doing us a service: by writing the narrative that leads to this future, he is giving us signs so that we can work against its development. Ultimately, his novels are about the power of human will to work through and above technology to forge meaning and relationships. And that’s a lesson that will always be relevant.

corporate creep

T-Rex by merfam
smile for the network

A short article in the New York Times (Friday March 31, 2006, pg. A11) reported that the Smithsonian Institution has made a deal with Showtime in the interest of gaining an “active partner in developing and distributing [documentaries and short films].” The deal creates Smithsonian Networks, which will produce documentaries and short films to be released on an on-demand cable channel. Smithsonian Networks retains the right of first refusal to “commercial documentaries that rely heavily on Smithsonian collection or staff.” Ostensibly, this means that interviews with top personnel on broad topics is ok, but it may be difficult to get access to the paleobotanist to discuss the Mesozoic era. The most troubling part of this deal is that it extends to the Smithsonian’s collections as well. Tom Hayden, general manager of Smithsonian Networks, said the “collections will continue to be open to researchers and makers of educational documentaries.” So at least they are not trying to shut down educational uses of the these public cultural and scientific artifacts.
Except they are. The right of first refusal essentially takes the public institution and artifacts off the shelf, to be doled out only on approval. “A filmmaker who does not agree to grant Smithsonian Networks the rights to the film could be denied access to the Smithsonian’s public collections and experts.” Additionally, the qualifications for access are ill-defined: if you are making a commercial film, which may also be a rich educational resource, well, who knows if they’ll let you in. This is a blatant example of the corporatization of our public culture, and one that frankly seems hard to comprehend. From the Smithsonian’s mission statement:

The Smithsonian is committed to enlarging our shared understanding of the mosaic that is our national identity by providing authoritative experiences that connect us to our history and our heritage as Americans and to promoting innovation, research and discovery in science.

Hayden stated the reason for forming Smithsonian Networks is to “provide filmmakers with an attractive platform on which to display their work.” Yet, it was clearly stated by Linda St. Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Smithsonian, “if you are doing a one-hour program on forensic anthropology and the history of human bones, that would be competing with ourselves, because that is the kind of program we will be doing with Showtime On Demand.” Filmmakers are not happy, and this seems like the opposite of “enlarging our shared understanding.” It must have been quite a coup for Showtime to end up with stewardship of one of America’s treasured archives.
The application of corporate control over public resources follows the long-running trend towards privatization that began in the 80’s. Privatization assumes that the market, measured by profit and share price, provides an accurate barometer of success. But the corporate mentality towards profit doesn’t necessarily serve the best interest of the public. In “Censoring Culture: Contemporary Threats to Free Expression” (New Press, 2006), an essay by André Schiffrin outlines the effects that market orientation has had on the publishing industry:

As one publishing house after another has been taken over by conglomerates, the owners insist that their new book arm bring in the kind off revenue their newspapers, cable television networks, and films do….

To meet these new expectations, publishers drastically change the nature of what they publish. In a recent article, the New York Times focused on the degree to which large film companies are now putting out books through their publishing subsidiaries, so as to cash in on movie tie-ins.

The big publishing houses have edged away from variety and moved towards best-sellers. Books, traditionally the movers of big ideas (not necessarily profitable ones), have been homogenized. It’s likely that what comes out of the Smithsonian Networks will have high production values. This is definitely a good thing. But it also seems likely that the burden of the bottom line will inevitably drag the films down from a public education role to that of entertainment. The agreement may keep some independent documentaries from being created; at the very least it will have a chilling effect on the production of new films. But in a way it’s understandable. This deal comes at a time of financial hardship for the Smithsonian. I’m not sure why the Smithsonian didn’t try to work out some other method of revenue sharing with filmmakers, but I am sure that Showtime is underwriting a good part of this venture with the Smithsonian. The rest, of course, is coming from taxpayers. By some twist of profiteering logic, we are paying twice: once to have our resources taken away, and then again to have them delivered, on demand. Ironic. Painfully, heartbreakingly so.