This post first appeared in 2012, before our opinion of Facebook got even worse. It therefore is somewhat dated. -JU
In 1956, Isaac Asimov wrote The Naked Sun, second in a series of science fiction murder mysteries starring Earth detective Elijah Baley and his human-appearing robot partner, R. Daneel Olivaw.
I highly recommend The Naked Sun, as well as its predecessor The Caves of Steel, to any fan of mysteries or science fiction, and most especially to any fan of both.
In The Naked Sun, Elijah Baley must leave the comfortable and familiar metal man-hives of Earth for the sparsely populated Spacer world Solaria. Solaria’s population is rigidly maintained at 20,000 humans (assisted by some 200 million robots). In addition to a fine murder mystery – with deep undertones and extended meaning worthy of any mystery genre triumph – The Naked Sun serves as a thought-experiment in humanity’s future.
As opposed to the aforementioned man-hives of Earth – completely enclosed megacities where people squeeze into tiny homes, use communal bathrooms like the world is one big dormitory, and get from place to place on a complex network of “slideways” or moving sidewalks that function at higher speeds the further from the platform – Solaria is a world of intense isolation.
Indeed, no Solarian human ever enters the presence of another. They procreate, with the assistance of their robots, in vitro. Living on vast estates, they do not travel and never meet their own children. Even spouses living on the same estate do not “see” each other. All human contact has been reduced to “viewing:” holographic “trimensional images”, like the Emperor’s first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back.
The Solarians have developed an incredible phobia of coming into the presence of another human being.
Asimov had a fine hand at presenting different future societies, including ones that he personally found unworkable and even repellent, with an open mind. Baley’s reaction to the world of Solaria is at times incredulous, at times horrified. The novel’s title comes from Baley’s own agoraphobia: raised on Earth and having left the protection of the dome but once in his life, he is reduced to near catatonic fear spasms when faced with the “naked sun.” He cannot believe the Solarians live their entire lives without a single moment of human contact.
On the other hand, the Solarians present their arguments in reasoned voices. Reasoned, if tinged with a bit of extreme anti-social paranoia.
Early in the story, Baley interviews the widow of the murder victim. Since she is the only other human being within 200 miles of the corpse, she is also the prime suspect. The trimensional “viewing” commences while Gladia Delmarre is in the shower, drying herself. At one point, she steps out of the shower stall, revealing her completely nude body to Baley – who, in characteristic 1950s sci-fi hero form, leaps to his feet, upsetting his chair, and turns completely red. Afterwards, he tries to assure her his reaction was only surprise; not that he found the sight revolting or unpleasant. (Inwardly, again in ‘50s sci-fi gold, Baley cannot even think of the words to describe how he actually felt about the sight of her naked body.)
Gladia herself is embarrassed – because she thinks she has offended the Earthman. She is completely undisturbed by appearing in the raw. Because, she explains, it’s only viewing.
“But that’s exactly it. Seeing isn’t involved.” She reddened a trifle and looked down. “I hope you don’t think I’d ever do anything like that, I mean, just step out of the drier, if anyone were seeing me. It was just viewing.”
“Same thing, isn’t it?” said Baley.
“Not at all the same thing. You’re viewing me right now. You can’t touch me, can you, or smell me, or anything like that. Right now, I’m two hundred miles away from you at least. So how can it be the same thing?”
She goes on to make the key distinction plain: when Baley points out that he “sees” with his eyes, she corrects him: “No, you don’t see me. You see my image. You’re viewing me.”
Mr. Asimov didn’t know about Facebook. He died twelve years before the birth of The social network. But I think he would have recognized it immediately.
A staggering level of attention has been directed at the information we share on the internet in the past eight years. In the future, it will be no doubt be considered a part of humanity’s first, stumbling steps into the digital world: we are learning to protect our information. But put aside the immediate mental connection to scam artists and identity thieves and, of course, sexual predators.
We talk sometimes about the fact that potential employers will be able to look at everything we’ve ever posted, and everything that’s ever been posted about us. In the past, I have written a tirade or two about the phenomenon of the “Google profile.”
But take a step further away from those reflexive mental connections these words pull up for you. Think not about prospective employment, political ambitions, or credit card fraud.
Think about what you share without the slightest hint of embarrassment or modesty. Because, after all, it’s only viewing. They are only seeing your image.
I’m among those who don’t agree with Facebook’s anti-breastfeeding-pic policy. There’s nothing pornographic about it, nothing so offensive really, and if she wants to post that pic of herself that’s fine by me. My point with including that picture was this: would she do that in front of a room full of total strangers?
Backstory: that image is of a young woman named Lucy Allen, who says she used the image “to explain to women that breastfeeding and pumping at the same time helped milk production.” See, she meant for that to be viewed by other women in the context of learning something about their own breast milk.
A long fucking time ago, one of the biggest parts of the internet was a thing called anonymity. There are some people in the world who still get that, but they’re wanted by the Government of course.
Anonymity was the power of the internet for many people, and in the mid-90s I was one of ‘em. I may have said some things I’m not proud of. But you can’t tie me to those words.
Since the fall of 2001, however, most of the things I’ve said on the internet can be tied to me. Because most of them were on blogs, often with a little picture of me alongside. Just to be sure. And while I was no longer some digitized anonymous, it took a few years for that fundamental change to sink in.
I cringe when I think about some of the things I shared with anyone who cared to stumble by back then. In real life, I have always been a private person. To a fault, in fact. There’s a reason my best friend in college frequently taunted me with the words “vague and mysterious.” Another epithet I’m well-familiar with is “distant.”
But you’d never know it if you met me online.
In some ways, I can’t thank the internet enough for that. In other ways, I hate the internet and want to build a killer robot to send back in time and assassinate its mother.
We live in a world increasingly intertwined with the imagined, digital spaces we create. And we keep tying more and more knots. Social media, augmented reality. We carry the internet in our pockets. Some of us want to wear it on our face, but only if they make sexier glasses.
We no longer tune in, turn on, and drop out. We log on, check in, and opt out.
Increasingly, our children are growing up on the internet. They are not discovering it later in life, or in their early teens or just before (like I did.) It is with them very nearly from the beginning. In many ways, it depends on the parents, but even confirmed Luddites can keep the internet away from their kids only so long.
Ah, but I’m sure someone has pointed that out already. Most of these thoughts aren’t new. I did, after all, start this post out talking about a fifty-six year old science fiction novel. Other, more recent, science fiction novels have touched on these ideas as well. In the late 90s, when I was in high school, Tad Williams wrote the ridiculously long epic Otherland.
Otherland imagines a dark future, but it is not dark because its children grew up online. Rather, the net – evolved into a vast virtual reality network complete with online shopping malls that imitate the real thing, right down to the food court – is a sort of happy refuge from the filth of the real world. If you’ve got the money, anyway.
While many of the protagonists have lives you or I would recognize as normal – before the story gets kicking, anyway – many others do not. Consider Orlando Gardiner, one of the heroes. Suffering from progeria, he is a young boy who may never be a teen. His body lives in a secure home in a fortified neighborhood of the wealthy on the outskirts of a city. The city, of course, is frightening and dangerous. His parents have retreated from that world, sealing themselves away in the bunker with their affluent neighbors. If not for Orlando’s disease, which is beyond the abilities of the in-neighborhood clinic, the Gardiners would likely never leave their walled-in compound.
But Orlando’s real life is a life of the mind. While his body fails him and he wastes away, his mind soars in the realms of the net. He owns a sort of digital house, a node which he has decorated with trophies from a fully-immersive RPG somewhere between Tolkein and Robert E. Howard. As Thargor, Orlando has become one of the most famed, feared, and hated heroes of the Middle Country.
This is not World of Warcraft. Orlando is Thargor.
For Orlando Gardiner, this fully immersive net is an indescribable blessing and the only way he could ever experience much more than a hospital bed.
Very few of of us will ever suffer from – or even encounter someone who even knows someone who suffers from – progeria. Most of us can have real lives without the internet. Orlando is – even in Otherland – a very weird exception. Thing is, he’s not alone. His best friend is a girl he’s never met, who lives on the other side of the country. He doesn’t even know she’s a girl at first.
Millions of people are on the net. They have cribs like Orlando’s. They shop in the malls, and meet people in the virtual food court for virtual drinks while paying for the time to sit on the virtual benches. They carry out scientific research in vast artificial “nature” preserves. They ride virtual roller coasters and have virtual sex. (Which I imagine to be much hotter than in Demolition Man) They build kingdoms of shadow and fear out of billions of ones and zeros.
The chief villain of the story is Felix Jongleur: a man who, like Orlando, is frail and dying. But this man is nearly 200 years old, and his body has not left the warm, wet cocoon of his medical coffin for decades. He lives online, as a god in a simulation of his own design. He has not touched another human being for years.
The differences between Gardiner and Jongleur are stark and plain. But in many ways, they come down to context. In some ways, they come down to the fact that Jongleur was already a grown man when the internet happened; Orlando Gardiner grew up with it.
That picture of Lucy Allen with her boobs out is also to some extent defined by context; the context of exactly who it is who is viewing it.