Whose Future is it Anyway?
Technology surrounds us. It is difficult to find a room in the modern world that lacks a screen designed to grab our attention, ready to swallow passers-by in a portal to the version of reality present in the programming on display. Electronic devices are so convenient that we often do not consider how our screen time affects our brains; the subliminal messaging and inception of ideas not our own is covered by the hints of dopamine our brains feed us to reward us for “interacting” with the world. Our perception of time and events can be confused and drastically changed by media, as explored in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” which features a book that doubles as a labyrinth prompting the question, “What does a book (which was once a new technology itself enabled by the printing press) that contains all pasts, presents, and futures look like?” My answer is the internet/virtual reality, and in this research report I will examine how technology and future literature influences our perceptions of the world, allowing users/readers to create for themselves their own pasts, presents, and futures and what these alternate realities tell us about our society.
In Ready Player One, the main character, teenager Wade Watts, lives in a world that is identifiably post-apocalyptic, as it is stricken by climate change and a lack of resources that drives the masses into using an alternate reality video game simulator known as the O.A.S.I.S as a form of escapism. The plot of the novel centers on an Easter egg hunt for clues to solve a puzzle left by Halliday, the reclusive inventor of the O.A.S.I.S, after his death. Halliday was a lifelong gamer and thus, all the necessary keys to winning the challenge can be found in the media that he considered to be part of his own “canon” as the egg-hunter or “gunters” refer to it. Kids like Wade, as well as adults and entire corporations, take part in the hunt, as the winner is to be given control of the simulation’s future—which influences untold millions of people—and riches beyond imagining. Inside the O.A.S.I.S, players can choose an avatar of any race, gender, or species (if they prefer fantasy or sci-fi characters from popular culture), that causes the “lines of distinction between a person’s real identity and that of their avatar…to blur” (Cline 60). The problem becomes one of how what Cline’s novel says about identity through the introduction of Halliday’s canon and how the canon reproduces a specific identity.
The identity that Ready Player One’s Easter egg hunt seeks to replicate according to Megan Amber Condis is that of a white male (16). Condis notes that, while “at first glance, the founding of an alternative, popular cultural canon seems like a great equalizer” since Halliday’s research content is widely available for free or cheap, it quickly becomes apparent that Halliday’s “pop culture ‘syllabus’ embedded within Ready Player One imagines the gaming subculture as almost exclusively white and male” (7, 9). Halliday’s canon is based on the media that he enjoyed throughout his life, and is meant to “essentially asks his fans to re-live his youth via his favorite fiction, movies, television shows, comics, and video games in the hopes that these experiences will shape their perspectives on gamer culture into something that more or less resembles his own” (6). One of the challenges that Halliday tasks gunters with is to play the role of a character in an interactive film called a “flicksync” (Cline 108-12). The player must get every line of dialogue correct, earning bonus points for using accurate inflection and veracious taking on of the role, to progress in the hunt. The role chosen for the player is David Lightman (Matthew Broderick’s character in the film WarGames) (Cline 108). Condis notes that “a successful playthrough…requires more than mere knowledge of plot or even the scripted lines. [It] directly reward[s] identification with the young, straight, white male [protagonist]” of the film (12). Throughout the book, knowledge is required of media that is overwhelmingly written or performed by white males (Condis 9-10). The overall result of this according to Condis is “how the embodiment of gaming subculture in the pop culture canon described by the novel recreates the hierarchical structures of constructs like gender and race” (16). Essentially, what on the surface seems like a heroic fight to keep an online virtual reality technology free for people of all nationalities and creeds requires the talents of only one identity that is shaped through Halliday’s challenges.
The idea of reality being shaped by the vision of a specific group is also explored in William Gibson’s “The Gernsback Continuum.” The narrator begins seeing “semiotic ghosts. Fragments of the mass dream” of a subset of Americans raised on pop culture (37). Architectural styles, inventions from sci-fi movies, and impractical airplanes that the narrator recognizes as incapable of flight pass by in front of him as he questions whether his reality is his own. Travelling late at night he sees a vision of “a dream Tucson thrown up out of the collective yearning of an era,” populated by “children of Dialta Downes's `80- that-wasn't; they were Heirs to the Dream (49-50). The future he sees is homogenous, representative of a “white, blond” and likely blue-eyed peoples’ reality, and it is disorienting to him (50). When the narrator calls his friend to relay his experience the prescription his friend offers is just to go watch more TV, or in other words, to replace one fiction with another (57). The narrator jumps between different visions of what the world is based on what ideology is winning out in the mass conscious.
Another example of time being erratic can be found In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths,” wherein the narrator is searching for a book written by his ancestor that deals with the “abysmal problem of time,” namely that for every moment and choice, an endlessly branching future and past exist where each choice was chosen (49, 53). It is revealed that the book itself is a labyrinth, a common model for how alternative futures can work. Its forking paths symbolize “an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel” as it seeks to embrace “all possibilities of time” (53). Reality then becomes subjective, the choice an actor makes at an exact moment colors his perceptions of reality. The narrator discovers this himself: “Then I reflected that everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. Centuries of centuries and only in the present do things happen; countless men in the air, on the face of the earth and the sea, and all that really is happening is happening to me” (6). Those last words, “all the really is happening is happening to me” can be chilling in the context of the digital age where people can choose their information stream.
The modern user of technology, given the almighty power to shape their own information diet and thus their own reality, can convince themselves that they live in a branch of time unique to them, where only what they perceive matters. As I continue this essay in the final exam, I will analyze how different sources of information can craft isolated and specific worldviews as people become locked inside an “echochamber” that serves as a feedback loop reaffirming their own perceptions of the world.
Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. Random House UK, 2016.
Condis, Megan Amber. “Playing the Game of Literature: Ready Player One, the Ludic Novel, and the Geeky “Canon” of White Masculinity.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 39, no. 2, Winter 2016, pp. 1-19, 10.2979/jmodelite.39.2.01.