So I did that whole riff on identity, which yeah, but I think I’m going to go somewhere else this time. Let’s try democracy, because now I’m kind of in this place that makes my little social science-y heart go pitter-pat.

(What can I say? The theory, it infects! Read a bunch and then play spot-the-philospher with the Matrix! As a drinking game!)

So Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson got me thinking about dystopian conceptualizations (didn’t I mention Jennifer Government to someone a bit ago?) of the future. And because, in my life, once something starts popping up, it won’t stop until I talk about it in some cohesive way. I guess I have to now.

Ok. So Snow Crash posits this Metaverse that seems to have very limited public utilities — The Street, the Monorail — and the (physical?) Library is the result of a merger and subsequent stock offering by the Library of Congress and the Central Intelligence Agency following the collapse of the democratic government.

In the real world — planet Earth, Reality — there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping their AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer; these people have more money than all of the others put together. Of these billion potential computer owners, maybe a quarter of them actually bother to won computers, adn a quarter of these have machinese that are powerful enough to handle the Street protocol … at any given time the Street is occupied by twice the population of New York City.

That’s a lot of damn people.

And yet, it isn’t. The Metaverse, as a construct, serves only a tiny, tiny portion of the population, but people like Hiro make their whole lives the Metaverse — earning virtual money, interacting with people they would not otherwise be able to because of geographic distance. And that’s a pretty powerful idea, but it’s also limited to the very few who can afford to engage, or who at least have the knowledge that engagement is important. Because if you don’t know what you’re missing, you can’t miss it, can you?

So how is this important to ideas of democracy? Obviously and superficially, the divide in Snow Crash is the result of a world in which democracy has failed. But hang on.

Lemme go back to We Live Here again for a minute. (It’ll all connect up. I promise. Doesn’t it always?) Hinton mentioned “the Internet’s ‘Web-ness’ … hyperlinked, peer-to-peer content creation and publishing using open standards.” in the context of convergence, mentioning that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned “hypertext as a democratic antidote to the hegemony of hierarchy, and he purposefully released his invention as an open architecture upon which others could easily build without impediment.”

This is a really neat idea, but it’s also pretty fraught. I mean, the Internet is obviously about free speech (unless you’re in China, and even there the state is struggling to hang on to its tenuous control over its people’s information systems). But the broader questions of whether the Internet is an inherently democratic medium remain. If, as Hinton posits, Quake users “made [the game] into something infinitely bigger than the original game itself … much like the meritocracy of the Web, this map was made by a user, published by that user, and made a favorite through the collective consensus of use” then that does indeed suggest there are important implications for thinking about democracy.

In short, the Internet’s ahierarchical nature makes it a mess, but a lovely, glorious, dissonant one — the kind of mess democracy itself is, whereby ideas are formed and exchanged and citizens of the polity benefit. Y’know, in a perfect world.

But this isn’t a perfect world, and neither is the Metaverse. Corporatization happens. It has detrimental effects. (I won’t go into detail; others already have. Suffice it be mentioned.) The Metaverse models some of those effects.

There are other models too — Jennifer Government — of this anarcho-capitalism gone preeminent, and its impacts on the citizenry through the establishment or lack of institutions of public education and welfare. But again, others have done it better.

(And, because I actually did my research this time before launching into a discussion of Rorty’s complaints about critical versus progressive liberalism with respect to Snow Crash, I can spare you from my fumbling exploration where the experts embarrass me before I’ve started, especially because I only read those few pages. Because look! A five-second search shows me it’s already been done! Although I would totally go on that tangent about the Daily Show. Don’t get me started.)

But the other piece is that piece of access, and that’s what I’m really stuck on at the moment. (And I’m guessing that since that’s what struck me the most, it’s really not explored in depth in the book.) Because I lived in a place with limited access, and I saw first hand, in a first world country, how there’s a technological divide coming. I love theory and all and can play with those ideas for a good long while (you have read this, right?) but when it comes down to it, there are pragmatic considerations here. And we, the “we” of the technocracy, don’t see it because, hey, we’re all connected.

And like I said before, if you don’t know what you’re missing, you can’t miss it.

The technological divide leads to things like rural brain drain, the hollowing-out so well described by Karr and Kefalas (yet another book I just HAVE to read):

Yet, what is different at this moment is how, in a postindustrial economy that places such a high premium on education and credentials, the flight of so many young people is transforming rural communities throughout the nation into impoverished ghost towns. A new birth simply cannot replace the loss that results every time a college-educated twentysomething on the verge of becoming a worker, taxpayer, homeowner, or parent leaves.

Given the increasing importance of Internet access to economic, social, and civic life (don’t trust me, trust the Pew Internet and American Life Project, because they’re awesome), lack of access is fast becoming a crisis.

Lack of access is not just about willingness to pay for what they’re missing, or even a lack of education about what they’re missing, it’s about the sheer lack of infrastructure. You can’t have broadband if you live outside city limits, because you’re too far from the DSL station — no speed. You can’t get cable, because it’s not profitable for the cable companies to run long, long lines to the few, spread-out country homes, so no cable Internet either. There’s satellite service, but it’s more expensive and a lot slower and goes out frequently.

And you can’t go use the computer at the Public Library if your “local” library is the Bookmobile and your branch library is miles and miles away.

To co-opt Hinton, a lot of people don’t live here. And they never will without a dedicated effort to increase access. And I’m talking infrastructure, like rural electrification. Because that wasn’t profitable either, but was and is recognized as a public good.

(There’s a whole conversation here, too, about geographic dislocation and fractionalization, but I think I’ll save that, because every time I talk about something it comes up a few weeks later in the readings and I’ll wish I saved it for then. See: Oldenburg. Then, Hinton.)

So if we’re looking at democracy and concerned about a dystopian future that further divides the haves and have-nots, we should be talking about access. Or would you rather just play games?


As a side note, now that I’ve been talking about dystopian fiction and ideas of reality, I really want to read this:

Unshelved is the greatest webcomic about libraries of all time. Okay, it might be the only one, but it's still great.

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One Response to “THE public policy problem of our time. (No, not health care.)”

  1. [...] least last time I was smart enough to wait to talk about fractionalization, even though I wasn’t about democracy. Oh well, at least I went more in a public policy [...]