Back in 1994, Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George (writing jointly under the pseudonym Stephen Bury) wrote a political thriller based on a sci-fi “what if” scenario. What if there was a technology that let people know exactly what other people thought about things? What they were scared of. What they longed for. What they liked and disliked. What if a that technology were then placed in the hands of a political consultant who knew what to do with it and didn’t mind getting his hands dirty, so to speak. What if he could then tailor his candidate’s message on a microlevel to make it appeal to as many people as possible? The result would be a campaign that looks for all intents and purposes like it’s totally unorthodox. It breaks the rules, but it somehow keeps winning against all odds.
Of course, in 1994 it was impossible to think that people would hand this power over to someone else without a cost. In the novel (Interface), the political hacks cull through a huge subsection of the country, breaking it down into 100 basic subtypes of citizens. They then find a “best representative” of each of those subtypes and pay them $10,000 to watch political programming with a sensor attached to their arm that will then tell the hacks what each person thinks of what they see.
Today, this is just called “social media,” and people do all of it for free. They’re just thrilled to see people care about what they think on a variety of topics. While the novel takes it perhaps a notch or two beyond what is completely plausible, the framework of the concept is strong and illustrative of just the sort of power these companies can wield now. Not just Facebook, either. Google can have a huge impact on what people think based on what they have show up in search results. Wikipedia can literally make millions of people believe something just by changing a few paragraphs on its site. Whether these companies are using these “powers” for good or evil is up for debate, but the fact that power exists shouldn’t be.
I enjoyed the book a great deal. It had been recommended by Cory Doctorow at last year’s Maine Library Association conference, so it took me a bit to get to, but I was glad to finally read it when I did. As I said, there are times when I felt like it went a bit too far, straining credulity in places beyond what my typical willing suspension of disbelief is up to, but the set up behind it all was still so compelling that I didn’t mind that much.
8/10 Definitely worth a read if the topic interests you.
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