……Cadillac (1960), Winchester, Virginia, June 2010……       Ubik, first hardcover.

In his novel Ubik, Philip K. Dick imagines a world in which corporations employ telepaths to undermine the interests of their competitors.  In turn, the competition hires firms with anti-telepaths in order to defend themselves against their adversaries and protect their privacy.  Dick is having a good time.  The use of psychic powers by companies merely mimics the dirty tricks employed by current corporate spies.  It’s still chess whether played in two or three dimensions.  New frontiers, same games.  (The best science fiction always makes the implicit present explicit.)

It seems that we face the world of Ubik today but on an even more personal level.  The World Wide Web is a marvelous thing.  But it doesn’t forget.  If you say something you might regret or post an unflattering picture, it is caught by the Web and freeze dried.  Employers, friends, strangers, those wishing you ill, or old-fashioned voyeurs will have you under their gaze with the click of a mouse for the foreseeable future.   It’s hard living in a Facebook culture when we can’t always control how we appear.  Different sorts of answers to this dilemma have been proposed.  Some legal: prevent the firing of employees based on information that does not reveal illegal activity.  Some technological: posts that automatically self-destruct after a number of months or years.  Some positively Dickean:  neutralize those who would do you harm by hiring a company to transform your presence on the Web.  Here is how the latter strategy is explained in a current New York Times Magazine article by Jeffrey Rosen, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” (Catch the name of the company below, ReputationDefender.  Dick might have called the company PsycheDefender.)

[W]ith the help of the kind of search-optimization technology that businesses use to raise their Google profiles, ReputationDefender can bombard the Web with positive or neutral information about its customers, either creating new Web pages or by multiplying links to existing ones to ensure they show up at the top of any Google search. (Services begin from $10 a month to $1,000 a year; for challenging cases, the price can rise into the tens of thousands.) By automatically raising the Google ranks of the positive links, ReputationDefender pushes the negative links to the back pages of a Google search, where they’re harder to find.

Perhaps this is akin to how the anti-telepaths worked in Dick’s novel.  But Dick’s concerns were not just with corporate dirty tricks.  The issues were deeper.  If one is always being watched, tracked in some fashion, defined by the gaze of others who one does not control, how does one become a person?  Being a person involves the possibility of changing the course of one’s life, of making choices to be (somewhat) different from how one has been.  The Web presents a real danger.   We can find ourselves permanently defined by past words and deeds, some from the long past.  Americans have always been especially attuned to the idea that we could remake ourselves, change our lives, start all over again, perhaps by going West.  But the Frontier option is no longer available, according to Rosen.

In the 20th century, however, the ideal of the self-made man came under siege. The end of the Western frontier led to worries that Americans could no longer seek a fresh start and leave their past behind, a kind of reinvention associated with the phrase “G.T.T.,” or “Gone to Texas.” But the dawning of the Internet age promised to resurrect the ideal of what the psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton has called the “protean self.” If you couldn’t flee to Texas, you could always seek out a new chat room and create a new screen name. For some technology enthusiasts, the Web was supposed to be the second flowering of the open frontier, and the ability to segment our identities with an endless supply of pseudonyms, avatars and categories of friendship was supposed to let people present different sides of their personalities in different contexts. What seemed within our grasp was a power that only Proteus possessed: namely, perfect control over our shifting identities.

But the hope that we could carefully control how others view us in different contexts has proved to be another myth. As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.

One crucial point that the article does not address is that we appear to be shackling ourselves to a digital past at a time when real income for most Americans simply hasn’t been rising in line with the American Dream.  We believed, and were led to believe, that economic progress would provide us with opportunities in which we could realize ourselves in new and different ways.  The objects of our material desires, like the Cadillac pictured above, were objects that allowed our fantasies to play out.  If I buy one of those, I can be like those who own them.  If I buy this, and this, and this….I will be different.  I will be free.  Free of my past.  Free of the past.

But now that the party appears to be over, the new technology of the Internet has stepped in.  Give me an avatar and freedom will ring.  Yet the Web may have as many bobby traps in store for us as the unfettered materialism of the go go economy myth.  Unless of course we can call on a new company, ReputationCreators, that will give us whatever persona we would like.   The catch…for a price that many of us won’t be able to pay.

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