Neither Huxleyed, nor Orwelled: living in the Phildickian dystopia

Political scientist and sf fan Henry Farrell (previously) argues persuasively that the dystopian elements of our everyday life are best viewed through the lens of Philip K Dick (whose books repeatedly depicted a world of constructed realities, whose true nature was obscured by totalitarians, conspiracies, and broken computers) and not Orwell or Huxley, whose computers and systems worked altogether too well to be good parallels for today's janky dystopia.

In the PKDverse, it's increasingly hard to tell bots from humans (and even the bots might struggle to tell whether they are or are not artificial), and "centaurs" (human-machine collaborations) poison our mediasphere with software agents that periodically get puppeted by real-life trolls. These centaurs use captured bits of human intelligence -- Wikipedia scrapes, messages harvested from social media -- to impersonate humans when no human is available to puppet them, but then summon human assistance when they reach a crux that's above their paygrade -- a moment of truth when it is possible to effect an epic troll, or complete the next phase of a giant con.

This invasion of the real by the unreal has had consequences for politics. The hallucinatory realities in Dick’s worlds—the empathetic religion of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the drug-produced worlds of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the quasi–Tibetan Buddhist death realm of Ubik—are usually experienced by many people, like the television shows of Dick’s America. But as network television has given way to the Internet, it has become easy for people to create their own idiosyncratic mix of sources. The imposed media consensus that Dick detested has shattered into a myriad of different realities, each with its own partially shared assumptions and facts. Sometimes this creates tragedy or near-tragedy. The deluded gunman who stormed into Washington, D.C.’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria had been convinced by online conspiracy sites that it was the coordinating center for Hillary Clinton’s child–sex trafficking ring.

Such fractured worlds are more vulnerable to invasion by the non-human. Many Twitter accounts are bots, often with the names and stolen photographs of implausibly beautiful young women, looking to pitch this or that product (one recent academic study found that between 9 and 15 percent of all Twitter accounts are likely fake). Twitterbots vary in sophistication from automated accounts that do no more than retweet what other bots have said, to sophisticated algorithms deploying so-called “Sybil attacks,” creating fake identities in peer-to-peer networks to invade specific organizations or degrade particular kinds of conversation.

Philip K. Dick and the Fake Humans [Henry Farrell/Boston Review]

(Image: Niki Sublime, CC-BY-SA)

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