Sometimes the well goes dry. When this happens to a creative, she must refill the well. This creative turns to informational podcasts (among other things). Recently I discovered a podcast of absolute golden inspiration for lovers of dystopian stories. The Good Code discusses dystopias in the making.
Chine Labbe is the host of the Good Code in collaboration with DLI at Cornell Tech. It’s a weekly podcast on ways in which our increasingly digital societies could go terribly wrong. (Yes! Story fodder.) You may subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, GooglePlay, and other sites.
This week’s episode is Alexis Wichowski on Net States Chine and her guest, Alexis, discussed Wichowski’s recently released book The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World.
The premise of the book is that big tech companies like Google and Facebook act like national governments. She implies that this is dystopias in the making. Our world is no longer divided by nation-states (like the United States, Canada, Italy, etc.) and non-states (ISIS, al Qaeda). And she proposes a new term for the era, net-state.
What is a Net State?
A net-state is a digital, big tech company that expands its role to include protective or supportive services to citizens. These companies exist primarily online. They have millions of international followers (like Google and Facebook). And they pursue agendas separate from the law. Out of necessity, some big tech companies created huge departments or companies to deal cyber threats.
Google has an anti-censorship initiative called Project Shield, an online safe-haven for news sites censored by their national governments. They laud this project in some countries but other countries (China, Iran, etc) could see this as illegal and a disruption of their government.
Other actions appear humanitarian. After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, they had no power and no internet. FEMA sent fifty representatives with mediocre results. Wichowski stated that as a nation-state any government attempts to respond with fairness.
Big tech doesn’t care about being fair to all states or all situations. Google and Tesla quickly and efficiently provided Puerto Rico with temporary power and internet access.
Is This a Problem?
Wichowski says it is. She points out that no one votes for the leadership at a big tech company. That means there is very little oversight. And she points out that there is little transparency in these companies. Who has your personal information? What are they doing to protect it? What are they doing with it?
Not everyone thinks this is a situation of dystopias in the making. According to Wired, the world needs net-states. They occupy the same territory as the non-states: the digital sphere. And they understand their norms and tactics far more than a land-war, Cold-War era strategist ever could.
How Do We Fix it?
People need to be more aware of who owns the tech they buy. An example is that Amazon owns the home security system Ring. And Amazon has had data breaches where personal information is at risk. Wichowski says people need to bring pressure on big tech companies to be more transparent and police themselves better.
Wichowski also suggested we establish something like the Geneva Convention for the digital world. She says we should create some basic ethical rules for big tech companies to follow. In this short podcast, she did not go into how this might work.
If she could change one thing, she says she’d choose for companies to be transparent. She said that somewhere in the world someone knew more about her personal information, browsing history, and shopping habits than she does. She wants to know what all that information is.
Net-Nations in Fiction
While the term net-nations is new, the idea isn’t. Big bad corporations create dystopian societies in many novels. The tech in 1984 by Aldous Huxley isn’t as advanced, but the idea is similar.
The Warehouse by Rob Hart, The Circle by David Eggers, Orbital Decay by Allen Steele, and Immortality by Robert Sheckley are a few dystopian novels with tech-ruled societies.
What novels can you think of with this tech-dystopia set up?
What Is the Worst That Could Happen?
Do you play dystopian mind games? I do, endlessly. For more fun dystopian discussion material, read why we love reading dystopias.
Do you agree that big tech or net-states are a bad idea? Do you think a Geneva-like set of rules can stave off severe abuses? Is discussing dystopias in the making inspiration for dystopian authors and readers? Or is it the stuff of nightmares?