Tag Archives: identity

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

I feel a little bit odd that I wrote the first draft of this post by hand, because the book is so technologically bound. (In my defense, I was using a sonic screwdriver pen.) It’s the type of book that might benefit greatly from being re-read on an iPad or Kindle Touch – something that can give you links to the references or have the songs playing in the background at the appropriate moment. It doesn’t need this, of course, but it might accent and enhance the experience. It’s also the type of book that cries out for annotations – again, not that it needs them, but to make the experience fuller. It invites study of the level that it describes. If I get bored or stuck in my unemployment, I might start collecting a database.

But it doesn’t need any of that to be a good book, which it is. It’s a near-future SF, set in about 2044. The world economy has essentially collapsed, thanks to climate change and the depletion of nearly every natural resources. There are two major technological factors in American life: IOI, a corporation that seems to control most of real life, and OASIS, an immersive virtual reality. The creator of OASIS has died by the time the book begins, and has left his immense fortune and control of OASIS to whomever can solve a series of riddles and Easter eggs. The evil corporation wants it, of course – and so do our heroes.

It’s a classic quest story – our hero [real name Wade, avatar’s name Parzifal] has no real family, picks up companions along the way, some of which leave him at various times and for various reasons, and they encounter many obstacles that not only advance the quest but help Wade grow as a person. The corporation tries to stop them (usually violently). And it’s filled to the brim with 80s references: films, music, anime, and video games mostly. (This is why I want annotations!)

As well as being a good plot-based story, it’s also pretty good on some of the deeper themes that come up whenever you talk about technology: addiction, privacy, feminism, identity, to name the major and more obvious ones. But it’s not all a doom-and-gloom, today’s-society-is-wrong message. Parallels with today are drawn, of course, but in both good and bad ways.

Let’s start with the good: OASIS demonstrates, absolutely, the power that technology has to bring people together and to educate. The schools, for those who can get access through financial or meritocratic means, are fantastic if for no other reason than the program won’t let class be disrupted. You can’t leave your desk, you can’t access non-relevant information (like emails, for instance) during class, you can’t do anything non-school related. There are bad teachers, of course – or at least not-great ones (the Latin teacher comes to mind) – but because the teachers don’t have to spend so much energy on discipline, they can focus on actually teaching.

OASIS can also make experiences much more accessible. Money is still a factor, of course, but the lack of it isn’t quite as limiting as it is in the real world. Era is no barrier, physical location is no barrier. If you want to take a class trip to see the Roman Forum, you can – if you want to investigate the composition of the moons of Jupiter, you can. You can experience anything you want.

And because it’s a virtual reality world, interaction between people can be a lot more realistic. Because of the devices and the immersive nature of OASIS, you can actually feel physical interactions with other people.  You can see their avatars, not just words on a screen. There is actually less anonymity, in some ways, than in today’s online interactions – you can see people’s reactions to your words and actions instead of waiting for a typed response. I’ll get to this more in the identity conversation, but basically, you can choose to appear however you want to appear: the way you see yourself and the way other people see you can be much closer.

Of course, all of the arguments against technology are there too, especially addiction and isolation. For all the mental connections that Parzifal and the others make, they have very few physical connections. Parzifal spends several months withut ever leaving his apartment, and has to force himself to initiate a fitness program before he turns into Jabba the Hutt (surprisingly, not a reference made in the text). It is acknowledged that it would be far too easy to stay in OASIS and die in the real world. Nothing is programmed in  to avoid this, though – it’s entirely up to the user whether s/he wants to commit suicide via VR.

Privacy is also a very real issue. IOI manages to access, legally or illegally, the personal information of every gunter (our hero and his friends), including real identity and home address. The avatar and the human may only be linked in one place, a place that is supposed to be completely encrypted, but that one place is enough to open up everything else.  The first clue is blown open because someone else happens to know that both Parzifal and Aech go to school on the same “planet” – that one little detail, apparently unconnected to anything else, becomes the lever that reveals the secrets of everyone else. It’s terrifying, both in the context of the book and its real life implications.

The big thing, of course, is identity, and I touched on that a bit ago. In OASIS, you can be whatever you want to be, appear as anything you want to be. If you want to be treated – or not treated – in a certain way, you can change yourself enough to make that feasible. I don’t want to spoil things, but it is mentioned some in a non-spoilery way near the beginning: Parzifal has developed a crush on a blogger named Art3mis – and expresses repeated concern that she is a middle-aged man named Chuck living in his mom’s basement. Because she so easily could be. In another example, if you are a black female teenager and want to be taken seriously, you could change your avatar into an older white male. It’s sad and unfortunate that that would work (and even worse that when I read about it, I thought, “oh, that’s an effective way to do it”) – I can only hope that one day, people read this book and don’t understand why someone would feel like they need to change their race or gender in order to be taken seriously.

Since most of the book takes place within OASIS, people’s “real” physical identities are never really an issue – even when Parzifal expresses doubts about Art3mis, he follows them up with a sense of “but I don’t really care, because our connection through this is real.” And possibly the best line for this comes from Parzifal and Aech’s first IRL meeting, when they realise that they do already know each other – it’s only the “minor” things like gender and race they didn’t know.

By contrast, IOI takes away the identity of nearly everyone they employ. The IOI avatars have numbers, not names, and even they can be taken over by any of the various employees as needed. Indents (indentured servants) are essentially forbidden from any sort of personality expression, ranging from how they interact with IOI customers to what they watch in their “free time”. It’s an obvious but vivid contrast to the expressions of individuality that the OASIS can provide.

I could probably go on, and I’m sure other people will, and this doesn’t even get into the 80s nostalgia and pop culture references that permeate the book and provide both the rationale and the background for the plot. But I’m at nearly 1300 words – and really, I just want to read it again.

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England, England, by Julian Barnes

I may have read this book before, years ago. The premise of it – billionaire turns the Isle of Wight into an England Experience/theme park type place – seemed really familiar, and I kept getting a sense of déjà vu while I was reading it (without actually recalling anything about it). This is not meant to be a slam against Julian Barnes at all, just that if I did read it, it was years ago and probably a random discovery from a library bookshelf. If I did read it before, I enjoyed it. I certainly enjoyed it this time.

There are several major themes in this book, but one of the most important ones (and most explicit ones) is the idea that, eventually, replica becomes reality. This is a stated belief and inspiration when they are planning the park, and it is proven in many different ways throughout the narrative. The actor playing Samuel Johnson, for example, starts dissociating and believing that he actually is Samuel Johnson; the locals playing “peasants” start wanting to sleep rough.  The tipping point of the second part is a showdown between the Merrie Men and the SAS team that stormed the Iran Embassy.

And the third part is the fallout of this new reality, taken to extremes: Old England has now become Anglia, an isolated and isolationist agrarian society based around the Saxon heptarchy. Everything that has internationally defined England has gone to the Island, tourism has collapsed, and the only thing left for England is to become locally focused again.

The idea that replica eventually becomes reality is an interesting one. It starts from the idea that, if it’s more convenient, people are fine with seeing the replica of something rather than seeking out the real thing – an example of this is Michelangelo’s David, in Florence. Then the replica becomes indistinguishable from reality (again, with David, who’s going to say that they haven’t seen it, just because they’ve seen the replica in the square rather than the original in the museum?). And ultimately, the replica becomes as desirable as the reality – especially if reality is difficult or inconvenient to access.

I don’t know if that’s always true, though. I think from a logistical perspective, people are willing to accept replicas in place of reality (buy a postcard or poster of a painting rather than the real thing) but I think that we value things that are more difficult to attain, whether that difficulty comes in the physical object or the experience. I buy prints of paintings I like because I can’t feasibly get the originals – I value an original painting more highly. From a logistical perspective, it’s great that all of the quintessentially English experiences are on one island, easily accessible if you’ve got enough money. From a value perspective, I prefer the journey – the ability to treat each site as its own experience rather than an item on a checklist. From an emotional perspective, I also appreciate the time in between the experiences to absorb and reflect on wherever I’ve just been – if I went to the Island and was faced with Stonehenge next to Robin Hood next to Nell Gwynn’s orange (juice) stall next to Buckingham Palace, I think my brain would explode from overload. (And, for the record, I saw David in the museum, as well as in the square. I also think that one of the reasons that the replica is so easily accepted in place of the original is because it is in the original location, while the original is in an artificial location – so I don’t think the David analogy is quite right for their replica replacing reality argument, but that’s the one that they use, so there you go.)

I also have some serious questions about the society on the Island. For something that is supposed to be a self-contained entity, there are a lot of ways that it defies its containment. The Island simply could not exist independently of the rest of the world, and that’s something that I think that Pitco completely ignores. It works in the context of the book (which is, of course, all that it’s meant to do), but it should never be forgotten that the Island is, in fact, a theme park, not a functioning country the way that it pretends to be. There is no allotment for sick, elderly, or young – presumably they must be shipped over to Dieppe.  If there were an apocalyptic event and tourists could no longer come to the Island, the whole system would collapse. They’d want Anglia’s help then, wouldn’t they? WOULDN’T THEY!

……….whoops, got a little bit carried away there……….

Speaking of Anglia, one of the more intriguing things for me was the list and discussion of “what is England” – England specifically, rather than UK generally, as one of the points of the Island project is to counterbalance devolution. One of my classes on my study-abroad year dealt a lot with the idea of English identity, versus British identity – Scottish independence or at least autonomy was a big deal at the time, and we visited the Scottish Parliament which had either just opened or was just about to, and we also talked a bit about Wales and touched on Northern Ireland (which is a whole other topic in and of itself, beyond even UK devolution). Come to think of it, that might be where I read or at least encountered this book before. Any Notts want to help jog my memory?

Anyway, it’s always struck me as an interesting, and essential idea. What defines a nation? (In the same vein, what defines an individual?) Is identity reliant on how we see ourselves, or how others see us, or some mix of the two? What about when how others see us is radically different from how we see ourselves? How can we adjust the way we present ourselves to others, without altering how we see ourselves? And, eventually, to get back to the main theme, does how we present ourselves, and how others see us, irrevocably alter how we see ourselves and become the reality of our identity, even if we were acting the whole time? Does our replica identity end up becoming our real identity?

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