New stories by authors including Neal Stephenson, Rose Eveleth and Robert Harris imagine a techno-apocalypse precipitated by the internet. Some even hint at how we could dodge it
24 June 2020
A banner about fake news at an anti-lockdown protest in California
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THE nuclear blast that takes out Moab, Utah, in Neal Stephenson’s 2019 novel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell is “epistemic ground zero”. That is because it doesn’t actually happen. It is an online-only 9-11, a viral conspiracy theory that becomes the fault line along which the US fractures in two.
On one side, the people who believe that Moab is a no-go zone, and that the event has been covered up by swamp-dwelling politicians. On the other, the people who can freely travel to Moab to see the town is untouched.
The know-nothing side of the US devolves into Mad Max anarchy, becoming a no-go zone in its own right, which Stephenson brands Ameristan. The rest continue unimpeded into the technological future.
The book is one of many recent ones that tackle one of the questions of our time. As comedian Ronny Chieng put it in his Netflix special: “Who knew all of human knowledge could make people dumber?”
The internet was supposed to unleash new dimensions of collective human potential by bringing knowledge to the masses. What no one took into account is that not all our knowledge is smart. An overwhelming amount of what the world “knows” is a mix of campfire stories, gossip and conspiracy theories. And now we have built a machine that sprays it all, fully homogenised straight into our brains.
Stephenson isn’t alone in predicting a resulting backslide for civilisation. In Tim Maughan’s novel Infinite Detail, a hacker collective gets tired of how the internet has been turned into a control tool for a powerful few and takes the whole thing down. But as demolishing the internet also takes down everything that relies on it to function – which of course is everything – the result is the collapse of society.
Robert Harris’s The Second Sleep goes even further than societal collapse. In his novel, “enfeebling, narcotic technology drove their civilisation mad” and as a consequence, all progress after the 14th century has been erased, with humanity reset to a darker age.
“Every person who can afford it has their own human curator of knowledge to scrub the drivel and ads”
If this is the future we are barrelling towards, prevention might be worse than the disease. Several books in the backslide genre flirt with curation as a way to staunch the flow of de-civilising knowledge, but none embraces it wholeheartedly because of the implications of censorship. In The Second Sleep, all knowledge of the previous “fallen” world is suppressed by the church in an attempt to curb another techno-apocalypse.
Rose Eveleth’s short story Mothers Against Digital Danger doesn’t send all of civilisation back to its beginnings, just the internet.
Activist mothers, whose children were radicalised by white supremacist manifestos and consequently became school shooters, convince the US government that the internet spreads extreme violence like a contagion. This “internet madness” is also responsible for other ills, including vaccine and climate change denial.
“We don’t let citizens handle nuclear waste,” one mother tells a congressional panel, explaining that some things are just too dangerous for untrained people to use. “It’s time we realised that the internet is one of those technologies.” The resulting internet of 2026 seems to get reset to the late 1980s.
Stephenson portrays a more individualistic world view: what keeps his progressive America marching forward is personal content moderation. Every person who can afford it has their own human curator of knowledge to scrub the drivel, ads and misinformation out of their information stream in real time.
Human information curators. Now let’s see, what did we used to call those? Ah yes: librarians. But you don’t find many librarians in apocalyptic sci-fi. Until now!
In Kit Rocha’s Deal with the Devil, librarians become the saviours of a society in which internet access – and the world – has been destroyed by a solar flare.
These cybernetically enhanced assassin librarians scour the wasteland of “Backslide America” for the last remaining digital copy of the Library of Congress.
The novel isn’t quite as chin-stroking as others in the genre but, like them, it has identified a pressing need: information may want to be free, but it also wants to kill us.
Maybe it is time to have a conversation about librarians, and maybe even about other gatekeepers, before we really do get an online-only 9-11.
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