Edward Snowden has nothing on Six, the beautiful blonde Cylon who seduced her way into Caprica’s defense main frame, switched it “off,” and let loose a nuclear apocalypse across a dozen worlds. Battlestar Galactica, like so much of our entertainment about the techno-pocalypse (Terminator, Matrix, and so forth) is about a world destroyed by the very technology that mankind created for its own purposes.
Stories like this pivot on that central anxiety of the modern age: have we, either through slow, siren seduction—as in Brave New World—or terrible omniscient repression—as in 1984—fallen victim to the systems and technologies of our own making? Are we about to?
The answer is both better and worse than we might hope. In Slate, Nick Yee says that “Virtual Worlds are Real.” Yee is a senior scientist at Ubisoft (makers of blockbuster video games like Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and much more) and author of The Proteus Paradox.
In the piece, Yee discusses the powerful connection between the way people act in “virtual” worlds like World of Warcraft and how they act in real life—from sharing information to exercise and, most importantly, to allowing for things like political propaganda and even military recruitment (the real, offline military). (Read the article here.)
Spy agencies, argues Yee, are right to tap into many virtual worlds, places whose consequences reach far beyond the server farms and mildewed bedrooms of its digital denizens. Digital worlds often give users the seductive impression of control, one of the things that makes for their brand as “escapes” or “fantasy.” And that helps at least partly explain their popularity among adolescents, who are often faced with startling and painful experiences out of their control. In virtual worlds, we arrive, finally, into worlds of our making. In virtual worlds, it seems, the rules are comprehensible, clear, and controllable.
But that’s the Cylons’ siren song: the control is just an illusion, as Yee demonstrates. As so much sci-fi has warned, the objects of our control, of our omniscience, start to control, shape, and change us. That’s Yee’s Proteus Paradox: “we tend to think that avatars are things we create and control, but the opposite is also true. Our avatars change how we think and behave.”
Of course, professional thinkers and those still reading “great books” know there is nothing terribly startling about this so-called paradox. Max Weber had this mostly sussed out long before fiber optics showed up in our cable boxes. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904), he argued that we were living in an age vulnerable to stahlhartes Gehäuse, an “iron cage.” That is, the rationalist, consequentialist logic of modern society was becoming so powerful that individuals were “trapped in the system, unable to escape its pure logic of efficiency, rationality, and control.
The French Catholic sociologist Jacques Ellul, born a decade later, would parrot that argument in his book The Technological Society. He worried that technology and what he called “technique had now escaped human control. These things were now controlling us. We were prisoners of systems of our own making.
Don’t take Ellul’s word for it (though you probably should). Just look at the enormous consequences of forms of technology—the now-tired complaints about Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—on our social psychology. We’re told that Facebook makes us depressed, Twitter makes us dumber, Instagram makes us envious.
Our systems have changed us. Our technological habits have produced both new virtues and new vices, in a kind of social formation that even ancient Greeks like Aristotle could have predicted.
All of this is a bit dour, and maybe a little overstated in terms of the novelty, which is why Yee hastens to hedge his Proteus Paradox with what I’ll call some Augustinian insight. Yes, it’s true that the worlds we think we control have in turn come to exercise enormous control over us.
But it’s also true that the pathologies of that control—the anomie, the fragmentation, the ghettoization, antisocialism, and so forth—are not evils somehow independently concocted by those technologies.
In other words, technology is powerful. But its power is that it primarily enlarges and expedites vices and virtues that are as old as the human race. Technology creates new problems and new scales of problems, but not new sins. That, sadly, is still the purview of the human race. If only I could blame my Apple TV. But it’s an enabler, not an actor.
“We assume that virtual worlds,” writes Yee, “allow us to reinvent ourselves and leave behind offline norm and prejudices, but the truth is more sobering. Virtual worlds can and often perpetuate the status quo.” It’s dystopia, sure, but it’s a banal kind of one. It wouldn’t be out of place in Augustine’s Confessions. We have discovered no new sins.
None of which should stall our vigilance, because scale does matter, and “the iron cage” is a real, deeply worrying thing. But it should stall our anxiety that virtual worlds produce radically new consequences.
It is not so simple as saying virtual worlds are a mirror. That would be too plain and naïve, and it would do Weber and Ellul injustice. But our systems and technologies are warped kind of mirrors. They show certain things well, and other things not as well. And the balance is in knowing what kind of mirror you’re looking in, of understanding the systems and their logic, of knowing how they bend our vices and our virtues, of how the line between good and evil cuts through them.
So digital worlds may be ripe for espionage, part of a new social fabric. It’s probably worth paying attention to those worlds, and why and how they bend our psychology. The Cylons, as it turns out, are actually a lot like us. But that, mind you, should cause us concern.