Escape to virtuality
Douglas Rushkoff writes eloquently about the rich moving out of the city to comfortable mansions in the country to avoid the pandemic. He talks about the rich building their “escape pods” and (with what I imagine to be frightening prescience) how the journey from video doorbell to autonomous robots sentries is constrained by money, rather than by ethics. Inept government responses to COVID are pushing those escape pods to escape velocity irrespective of the actual risk. Indeed, as Rushkoff goes on to say, he “can’t help but wonder if the threat of infection is less the reason for this newfound embrace of virtual insulation than it is the excuse”.
As a wage-slave scrabbling to make a living in the post-pandemic ruins of a career, I will never be able to afford that country house with an electric gate, high walls and live-in help. But I can afford a nice chair for my study, a comfortable set of patio furniture and super high-speed broadband. With this, I can retreat from a dangerous, unpleasant and confusing physical world into a controlled organised and above all safe virtual world. I am more than happy to commute through cyberspace rather than on crowded, unpleasant and disease-ridden trains.
There must be a lot of people thinking this way right now, judging by the deserted subway I saw in London last week. And it is interesting me because I agree with Sam Lessin’s observation that if a result of the pandemic is more online working, online commerce, online education, online government and so on, then digital identity becomes a crucial pivot. His point that “if the jobs people need are in digital rather than physical space, the internet’s side of the fight will gain a lot of power” is accurate and I think the consequences of that win are more significant and more far-reaching than may at first be obvious.
The key takeaway is that the digital identity that I use to traverse the highways and byways of the online world will be vastly more important to me than the physical identity that I occasionally need at an airport (should I ever get to fly anywhere again).
Never mind a flight to the suburbs, I predict a flight to the cyburbs
A crucial difference, however, between these gated communities in cyberspace and their real-world equivalents in the Hamptons is that digital identity will form a more effective boundary than the barbed wire and armed guards of the gated communities that the rich will retreat to in the real world. The people living in the cyburbs will be happy to pay taxes for better broadband and efficient home delivery and neighbourhood security, but it is going to be pretty difficult to persuade them to pay tax to support public transport in the city that they never visit, police they never see and services for (as they see it) the unchecked angry youth roaming the city streets.
When the residents decide on a new ordinance, they can enforce it instantly and effectively by excluding transgressors by removing access to their virtual selves. Life will be ordered and managed. It will be safe.
In cyburbia, code is law
It seems to me that if society divides across the online and offline fault line, then for a great many people the emerging new world looks more appealing than the old physical world. Lessin’s observation that “a world where people come to earn money mostly online and disconnected from the physical world is a world of internet ascendancy” reinforces the view set out in my book Identity is the New Money (LPP: 2014) that we are going back to the future. What I meant by this was that mobile phones, the Internet and social media allow us to escape the urban anonymity of the industrial revolution and organise ourselves by communities. In the neolithic world, of course, people lived in one community and its boundaries were geographic. Our brains were assembled for optimal interaction in the clan of around 150 people, a number well known to social scientists. In the online world, each of us will belong to multiple overlapping clans that are defined by what people are rather than who they are and the boundaries will be soft, defined by credentials not identity.
These clans will range from friends and family to work and play. Between my Dungeons and Dragons clan and my extended family clan and my Arrest The Prime Minister clan, I’m fine. You can see why people will prefer to live this way. If I break the rules of the Woking FC Season Ticket Holder’s clan, then I will be cast out. End of story. There won’t be a bill of rights any more than there is one for Facebook Groups, no more free speech than there is on Twitter and no more right to reply than there is on Instagram.
Cyburbia might sound like a virtual Disney village to you, a bland echo chamber existence devoid of creativity or imagination, but to a great many people it sounds like heaven.