Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map

by rthieme on December 12, 1998

free-vector-world-map In the good old days of the Cold War, spy stories by authors like John Le Carre had enough uncertainty about who worked for whom that nested levels of loyalty, duplicity, and loyalty again provided the framework for a good narrative. To engage us, a challenge must be difficult but doable. The bar has to be raised just enough to elicit our best jump.

Those books did that.

Then we lost the mythology of the Cold War, pitting the Children of Darkness against the Children of Light. That archetypal imagery engaged us. We projected ourselves onto the narrative, entering into collusion with it even if we did not consciously accept the framework. The propaganda was too powerful to resist. We may have ignored the morning newspaper, but we watched James Bond movies, absorbing the story through entertainment. At some level, we all believed in what we read.

Winning the Cold War was anticlimactic. We lost something important, an adversary worthy of our projections that made life meaningful by creating a game in which our loyalties to self, tribe, or God could be played out.

Those Cold War stories always turned on deception. People who seemed to be loyal to one level of structural authority turned out to be loyal to another. Sometimes their loyalty was to ultimate values. Real religious commitments are always threatening because people who act on them subvert the lesser loyalties that make societies work. They stand in the way of the tanks in Tieneman Square, even if the tanks are only images and symbols created by the temporal powers that ask us to be “team players” and surrender.

Loyalty, deception, loyalty again, are possible only in a world with its macro structures defined, its political, economic and mythological dimensions overlapping.

The novels of Le Carre have been replaced with tales of the digital world. Cyberpunks, whose world I encountered first in Shockwave Rider, Artificial Kid, Neuromancer, and Snow Crash are building a different mythological structure for a different generation. Their vision is not so much cynical as simply descriptive of life in the digital world.

Our Villains of the Month – Khadaffi, Noriega, Khomeni, Sadam Hussein – morph into one another as easily as the arm of the Bad Android in Terminator 2 became a sword. The end of a dictator or victory in a war seems to have zero impact on our lives, which are lived inside simulations of a global society whose fuel is consumerism and entertainment.

Nested levels of loyalty are difficult to discern in the digital world because we are reinventing the names of the structures of power and authority. The company resulting from the merger of Exxon and Mobil will compete, not with Chevron, but with Saudi Arabia. What should we call the pieces of the new global puzzle? Nations? Multi-national corporations? Those labels exist only in relationship to one another, and that is precisely the context that is being transformed by the digital world. A “multi-national” like Bechtel, more powerful than most countries, is an entity we can not describe accurately because we lack meaningful information about it, the kind that shows the flow of power, that lets us map how remnants of “democracy” are used in the digital world for social and political control.

Where is there a political party that looks like a real opposition? Our entire planet is skewed to the right. There is no left, and the center is a necessary convenience that sustains the illusion of dialogue. In the digital world, it is so easy to create islands on which to collect those whose tendencies make them oppositional. Social order is maintained by giving everyone a piece of the digital action, images that entertain or to consume. Our projections provide a sense of ownership, of belonging. Little digital yards with white pixel fences, the bitmapped terrain of our mental worlds.

The spy novelists tried, but the stories written since the end of the Cold War just don’t make it. We do not intuitively grasp the movement of power in the digital world in a way that enables an archetypal scaffolding to be built. We don’t believe in the Villain of the Month but we don’t know, really, who is loyal to whom or to what. We don’t know the names of the organizations to which the money flows. We don’t even know what kinds of things they are yet. We only know that when the United States of America was defeated in Viet Nam, no dominoes fell, and the isolation and punishment of the victorious regime taught them an economic and political lesson on which they are just now taking an exam.

Here’s some homework: Follow the money. Make a digital map of Bechtel, letting every handshake glow red, every enterprise glow white. Let little green pellets represent the flow of energy and information, tracing the realities of power. Name the interface between alliances, diagram lines of influence, map the images of their world wide web. Think about why Competitive Intelligence is growing, why old hands from the KGB find work in corporate America, why experts from the CIA head divisions in our largest companies.

The puzzle pieces in which we used to believe – nations, ideologies, even religions – are dissolving but we have not yet invented the kinds of mental maps that make sense in the digital world.

Of course you’ll never finish that assignment, never get the information you need, never know the extent of a web woven in so many dimensions. In the digital world, we are ten-dimensional dogs chasing our own tails. But the effort will begin to focus an image of the blurred nested levels in which we are learning to live, how they twist and turn on themselves like mobius strips, an internalized computer game that makes Tron look as quaint as Asteroids played on a Commodore 64 or the Cold War played in the faded pages of a novel.

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