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If you want to know how we ended up in a cyber dystopia, read Ready Player One

The 2011 book wants to have it both ways — just like Mark Zuckerberg

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When Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One was published in 2011, the reviews were ecstatic, beatific. It was an “enchanting,” “accessible” “nerdgasm” full of “fascinating social commentary” that one critic claimed was “the best science fiction novel I’ve read in a decade.

The book imagined America in the 2040s entirely through the lens of the 1980s, or at least a narrow sliver of the era: the formative video games, movies, and other nerd-friendly pop culture for the people who came of age during this particular decade. As the novel’s world descends into chaos and poverty, thanks to climate change and a fossil-fuel crisis, most of its citizens spend their days traversing the OASIS, a virtual reality world created by an “eccentric” ‘80s kid named James Halliday.

In the OASIS, users can be and do almost anything — which the book’s hero, Wade Watts, claims is the antidote to all social injustice. But thanks to Halliday’s stultifying influence, this limitless potential is devoted primarily to recreating the media of the ‘80s ad nauseam. Rather than rewarding innovation, the OASIS is designed to grant power to those who are most obsessed with the past, reserving its greatest blessings not for its forward thinkers, but for those who can most accurately recite all the dialogue from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (This is an actual plot point.)

If that seems backward, and far more concerned with where we’ve been than where we’re going, that’s because it is. But as many of the modern internet’s architects are declaring the internet broken, offering mea culpas, apologizing for their short-sightedness and irresponsibility, and getting called into Senate hearings, the book is a document worth reexamining in 2018; not because this novel-length blind spot has anything to say about where we are today, but because the ignorance and misguided optimism embedded in its pages is precisely how we got here. It is instructive now, as a road map for how we arrived at our present cyber-dystopia, and the dangers of building a world for “everyone” on the concerns and fantasies of the few.

While the movie adaptation helped transform a book about exclusionary gatekeeping into a more accessible international blockbuster, the novel itself remains a marvel of self-absorption, and one grounded firmly in the vague, overly idealistic values of digital “freedom” that have turned the internet into a nightmare machine.

The book begins with an epigraph: “Because there is no map for where we are going.”

Of the numerous lies it tells, this is among its most egregious. There are many, many problems with Ready Player One, but the absence of a precise and clearly articulated map for where the book wants to take us is not among them. Its story imagines the future by superimposing it on the past — specifically, on its author’s childhood — and is mired in the utopian misconceptions that defined the childhood of the internet as well. As the online world has moved into something more like middle age, the notion that the anonymous, unaccountable freedom of the web is a panacea for prejudice seems hopelessly outdated. That didn’t stop Cline, or many of the online-world architects that were his contemporaries, from insisting that the liberties of the internet would be both inevitable and universal.

Ready Player One’s quixotic ideas about the future of online life are not unique, because nothing is unique to Ready Player One.

Ready Player One’s quixotic ideas about the future of online life aren’t unique, because nothing is unique to Ready Player One. It’s a haphazard mishmash of more meaningful and resonant pieces of culture, a callow pastiche that stands on the shoulders of more interesting works and demands the applause they’ve earned for itself. But Ready Player One is also worse than that, in quietly unexamined ways that speak to the internet’s original sin. If the book has anything to say beyond repeating a litany of cool franchises, it is believing that the internet is a sublime, inherently liberating space where allowing anyone to say and do whatever they want will lead, inevitably, toward an abstract notion of freedom. While that may have been the case for some members of society — notably the most privileged ones — in practice, it’s meant injustice and abuse for a lot of others.

The internet ethos of the ‘80s and ‘90s was rooted in an insidious brand of optimism best represented by the 1994 “hacker” episode of Ghostwriter, in which a teenaged Julia Stiles lovingly caressed a computer monitor and declared the internet “a world where you’re judged by what you say and think, not by what you look like. A world where curiosity and imagination equals power.”

That was the dream of the internet, once. It would not just connect everyone, but free them from the jock-centric rules of social power that valued brawn over brains. And for a certain brand of young, white, male nerd, it might have been true. To some, the internet meant leaving the baggage of their imperfect bodies behind — existing purely as intellect. Why wouldn’t everyone want that? Why wouldn’t that make everyone free?

This notion of digital freedom quickly became an almost constitutional demand for the right to say and do anything, no matter whom it would harm, or how badly it would deform the very nature of human discourse. “Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies,” wrote Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth in a chilling memo leaked recently. “Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools. And still we connect people. The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”

Connection at all costs and without limit has been the defining principle of the internet for as long as it has existed, one that has continually superseded concerns of decency. It has done so in part because of one of the internet’s core values, which also lies at the heart of Ready Player One: the belief that the right to anonymously do as you please is in fact a right, and one that is “de facto good.”

Connection at all costs and without limit has been the defining principle of the internet for as long as it has existed

“In the OASIS, no one could tell that I was fat, that I had acne, or that I wore the same shabby clothes every week,” Wade narrates. “Bullies couldn’t pelt me with spitballs, give me atomic wedgies, or pummel me by the bike rack after school. No one could even touch me. In here, I was safe.” The idea of the internet as a safe place — one where you can be untouchable, immune to abuse — is Ready Player One’s most anachronistic and privileged idea, one shared by many of the people who built its platforms.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Twitter founder Evan Williams told The New York Times last year. “I was wrong about that.”

There is no sign of these dangers in the text of Ready Player One; while the world outside of the OASIS is falling apart, the virtual world remains — yup — an oasis, a utopian expanse where anything is possible and everyone is emancipated by their online presence. The digital landscape Ready Player One envisions is centrally rooted in VR, which was lauded in the ‘80s as the quintessential technology of the future, but which has panned out to be something much more marginal. But no matter: the book’s obsession with the past is so fundamental and inescapable that the wish-dream of the ‘80s is the only future it can imagine, in form and ideology. “This is the OASIS,” Wade Watts says of his online world in a text chat with his love object. “We exist as nothing but raw personality here.”

This is, to put it lightly, not how the internet worked out. Rather than liberating people from abuse and marginalization, online platforms have become tools for amplifying existing social inequality and harassment in unprecedented ways. We need look only at abuse campaigns like Gamergate, and the painful realities of harassment on social media like Twitter and Facebook, to find ample evidence of how incredibly untrue these visions of the future were, and are.

In a climactic reveal at the end of the book, Wade discovers that his best friend Aech, who he’s been talking to for over three years, is not a guy at all, but rather a fat, black lesbian. After briefly feeling “deceived,” Wade declares loudly and liberally that her true identity “really doesn’t matter.” “We’d connected on a purely mental level,” he reasons, with self-satisfaction. “None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, skin color or sexual orientation.”

It’s a tone-deaf bit of erasure that reaffirms the words Ready Player One eagerly shoves into the mouth of a black woman: that “the OASIS was the best thing that had ever happened to women and people of color.”  To Wade, the realities of race, gender, and sexuality are simply “inconsequential” avatar skins, ones whose problems can be taken off as easily as any other. But despite the promises of 1994 Julia Stiles, the internet did not become a world where things like gender and skin color didn’t matter; it really, really didn’t.

And then there’s the scavenger hunt that drives its story: Wade and his competitors must unravel the clues left in the will of OASIS founder James Halliday in hopes of winning his multi-billion dollar fortune and a controlling share in the company behind the OASIS. Although at a glance this reads like a rollicking Goonies-esque quest, on closer examination, it is breathtakingly selfish in the nerdiest of ways. At a time when poverty and environmental ruin are ravaging the world, it requires a profound level of self-absorption for one of the richest men alive to donate $240 billion and control over one of the earth’s most important companies to the nerd who fixates the most on the pet obsessions of his teenage years.

This is the narcissistic drive behind the very worst elements of both the internet and the gaming world: to ensure that only things they like and enjoy can exist

It is no accident that this ends up holding society at large captive to the media and aesthetics of the ‘80s, ensuring that the cultural artifacts Halliday likes become the only ones that matter. This is the narcissistic drive behind the very worst elements of both the internet and the gaming world: not only to seek out things they like and enjoy, but to ensure that only things they like and enjoy can exist. This contest is portrayed, somehow, as a cool, fun thing, and not a rich dude smothering the development of newer and more vital culture because he really liked Space Invaders and The Last Starfighter.

Cline doubles down on the same theme in his subsequent 2015 book, the abysmal Armada, which is similarly devoted to imagining that nerds like him are the most important people in the world. The solipsism it requires to write two books in a row about this is both staggering and baffling, considering how firmly nerd culture — video games, computers, comic books — has moved into the mainstream, and the massive economic and cultural influence it wields. We don’t need to create fantasy worlds where nerds are some of the most powerful people in the world and their predilections are constantly catered to — they already are. And yet for so many influential men in games and tech, the personal mythology of the underdog persists, even when they have achieved power and wealth beyond imagining.

“We used to be kind of rebels,” said Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft researcher often cited as a founding father of virtual reality, in a recent interview. “If you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything… But we don’t act like it… We’re still acting as if we’re in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is preposterous. And so in doing that we really kind of turn into assholes, you know?”

The sheer number of times that Mark Zuckerberg mentioned starting Facebook in his college dorm room during the recent hearings in the U.S. Senate is a prime example of powerful nerds clinging to the past — the people they were, the world that was, and the world they thought it would become, none of which is particularly relevant to the present moment and its urgent concerns. Their problem is the same problem that haunts Ready Player One from its first page to its last, like a vengeful poltergeist: the desire to indulge in playful, optimistic nostalgia about your favorite things while the world falls down around you.

That Halliday is treated as a figure deserving of admiration and awe and not as the villain of this story remains its biggest plot hole.

Halliday, we later learn, cut all ties with his best friend and business partner, the Steve Wozniak-esque Ogdan Morrow, because he was sexually obsessed with Morrow’s wife Kira and felt friend-zoned, even though he had never told either of them about how he felt. Both Morrow and Wade agree that this was a reasonable course of action given how hot and awesome Kira was, and it is never discussed again. That Halliday is treated, without exception, as a figure deserving of admiration and awe and not as the villain of this story remains its biggest plot hole.

The deification of tech “visionaries” like Halliday walks hand in hand with an odd contempt for corporations; IOI, the world’s largest internet provider, is consistently demonized throughout the book. Wade shows up to a meeting with its CEO specifically so that he can shout “you can’t buy me” and “you and the other SuX0rs can all go fuck a duck.”

This apparent anti-corporate stance resonates oddly with Wade’s total devotion to media that is made, by and large, by corporations, and his consistent deification of Halliday and his company, GSS. Ready Player One ends (spoiler!) with Wade winning the contest, the fortune, and control of the OASIS, passing the scepter of its corporate monarchy from Halliday to his most obsessed fan, which solves everything in a way that can only be described as Phase 2 of the Underpants Gnomes business plan.  

“Way back in the ‘80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists,” said Lanier. “But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.”

About halfway through Ready Player One, Wade reveals his OASIS password: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful,” a reference to a 1987 song by They Might Be Giants. It is a strange, contrary sentiment to endorse in the context of a fantasy about getting exactly what you want: the girl, the money, the world.

“I’m entrusting the care of the OASIS to you now,” says a previously recorded version of Halliday when Wade finally wins the game that has been designed almost exclusively for him. “Your avatar is immortal and all-powerful. Whatever you want, all you have to do is wish for it.” He gets exactly what he wants, and it is beautiful to him without any complicating friction from everyone who has been left out of his idealistic fantasy about the internet, which is precisely the problem.

This fiction, again, lies squarely at the core of Silicon Valley, where many of its leaders seem to want it both ways: to be the rebellious upstart even when you have become The Man, to refuse accountability for the way your creations have reshaped society because you still want to think of yourself as a kid making shit in your garage — and nobly determined to change things for the better, even when you had no clear idea of what “better” would mean for anyone who wasn’t you. This did not temper the arrogance or the wishful thinking of the people most empowered to define the online landscape, and we live now in the online dystopia that their ignorance has wrought.

While some, like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, are finally admitting that their platforms “didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility,” the principle of unaccountability as a tool of liberation — often framed in the language of “free speech” — remains a cornerstone value of the internet; never mind that this “freedom” is widely and actively deployed to intimidate and silence others on a massive scale.

Just last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was asked if open racism was against the rules of the platform. “It’s not,” he replied. Cool. What point, if any, does “free speech” have when it makes huge swathes of the population tangibly less free, and less able to speak without terror?

Just last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was asked if open racism was against the rules of the platform. “It’s not,” he replied.

In Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s brilliant ode to the early days of the internet, smooth-talking Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe McMillan was prone to giving long, starry-eyed monologues about the connection and community he believed the internet would offer, from his vantage point in the ‘80s. When the show leapt forward in the 1990s, however, many of its former visionaries found themselves increasingly out of step with the world they helped create.

“Is this what you saw ten years ago? Because it’s not what I saw for myself when you showed up in my garage,” Joe’s one-time business partner Gordon asks him at the end of the series. “That’s the point,” Joe replies. “It was never about where it ended up. It was about how it felt.”

Maybe it shouldn’t have been about that. Maybe the heady glow of feeling like a hard-scrabble disruptor wasn’t more important than the reality of the spaces those innovators created, and how they could be weaponized, particularly against its most at-risk inhabitants. But the most prescient, terrifying moment of Halt and Catch Fire comes not in an elegant speech about the dawn of the internet age, but in the suicide note left behind by a despondent coder, titled “You Are Not Safe”:

“Beware of false prophets who will sell you a fake future, of bad teachers and corrupt leaders and dirty corporations,” it reads. “But most of all beware of each other, because everything is about to change. The world is going to crack wide open. The barriers between us will disappear, and we’re not ready. We’ll hurt each other in new ways. We’ll sell and be sold. We’ll expose our most tender selves only to be mocked and destroyed. We’ll be so vulnerable and we’ll pay the price.”