When the “Things to Come” are Already Here, Where Should International Law Go?

by Chris Borgen

Novelists such as H.G. Wells and George Orwell used fantastic fiction to describe their world as it was and to imagine, to use Wells’ title, “The Shape of Things to Come.” This past summer I wrote a post on what current science fiction can bring to international law. I mentioned various books that, though fantastic, illuminated topics related to international law, international relations, or national security.

Well, according to my tricorder, I mean, the newsfeed on my smartphone, this past week reality just got a little more science fictional with the revelations of US intelligence agents roaming around in World of Warcraft and Second Life, on the hunt for any terrorist who might be using these virtual worlds to communicate, plot, and even train.

For all the surprise this has elicited, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen virtual worlds (weirdly) interact with the very real world of international relations. There was that time that the Green Lantern Corps had to patrol a virtual refugee camp that had been built by human rights activists in Second Life’s Sudan in order to protect it from vandals.  Or that proprietary financial system owned by a Chinese company that would support financial transfers and investments across the economies of different virtual worlds.  Or that time that NATO commissioned an interactive model of Afghanistan for planning and training.  And then there’s the Swedish Embassy in Second Life

So, Snowden reveals that U.S. intelligence agents are posing as, let’s say, warrior elves and they’re running around on quests in World of Warcraft looking for al Qaeda organizers.  I’m just not all that surprised.  It is a bit amusing, though, that there ended up being so many intelligence officers online that they had to set up a “deconfliction group” to keep track of who was really whom, so that some Jack Ryan posing as a warrior elf wouldn’t report a wizard as being an al Qaeda operative when that wizard is actually a US agent posing as an al Qaeda operative who’s avatar is a wizard. This truly is “The Looking Glass War.”

These are the types of scenarios one sees in “political science fiction.” Sci-fi bloggers have remarked that the Snowden revelations are not that different from plot points in Neal Stephenson’s novel REAMDE, one of the books I mentioned in my post this summer.  And another author that I wrote about, Charles Stross, has decided to not write the third book in his near future cybercrime trilogy because the present is already arriving at his imagined future. Here’s how Stross put it:

At this point, I’m clutching my head. “Halting State” wasn’t intended to be predictive when I started writing it in 2006. Trouble is, about the only parts that haven’t happened yet are Scottish Independence and the use of actual quantum computers for cracking public key encryption (and there’s a big fat question mark over the latter—what else are the NSA up to?).

I’m throwing in the towel.…<snip> …The science fictional universe of “Halting State” and “Rule 34” is teetering on the edge of turning into reality. Meanwhile, the financial crisis of 2007 forced me back to the drawing board for “Rule 34”; the Snowden revelations have systematically trashed all my ideas for the third book.

Our colleagues in the world of architecture and design have “design fiction”: films and websites devoted to as-yet non-existent objects as a means of thinking about the possibilities of design and engineering and their relationship to society.  Here are three very different examples (noted by Tobias Revell in the previous link): “New Mumbai,” “Microsoft’s Productivity Future Vision,” and “Post CyberWar.”

As lawyers, we spend much of our time looking at precedent, at the lessons of history.  We cannot stop doing that, as history is the great teacher. But we also have to remember that with every passing second, the future arrives. And, like the writers, the designers, the engineers, and the architects, we have to imagine what things may come, and how our work may shape the future and how the future may shape our work.

Because law is itself a disruptive technology.


7 Responses

  1. As one science fiction lover to another: on the basis of its (shocking!) absence in this post, I would highly encourage you to read William Gibson’s trilogy of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive. If you haven’t already, it will be an enjoyable read (the author is attributed as having invented the word ‘cyberspace’), and the content is certainly apropos to this post.

  2. Come on, cut me some slack!  I’ve mentioned William Gibson in my previous posts on political science fiction, African cyberpunk, and so on. (See the final links in the post.) But, here, this one’s especially for you.  And this one, too. Drop by again!


  3. You’d be thinking there might be some mention of the <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/China_Mi%C3%A9ville”>one prominent f/sf writer</a> who has actually written a <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Between-Equal-Rights-International-Materialism/dp/1931859337″>serious book on the theory of international law</a>.

  4. Henry: I didn’t mention China Mieville’s works here because this post is relatively focused on fiction dealing with near-future scenarios that may be coming to pass.  Mieville’s novels, with their mixture of steampunk and magic, take a different tack than the novels that were mentioned in this post.

    By the way, Mieville was mentioned in the comments to the previous “political science fiction” post, which was broader in scope. 

    And thank you for also pointing out that Mieville is also a scholar of international law, primarily focusing on Marxist international legal jurisprudence.

    Regarding the relationship of international legal jurisprudence to literature more generally (including a reference to Mieville), I suggest this post by Christopher Warren.

  5. Fair enough, but there’s The City and the City, which has lots to say about the power of informal norms in something closely resembling contemporary society, as well as breach and exception (I have a piece on this in the Boston Review from a few years back, but I don’t seem to have permission to post hyperlinks …)

  6. Henry: Note sure with what happened with the link function when you tried to post (sometimes our spam blocker is a bit overzealous).

    In any case, for everyone: here’s the link to Henry Farrell’s piece in the Boston Review about China Mieville’s novel The City and the City.

  7. I will pause from my reading and try to answer your excellent question.   International law must hierarchically organize each tablet/I-watch into a network of democratic participation, before it is too late.

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