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.