by Andy Marino
It seems like every time a city hosts the Olympics and draws the eyes of the world, it suddenly becomes a squeaky-clean poverty-free utopia. This doesn’t happen by magic: I remember reports of homeless people being given one-way bus tickets out of Atlanta before the games, as long as they agreed to never return. More recently, Beijing expelled migrant workers and cracked down on “undesirable” businesses. Governments like to play coy about these clean-up efforts, but there’s no mistaking them for what they really are: relocation projects designed to make one economic class of people invisible to another.
In UNISON SPARK, Eastern Seaboard City is divided by a massive canopy that separates sleek residences from the slums. Special IDs are required to move between sections, with horrible penalties imposed upon those caught sneaking from the subcanopy zones to the topside world.
This out-of-sight/out-of-mind attitude applies to the social network, too: logging in to Unison costs money, and subcanopy residents are denied access. It isn’t just pictures and status updates on a screen – it’s a fully immersive experience that reacts to a user’s likes and dislikes and changes itself accordingly. The social network isn’t all harmless fun, of course (you’ll have to read the book if you want to see its creepy side), but to the middle and upper classes it sure seems like a wonderful place.
When I was figuring out how these worlds were going to work, I thought about my own experiences as a city person. (New York City is probably the ignoring-people capital of the world, and I’ve been living there for eleven years). It’s easy for me to feel disgusted at the thought of exiling people on a massive scale just because they ruin the look of a nice downtown tourist area. But in a way, I make people in my city invisible, too. I’ve spent years training myself not to see, and now my own brand of mental relocation is practically automatic. Sometimes I have to remind myself to acknowledge another human being, because the reflex is to ignore.
I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure it should be the other way around.
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