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The Book That Predicts Occupy Wall Street: Bruce Sterling’s ‘Distraction’

If you’re confused about the point of Occupy Wall Street, here’s a great essay by Matt Stoller.

Or you can go even deeper (and weirder) and read Distraction, Bruce Sterling’s wildly entertaining and spookily prescient 1998 satire of American society in 2044. The book begins with our protagonist, political operative Oscar Valparaiso, trying to understand a video that shows a group of seemingly uncoordinated people showing up in a town and working together to demolish a bank in just a few minutes. (Sterling was describing a political flash mob five years before the term “flash mob” was even coined.) Throughout the course of the book, Oscar comes to understand the power of social-network political action and its implications for American democracy.

Oscar and his campaign crew — having just won a U.S. Senate election and now at loose ends — cross over into Texas from Lousiana, where they’re stopped by members of the nearby Air Force base for “voluntary contributions” to their “Air Force bake sale,” because the federal government’s budget crisis is so bad it’s unclear whether the base is being funded any more:

It had never occured to the lords of the consumer society that consumerism as a political philosophy might one day manifest the same grave systemic instabilities that Communism had. But as those instabilities multiplied, the country had cracked. Civil society shriveled in the pitiless reign of cash. As the last public spaces were privatized, it became harder and harder for American culture to breathe. Not only were people broke, but they were taunted to madness by commercials, and pitilessly surveilled by privacy-invading hucksters. An ever more aggressive consumer-outreach apparatus cause large numbers of people to simply abandon their official identities.

It was no longer fun to be an American citizen. Bankruptcies multiplied beyond all reason, becoming a kind of commercial apostasy. Tax dodging became a spectator sport. The American people simply ceased to behave.

The American economy collapsed years before the book takes place, with a vast divide between the moneyed elite and nearly everyone else, whose abilities have been made economically obsolescent by computing technology, international competition, and the demise of intellectual property. In one exchange, the campaign bus driver tries to explain to Oscar that the forgotten Americans are figuring out how to “make their own lives by themselves”:

“Why are there millions of nomads now? They don’t have jobs, man! You don’t care about ‘em! You don’t have any use for ‘em! You can’t make any use for them! They’re just not necessary to you. Not at all. Okay? So, you’re not necessary to them, either. Okay? They got real tired of waiting for you to give them a life. So now, they just make their own life by themselves, out of stuff they find lying around. You think the government cares? The government can’t even pay their own Air Force.”

“A country that was better organized would have a decent role for all its citizens.”

“Man, that’s the creepy part — they’re a lot better organized than the government is. Organization is the only thing they’ve got! They don’t have money or jobs or a place to live, but organization, they sure got plenty of that stuff.”

And this is only one piece of Distraction’s complex, silly, and dark world, which involves a war-time romance between Oscar and the brilliant neuroscientist Greta Penninger, whom he helps take over a scientific research facility on the budget chopping block as she works on remapping cognition. They then have to defend the facility from the takeover attempts of the insane governor of Louisiana, who is trying to save his state’s people as global warming puts it underwater. Meanwhile, the President is waging war against the Netherlands, and the senator Oscar elected, an eco-architecture billionaire, becomes mentally ill after conducting a hunger strike with all of his vital signs monitored by millions over the Internet.

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Sterling’s extrapolations from 1998 into the near-distant future verge on the absurd, but it’s the absurdity of a world changing faster than most people can adapt, one where reputation on social networks can translate into real political power, where it’s hard to tell if things are working great or broken beyond repair. In other words, it’s a lot like the world we live in today.