I've become an eBay nut. This summer I've spent hours and hours browsing eBay, buying items at thrift shops, flea markets, and eBay, and reselling them. I've become my own business, open whenever I care to be and shipping to a worldwide clientele. There are millions of users of eBay, and tens of thousands of people making their living through the website.
In this article, I want to explore how science fiction has addressed the ideas that have led to eBay's success: global access to electronic sources of information, facilitated means of linking people of similar interests together, and channels of information exchange outside the traditional. SF guides us through new technologies; it provides us with fears (cloning, Frankenstein, genetic modification) as well as desires (rocket ships, universal translators). What SF authors think has a strong influence on what all of us think, through diffusion of the ideas via sources as far apart as Hollywood and Slashdot -- the very forces of idea diffusion that are the topic of this article.
Science fiction, because of its affinity for computers and technology, has always been quick to chart and extrapolate the effects of the wired world upon us all. Since many SF authors are computer or technology professionals (Vernor Vinge, Rudy Rucker, Charlie Stross, and Cory Doctorow, to name a few), they've experienced email and net connectivity from its infancy and worked it into their novels, which is why something like True Names is still so compelling, and why a thinly-disguised Usenet pops up in A Fire Upon the Deep.
These authors tend to focus on the positive effects of the communications technology that's at our disposal. Email and the Web become a method of communications among far-flung galaxies, as in A Fire Upon the Deep; developing consensus and building democracy, in the Ender Wiggin books or the Hyperion Cantos; or even of linking far-off worlds in cultural exchange, for instance, through the curious communications/cultural exchange in Delany's Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The method of communication technology links alien worlds together in an almost universally positive fashion.
There are, of course, limits to the positive effect of the spread of electronic communications -- another pervasive theme in science fiction is that the large media are not to be trusted. Newspapers in particular don't convey much meaning in SF; characters generally pick up a newspaper, perhaps rapidly printed out on the spot, in order to display their insider knowledge of the event that the newspaper glosses over -- the suggestion is often that the paper is in the hands of political bosses or wealthy corporate interests. It's usually worthless as a source for news. Broadcast news is even shallower. These news sources are for sheep, the common herd that is guided and shaped by what they hear and see into an "imagined community" receptive to the ideas of the powers that be. Email and online communities provide a site of resistance to this official "party line," or perhaps a place where intelligent agents mine the massive flow of information to produce items of specific interest for a character, or where colleagues or information sources provide pieces of crucial knowledge. I think it's safe to say that online information has replaced newspapers as the primary source of infodump in SF stories. The Internet, then, and the interconnection of humans through means other than the establishment, allows for people to avoid the apparatus of the news, and it does this by allowing individuals to link and speak to one another outside of the mechanisms of power.
More recent SF assumes that online communications has become familiar and usually doesn't emphasize it. That talking to people electronically has become commonplace for Americans, and so it doesn't sell stories, is perhaps a crass way to look at it. The Usenet extrapolation that seemed so clever and cutting-edge when A Fire Upon the Deep came out seems dated and a little absurd now. As our own use of the Internet has developed and we've learned what it's for, we have less need of science fiction to tell us what it's for.
What we've learned, mostly, is that the Internet is great for passing around news and information to friends, but perhaps not so great for big business. New methods of communication have made it easy for small groups to communicate, but centralized, structured online sources of information proved challenging to create. To take the example of, well, the publishing industry, which as a Strange Horizons reader you may be quite familiar with -- email, Usenet, and the Web have democratized publishing, opening a creative avenue to many (technologically savvy) folks who otherwise would not have had a chance for their work to gain an audience. The profusion of science fiction e-zines and online magazines, reflecting the lower publishing costs and barriers to entry for online publication, is one obvious example; we can afford to run this magazine as a non-profit funded by donations partly because the costs of online publications are lower than the costs of print publications.
The debate over this sort of "thousand flowers blooming" over the Internet is whether it's ever profitable. Certainly, online 'zines have replaced the home-printed variety, but they're not too much more profitable. The dotcom crash wiped out many of the eager young startups, and in the publishing world, often these ventures are not profit-making activities; even high-profile electronic magazines like Feed and Slate have run into dire financial trouble and either collapsed or are on life support. While the material is still out there, and while artistically these measures may be successful, financially they have not been.
Instead of looking at real-world online business, SF authors, particularly left-leaning ones, have built their ideas of the future of business from the tendency toward globalization and consolidation among real-world companies. This has led to pictures of sinister globe-spanning conglomerates with the power to buy whole worlds; consider Kornbluth and Pohl's The Space Merchants, the hypercorporations in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy, or the faceless Corporation in the Alien movies. As the universe gets bigger, the theory goes, so do the companies, and as they get bigger, they get badder. Even the libertarian Vinge displays some of this scaling with his massive Qeng Ho fleet. These forces are enormous, and with their enormousness comes a callousness towards the individual and a destructive, self-serving impulse that makes them a great villain for a story.
This globalization does also allow the global exchange and purchase of information through the Internet. However, in science fiction what you buy and sell through the net is mostly contraband. In cyberpunk tales, you can buy and sell information, get files from any corporation you like -- for instance, via the collective of Scadinavian university hackers that Case contacts in Neuromancer, or the anonymous information sources that abound in Greg Egan novels. (To be sure, the cyberpunk tradition builds off of age-old hacker BBSes and anarchist cookbook files; much more of the early content on the real-world net was illegal or at least of questionably legality, which is perhaps merely reflected in the fiction.)
This tradition of anonymous theft and crime, of the 'net being a virtual red-light district, conflicts with stories of the last few years where e-commerce is a simple, transparent, seamless method of ordering new items from established buyers, one-click shopping a la Amazon.
Let me now return to eBay. eBay, to me, suggests that a person-to person form of communication across vast distances can also foster a person-to-person form of trade across vast distances, providing an alternative to the megacorporation as much as the Internet provides an alternative to the newspaper or the news broadcast.
The hackers and information brokers in cyberpunk underground economies succeed precisely because of their anonymity. Sellers on eBay succeed due to their identity, to their carefully-developed profile of completed transactions and attestations from trusted members. Substantial goodwill and esteem can provide financial benefits -- a trust-based economy, a theme explored in some detail by Cory Doctorow. What it does is allow individuals to maintain the degree of recognition of corporations, and the trust of those far from them and unable to size them up in person.
Is it too much to think that interplanetary or interstellar trade could be organized on an eBay model?
There are, of course, barriers to entry that create difficulties with such an idea. Communications latency is one; with noticeable delays in communications even across our own planet, transacting business across the solar system would require hefty delays, and further would be extremely difficult, barring FTL communications. (Of course, FTL tech is often easily available in SF.) Shipping is another biggie -- it's hard to imagine rocket engines delivering trade goods for a profit across a galactic empire. But in-system shipping, or the invocation of anti-gravity engines or "jump" drives, make it potentially worthwhile again. On Earth right now, shipping goods anywhere is economically feasible, and it's perhaps not too much of a jump to make it feasible across a galactic empire, since what good is SF if it doesn't tell us about our own world?
Perhaps I've been swayed by eBay's propaganda to view it as a reasonable alternative that allows individuals control over their fate. While the anonymity that trading online provides will always make it attractive for those dealing in things that the governments wish to ban (pornography, drugs, pirated information), I would like to think that it also provides a pipeline for sales outside of the giant corporation structure, a way for distant folk to reach one another without the intervention of a world-gobbling force.
eBay is a really simple idea. I wonder if the dotcom frenzy of the '90s robbed science fiction of some good narratives; people who had a dynamite idea for a new electronic product fled to Silicon Valley and got start-up capital rather than writing some stories about what they'd come up with -- imagine if the cyberpunk authors had gotten startup money to produce some of the things in their novels! But eBay has proven its concept through economic success, and now it remains for SF to catch up to its reality and follow up on the ideas of contact across vast distances.
Copyright © 2003 Fred Bush
Fred Bush is Senior Articles Editor for Strange Horizons.