Ender’s Game, nets, and Twitter harassment
In the 1985 novel Ender’s Game, one of my favorite YA sci-fi books, the “Nets” are the equivalent of the Internet, where characters can instantly communicate with likeminded people around the world to discuss and debate big ideas. What’s most interesting about the Nets is that Orson Scott Card wrote about them 5 years before the World Wide Web was a reality in real life.1
This idea always inspired me. There were good-faith discussions of complex geopolitical issues, and the inherent anonymity of the fictional system allowed anyone’s ideas, from any background walk of life, to be taken seriously and discussed earnestly. In some respects, Card was prophetic here: the Nets exist in real life, and they’re the stage for massively consequential political events and discussions. The Internet came true and fundamentally transformed how every facet of our global zeitgeist is created, debated, observed.
But imagine my disappointment when I realize that Twitter, and Reddit, and other platforms are the venues for this discussion. Whereas online anonymity was a vehicle for empowerment and representation in science fiction, in reality it gives license to hate speech and harassment.
Maybe the key was that the Nets in Ender’s Game were a consistently maintained and fairly policed platform, where members needed “Citizen Access” and needed to verify their identities to participate, albeit anonymously. Neo-Nazis or alt-right trolls would have had no place there.
Obviously, an ‘80s sci-fi book for kids is an unfair comparison with our current political climate.2 But thinking about the Nets put the systemic problems facing Twitter as a platform in stark relief. There isn’t a safe place on the Internet for good-faith discussions of important issues to happen in public. Until Twitter decides to act on the harassment and abuse on their platform, this will never be the venue for the kind of discourse that the Internet promised.
I know “ban the Nazis” seems simple, but I think truly solving this long-term would require pretty big changes to how online identities work, which presents problems for a lot of communities who deserve a seat at the table. I guess I’m saying that I don’t know the solution, but I think pressuring Twitter to take a stronger stance on harassment and abuse on their platform is a good start.