Book Reviews Culture Technology Virtual Reality

Here’s How Charles Dickens Wrote About The History Of The Future

The History of the Future is a modern telling of a Tale of Two Cities.

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Does this quote resonate with you?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . .

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens wrote that quote in 1859 as the opening of his novel, A Tale of Two Cities. It could have been the opening of Blake J. Harris’s book, The History of the Future. Harris tells us the story of a teenager, Palmer Luckey, who’s fascination with modding hardware and passion for virtual reality re-ignite an industry and launches VR into the mainstream.

Dickens tells us the tale of the French Revolution through the eyes of people who lived it as the time (fictional though they may be). We saw the indifference and snobbishness of the aristocracy. We saw injustice. In the History of the Future, we live the life cycle of a tech startup, where our protagonist falls victim to the injustice of the modern elite.

We are not quite to a revolution against our modern aristocracy. Big Tech still looms over us, saying “let them eat cake”. We can’t help but live in their cities, take part in their world order. We live in their world and pay taxes in the form of our personal data. We buy up what they are selling while at the same time hating ourselves for living so much of our lives on their social media. We grumble about privacy complaints, click bait headlines, and fake news. We are addicted to our devices and our screens but some of us are starting to break free.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

When Charles Dickens wrote these opening words to A Tale of Two Cities, he did it to set the stage for the beginning of the French Revolution. It was the best of times for the aristocracy. You can recall Queen Antoinette saying, “let them eat cake”. For the peasants and working class however, life was not so great. They were forever kept below the elite by a caste system. A child was killed in the book, trampled by an aristocrat’s carriage who didn’t give a second thought about it. In the same way, we are trampled by Big Tech companies who crush us with lack of empathy towards our privacy and personal data.

The best of times…

It is the best of time for Big Tech companies Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple because they reap the benefits of being the only player in the space. Virtually unchallenged by competition, each tech company pulls in billions of revenue. Not only do they have billions in revenue, but they have oodles of our personal data. They use our data to manipulate our behavior and keep us returning to their platforms and services.

The government makes attempts to understand and regulate the industries that Big Tech rules but so far they have fallen short. Congress displayed their ineptitude in understanding Big Tech in hearings with Google and Facebook. At one point a congressman asked Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, if Google tracked his movement. The congressman was holding up an iPhone.

Worst of times

In a Tale of Two Cities, Dickens describes the peasant class’s stuggle to survive and be treated with dignity under the French aristocracy. We, the consumers face a similiar problem today. We use social media without fully understanding why it hooks us in. We are divided on Facebook because they discovered that negative content drives more views and shares. Ergo, that’s what we see. Social media creates tribal rifts, separating us from our common humanity towards one another.

Caught up in the undertow of online content, traditional news media struggles to find their feet. For years, traditional media outlets and newspapers have gone out of business due to fresh, online publications. Independent journalists, comedians, and news pendants create their own platforms. Ad revenue from videos and subscription services make it more possible for individual creators to thrive online. This threatens traditional media and is part of the attacks and turmoil we see online today.

What does all of this have to do with The History of the Future?

What does all of this have to do with The History of the Future? Blake J. Harris told us that what he wants us to take away from the book is that we should be able to trust the media instead of taking each other to the guillotine over news bites.

In a Tale of Two Cities, Dickens lays out three major themes. (It’s been a while since I read the book so I’m using SparkNotes to help me out). The major themes are Resurrection, Sacrifice, and the, “Tendency Toward Violence and Oppression in Revolutionaries”. We see each of these themes in The History of the Future.

Before we dive into how a Tale of Two Cities’ themes correlate with our culture today, we first have to get to know the characters.

The Characters

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Darnay

Sydney Carton

Lucie Manette

Marquis Evrémonde

Monsieur Defarge

Madame Defarge

The History of the Future

Oculus

Palmer Luckey

Virtual Reality

Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook

The Media

Charles Darnay / Oculus

Charles Darnay is a French aristocrat by birth but chooses to live in England because he “cannot bear to be associated with the cruel injustices of the French social system” (sparknotes). Darnay rejects the cruel injustices of the French social system but he decides to go back to Paris anyways to rescue the man who kept of his father’s estate from the revolutionaries. I liken Darnay to Oculus, the company, because they prided themselves as different from other tech companies.

Oculus’s goal at the forefront wasn’t to sell out aristocracy. Oculus’s mission was to make great VR. The people at Oculus wanted to bring their love for VR to the people. However, Oculus accepts, like Darnay, that they are a part of the aristocracy when they’re bought by Mark Zuckerberg. Even though they think, “some people think Facebook is evil…so I’m wondering how that will affect the perception of Oculus” (Harris 3). In the end, Oculus has a chance stand up for Palmer Luckey in public but they decline too for fear of being sent to the guillotine themselves.

Sydney Carton / Palmer Luckey

Sydney Carton and Palmer Luckey are not an exact fit but their story arcs end at the same place. Carton is an “insolent, indifferent, and alcoholic attorney”. He “has no real prospects in life and doesn’t seem to be in pursuit of any” (Sparknotes). However, he does love Lucie (virtual reality) and his feelings for her transform him into a man of merit. He chooses to go to the chopping block in the place of Darnay.

Palmer Luckey is anything but insolent, indifferent, or an alcoholic. Harris describes Luckey as someone who mods their life to fit their own desires. Luckey was a “bright, bubbly home-schooled boy who had started taking college courses when he was only fifteen” (Harris 8). However, people who passed by his trailer parked in his parents driveway, thought what a “monument of wasted potential”. Little did they know that Luckey would re-ignite an industry and unknowingly be sent to the guillotine after selling his creation to the aristocracy (Facebook).

Marquis Evrémonde / Mark Zuckerberg

Marquis Evrémonde and Mark Zuckerberg are an easy comparison. Both are of the elite class. Marquis Evrémonde is a French aristocrat. He, “shows absolutely no regard for human life and wishes that the peasants of the world would be exterminated” (Sparknotes).

I do not believe that Zuckerberg wants anyone exterminated but he does represent those in the aristocracy who disregard our personal data and what is done with it, all for the benefit of Facebook. He shows no remorse for Facebook’s business practices, “why it operated that way, and what this all meant for the future of privacy, social interactivity, and even liberal democracy” (Harris 3).

Lucie Manette / Virtual Reality

In a Tale of Two Cities, Lucie Manette represents love. Darnay and Carton both love her. Her love brings her father back to life after his years long imprisonment in Bastille. Dickens often refers to her as the “golden thread”. In The History of the Future, Lucie Manette is virtual reality. VR is what brings everyone together. It is what brings “the season of light”.

The Defarge’s / Facebook / The Media

Here’s where it gets interesting. You may think that Monsieur and Madame Defarge would be us, the people. They are after all the small business owners and peasants who start the revolution. Monsieur Defarge is, “dedicated to bringing about a better society at any cost” even though he shows kindness towards Manette (Lucie’s father). But what does that mean, to bring about a better society at any cost? That’s not something we, the everyday people are concerned with. We, the people, wish to live out our own unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness without some entity or aristocracy trying to define what that is for us. No, Monsieur Defarge is Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube.

These companies are bending, giving way to the demands of the real revolutionaries. They fire, de-platform, and de-monetize on demand. Their rules are nebulous and any sign of kindness towards one marked for execution is a sign of weakness. So, who does that make Madame Defarge?

Madame Defarge is The Media. She is a “cruel revolutionary…whose hatred fuels her tireless crusade.”

“Madame Defarge spends a good deal of the novel knitting a register of everyone who must die for the revolutionary cause. Unlike her husband, she proves unrelentingly blood-thirsty, and her lust for vengeance knows no bounds.”

Sparknotes

This past week we saw the register ourselves when a Vox reporter went after Steven Crowder, a conservative comedian on YouTube. At first YouTube (Monsieur Defage) said that they wouldn’t de-monetize Crowder but they did say that he would have to remove a link to his T-shirts. That wasn’t enough for the Vox reporter (Madame Defage). The next day Crowder’s whole channel was demonetized.

It wasn’t just Crowder’s channel. History channels who educated viewers about Nazi Germany were taken down.

The New York Times published a story blaming YouTubers for turning them “alt-right”. YouTuber Philip DeFranco (who I don’t think is even conservative) was shown in one of the post’s photos.

The worst offense of all could be supporting Donald Trump. That’s the crime that ended Palmer Luckey at Facebook.

Sacrifice for a Better Society

In a Tale of Two Cities, Darnay and Carton as described as looking alike. So alike in fact that Carton was able to switch places with Darnay (so that Darnay could escape execution) without the revolutionaries noticing. Palmer Luckey is Oculus and in many ways Oculus will always be Palmer Luckey. Oculus was an idea that started in Luckey’s trailer. Luckey, holding DK1 in Oculus’ Kickstarter video will remain online (even if scrubbed from YouTube).

Luckey made the Media’s register of “everyone who must die for the revolutionary cause” when they found out he was the anonymous donor to a group who wanted to put up billboards against Hillary Clinton for president. The billboards where in ill-taste (internet memes and “shit posts” don’t translate well to the real world). That was enough for his slandering in the media (because he didn’t get enough flak already for selling Oculus to Facebook).

“Maybe it’s not right to jump to conclusions based on news bites.”

Attendee at the VR Book Club

In the VR Book Club, one person spoke about how they remember Luckey being in the news. When they started reading The History of the Future they thought Palmer Luckey was a bad guy, that he deserved what he got. But he changed his mind after reading the full story of a kid with an idea and courage to see it come to fruition, whose innocence got the best of him in the end.

The person said to our group, “maybe it’s not right to jump to conclusions based on news bites.” Harris told us that when he spoke to Luckey, Luckey didn’t blame people who insulted him. His reaction was “wow, all these people are being misled”.

That’s what the mob does.

The mob misleads, they slander, they do and say whatever they want to get their way. They bring to the guillotine anyone and everyone because they lead with fear. The real revolution has to combat the hate with love. Unfortunately, virtual reality wasn’t enough. People’s love for VR wasn’t enough to stop execution from happening.

Can we blame the media? Yes. Can we understand what they’re doing? I think also yes. Social Media platforms are threatening old media’s business models and reporters’ jobs. Independent journalists who are self-funded or make their living through YouTube ad revenue are taking the establishment head on. We can’t keep falling for the bully mob the Media has become. “You should be able to trust the media”, Harris tells us.

Dickens warns us of revolutionaries’ tendencies towards violence and oppression

How can we turn the tide of hate and oppression in our society? One of the themes in a Tale of Two Cities is that violence begets violence. Dickens shows us the evil nature of the aristocracy through the character Marquis Evrémonde who rides over children in his carriage. We feel sympathetic towards the French Revolutionary cause. No one should be subjected to such a harsh caste system. Yet, when Darnay is arrested over and over we see that violence towards our fellow man doesn’t get us any closer to a better society.

Redemption

It’s not too late for us. We can turn the tide by practicing compassion. Just like the member in the VR Book Club who came to the conclusion that he shouldn’t judge people based off news snippets, we shouldn’t judge each other for a single Tweet. We can soothe violent tendencies by recognizing that social media guides us towards tribal behavior. What makes us a society is our power to suppress our tribal tendencies. We need to start acting with compassion online. We need to not fall for the click-bait headlines that Facebook feeds us. They know hate-based news generates more views.

Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. These are all advertising machines. They use us for our data to feed us ads. If we stop falling for it, we can show them that’s not the type of society we want to live in. I realize it’s not realistic to ask everyone to delete their Facebook account. But we can use it less. We can open our eyes to how it affects our lives. We can act by gathering information first and once we have that information act with compassion.

Facts may not care about your feelings, but we can care about each other. I want to live in a society where were treat each other as fellow human beings, not enemies based on a political spectrum. I don’t expect to agree on everything. In fact, agreeing on everything can stifle innovation and creative problem solving. But I do expect that we can treat each other with respect; in person, online, in the metaverse or otherwise.

Dickens believes in the possibility of resurrection and transformation and I think Harris does too. According to Sparknotes, “Sydney Carton’s death secures a new, peaceful life for Lucie Manette.” In the same way, Luckey’s departure from Facebook ensures the continuation of consumer VR. Luckey was recorded saying, “Selling Oculus to Facebook was the best thing that ever happened to the VR industry even if it wasn’t super great for me.”


Read Part 1: The Future of ‘The History of the Future’

Read Part 3: The Future of Social VR: Facebook Horizon

Featured Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

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