In her brilliant and visionary new novel, ‘The Heart Goes Last’, Margaret Atwood puts the human heart to the ultimate test. Read this excerpt from her book, set in a near-future dystopia.
Digital technology has made it easier than ever to treat people like domesticated animals farmed for profit. You can no longer rent a car or a hotel room or buy much of anything without a credit card, which leaves a digital trail wherever it goes. You’re told you need a social security card, a health card, a driver’s licence, a bank card, a bunch of passwords. You need an “identity”, and that identity is digital. All your numbers and passwords – all the data that identifies you – is supposed to be private, but as we know by now, the digital world leaks like a sieve, and security on the internet is only as good as the next mastermind hacker or inside-job data thief. The Kremlin has gone back to using typewriters for a good reason: it’s a lot easier to smuggle a memory stick out of a secure area than it is to make off with a big stack of papers.
So, what to do? In William Gibson’s Neuromancer trilogy, most of the citizens are ear-tagged just like us, but some are able to exist under the radar by virtue of having no official record. Either they’ve wiped it or altered it, or they’ve avoided having one in the first place. But it would take a lot of agility and possibly a reservoir of basic survival skills for anyone to live without the required identity. Under a bridge, maybe; in a house, not.
The majority of us are double-plus unfree: our “freedom to” is limited to approved and supervised activities, and our “freedom from” doesn’t keep us free from a great many things that can end up killing us, with our bathtubs being just the beginning. Freedom from toxic chemicals in the air and water? Freedom from floods, droughts and famines? Freedom from defective automobiles? Freedom from the badly prescribed drugs that are killing hundreds of thousands of people a year? Don’t hold your breath.
It’s not all bad, however. All technology is a double-edged tool, and the very internet that has too many data-leaking holes in it also allows words to travel quickly. It’s easier to reveal abuses of power than it once was; it’s easier to sign petitions and to protest. Though even that freedom is double-edged: the petition you sign may be used by your own government in evidence against you.
One of Aesop’s fables concerns the frogs. They told the gods they wanted a king, and the gods threw down a log to be their ruler. It floated here and there and didn’t do anything, and for a while they were content. But then they began complaining, because they wanted a more active king. The gods, annoyed, sent them a stork, which ate them up.
Our problem is that our western governments, increasingly, are an unpleasant combination of both the Log King and the Stork King. They’re good at asserting their own freedom to spy and control, though bad at allowing their citizens as much freedom as they formerly enjoyed. Good at devising spy laws, bad at protecting us from the consequences of them, including false positives. Who says you are who you are? Whoever can alter your data.
Though our digital technologies have made life super-convenient for us – just tap and it’s yours, whatever it is – maybe it’s time for us to recapture some of the territory we’ve ceded. Time to pull the blinds, exclude the snoops, recapture the notion of privacy. Go offline.
Any volunteers? Right. I thought not. It won’t be easy.
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, CC OOnt FRSC (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award several times, winning twice. In 2001 she was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame. She is also a founder of the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a non-profit literary organization that seeks to encourage Canada’s writing community. margaretatwood.ca