Various Art Forms:

Shockwave Riders – July 9, 2023

Immortal dream

John Brunner (1934-95) was a science fiction writer who came, I think, the closest to predicting our current future. He excelled in foretelling the role of the individual in relation to the mass psychosis of crowds. And today we seem to be living in the world of The Shockwave Rider.

In that novel, the main character is a savant with databases, able to use his phone to hack in, write himself a new identity, and move on—usually after a serial catastrophe he has created for himself. He also uses, or manipulates, the people around him to his benefit. In the novel’s opening sequence, he is a preacher running an old-fashioned tent revival with a digital presence. One of his side gigs is operating a Delphi Poll—a concept that I think the current digital world is ready for.

The Delphi Poll is based on the old country-store bean-counting raffle. The clerk would fill a glass jar with dried beans and charge people a certain sum, say a dollar, to guess the number of beans. When the time limit was up, the clerk would open the jar and count the beans, and the person who guessed closest to the actual number would win the pool. In the story, Brunner’s premise is that if you averaged all the guesses of all the players, you would come to the number almost immediately, without having to count the beans. Some fools would guess “two,” and some would guess “a million.” But the majority would instinctively home in on the actual number. In Brunner’s words, applying this tendency of large groups of people in answering online questions, “While nobody knows what’s going on around here, everybody knows what’s going on around here.”

I’ve often wondered why somebody hasn’t started—and made a fortune at—conducting their own Delphi Poll about both esoteric and everyday questions. But I guess the work of political pollsters comes close.

Which brings us to the “work” of today’s online influencers.

I recently read an article about the “Keithadilla.” Apparently, someone on social media proposed making a Chipotle quesadilla with a few extra ingredients. For a lark, the cooks at a local Chipotle franchise bought the ingredients, made the concoction, and sold it to customers. And those who bought it liked it well enough to spread the word. Soon customers all over the country were asking for the Keithadilla and giving their local restaurants one-star reviews if they couldn’t supply it. Soon, Chipotle was forced to make and sell the Keithadilla nationwide and add it to their corporate menu.

Online democracy, or the work of a clever manipulator? You tell me. But John Brunner would have loved it. We are all shockwave riders now.