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Ubik: Propensity and Anti-Propensity


Imagining the future in literature in some way creates a space for technology to advance. It’s not so much the mechanics of the technology, but a vision of what we desire the technology to accomplish. The production of desire precedes the will to create a technology. Pushing technology to the edges of its capability reveals the gap between what is possible and what is desired. From portable teleputers to rocket ships, we imagine our future states of desire. Bridging that gap is the business of new technology.

Books like ‘1984‘ and films like ‘2001‘ have been exceeded by the calendar, but the quality of their vision remains relevant. An interesting kind of disturbance happens when one of these literary visions begins to synchronize and emerge through contemporary society. The recent resurrection of Philip K. Dick is related to the ways in which his dystopian visions of the future are beginning to manifest in our daily life. The commercial, legal and political decisions that confront us as the Network becomes more developed stare at us from the pages of Dick’s novels. These decisions are akin to the moral issues created by the reorganization of society caused by the industrial revolution.


This train of thought was engendered by a recent reading of Dick’s novel ‘Ubik.’ In this novel, Dick lays out a world where ‘Pre-Cogs‘ can predict what will happen next. And to some extent, that knowledge creates the possibility of influencing what will happen next. We do this today with propensity modeling and choice architecture.

Our “search” engines tell us that if only they knew a little more about us, had access to a personal profile (identity), in addition to the complete record of our search history, they could use that context to provide more “relevant” results. In Dick’s world of “Ubik,” this process of propensity modeling is enhanced by the use of people with telepathic powers; a kind of joining of search technology and pre-cogs through a mechanical turk service.

Ubik also extends the concept of micropayments to its extreme. Every aspect of living has been “monetized” through the micropayments infrastructure. Opening the front door to your apartment requires the payment of five cents. Using the sink in the bathroom will cost you fifty cents. And the door and the sink know all about your payment history and if your credit is any good.

Things taken to their extreme create the desire for a balancing force, and in Ubik, this takes the form of the “prudence organization:”

“Ads over TV and in the homeopapes by the various anti-psi prudence establishments had shrilly squawked their harangues of late. Defend your privacy, the ads yammered on the hour, from all media. Is a stranger tuning in on you? Are you really alone? Are your actions being predicted by someone you never met? Terminate anxiety; contacting your nearest prudence organization will tell you if in fact you are the victim of unauthorized intrusions, and then, on your instructions, nullify these intrusions— at a moderate cost to you.”

– from Ubik, by Philip K. Dick

The inferential extension of a person’s trajectory and velocity allows for the sale of road signs on the path not yet traveled. (Except in Vermont where billboards aren’t allowed.) This power is currently held by a small number of corporate citizens of the Network. But as all new technology tends to travel the path from the leading edge to commodity, it will be dispersed to players of all shapes and sizes. One can easily imagine the regulations that will result from its abuse.

The business of removing the target from our backs started in a simple way with the national do not call list. However, the refinement of the targeting of an individual person’s desires based on harvesting real-time attention and gesture data on the Network continues at a ferocious pace. The anti-targeting forces are few and far between. The Attention Trust and the Gesture Bank imagined that we could take ownership of, and eventually barter, using that data. These ideas, and to some extent, the idea of vendor relationship management, attempt to turn the equation around. The individual captures their own value, or their micro-community’s value, and ultimately has the responsibility for determining what will happen with it. The option of complete invisibility or anonymity on the Network seems only to be practiced by black hat hackers.

There’s a set of data that can purchased about an individual today— tomorrow it will include your trajectory and velocity. Will there also be a service that makes you invisible to the tracking services? Is their a future in Prudence?

Published in culture desire economics identity network user data