Will Bradley, 1999
For the publication 'Three Public Projects'

You might say I'm crazy for thinking it but I truly believe life now is better than it's ever been. One reason, I'm a businessman, and business is good. But more than that, life is good. It's treating me well. Let me describe a typical day. It's summertime right now and the sun rises early, but I get up late, which suits me, and when I'm ready I call some people on the private line - I guess you'd say they were my business associates - and we all meet up. We have a little place on the edge of the city, it doesn't look like much, four walls and a door, but low key is the thing these days. If you don't want every Tom, Dick and Harry turning up on your doorstep and sticking their nose in and you don't have the option of muscle-bound doormen or steel shutters you just have to keep it quiet, anything too flashy and the lowlife'll rumble you double-quick, and if not that then it's the teen crowd, the under-16s still wandering the streets when they should be in school, nothing better to do than come round and graffiti your living room - nothing changes. But it doesn't cost us anything and if there's trouble here we can just move on and set up somewhere else. So we meet and we exchange information, find out who's got what, how the market's looking, what stock we need to offload, what's worth buying up, that kind of thing, and thus prepared we head into the city proper, the old town. Travel is quick and easy, like most of life here is quick and easy, and the centre is still standing, looking pretty much the same as it always did - which is a weird mixture of neo-classical shapes and minimalist 1990s styling, a pastiche which has somehow become the standard we all refer to when we think about the past.

The streets are busy, all kinds of funny-looking people walking around, and we love them all, no discrimination. Love everyone, that's what I say, and why? Because everyone is a potential customer, especially when you're in a business like this. We put the sign up and straight-away the day starts for real, the good people of the city crowding round, trying to work their way into the best position, everybody shouting at once and maximum concentration essential. If we couldn't deal with it, we wouldn't still be here. But we can and that's why we've lasted while so many others have faded away. OK, I hear you say, what exactly is it that you do? Everything, is the answer. What exactly are you selling that's so popular? It's obvious - we're selling anything, anything that's popular. In a word, we're agents. And we're the best. We work between the buyers and the sellers, we set the prices and we take a cut. No warehouses, no sales staff, no overheads, no problem. We clean up because the market is so complex. Why? Because it's a barter economy, and nothing is straightforward. Someone has plenty of home-grown food, but he wants an education for his children. Someone can teach reading and writing but she needs to heat her apartment. Someone has fifty drums of fuel-oil but they have to eat. You get the picture.

A year ago, I was nothing I was nobody, but I'm not ashamed. I could turn round to you and say hey! you thought I was a loser, but look at me now! But that would be pointless. You don't remember what I was like then, because I was nothing, I was nobody. When the virtual city went online I was just like the rest of the lowlife, trying to keep myself alive by any means necessary - if you didn't look out for yourself, nobody else would, that was the plain truth. And I wasn't interested, to be honest, until the trouble started. I figured it was just another leisure activity for the leisured classes, something to do before the restaurants opened. Another way to tell that half the population were living it up at the expense of the other half. I hadn't seen the possibilities. That was an oversight, and I blame myself, sure, and what's worse is that it took a bunch of hippies to open my eyes. Hippies. Who knew they were still around?

To begin with, this place, the virtual city I mean, was just one big chat alley, a kind of city-wide singles bar. That wasn't how it was meant to be, it wasn't meant to be any one thing, just a place you could go and talk mostly, but it took a while for anyone to figure out how to do something useful with it. After the blip in the birth-rate came the software pirates, then the advertisers and the architects - online product demonstrations, virtual walk-thru tours of ideal homes for the rich and tasteless, that kind of thing. Then it started to get a little more interesting, with a strange combination of bad music and local politics flashing up on the telescreens in the real city, mother-and-baby groups versus bedroom techno impresarios all trying to get their point across. And after that it all happened very fast.

The hippies (OK, I admit I don't know who they were, but they looked like hippies to me - freaky avatars they had, and nothing much else to do with their time, that much is certain) started the Campaign for Clean Government. It was a simple idea. Anyone who had hard evidence - not just personal vendettas or gossip, although that was involved - of government corruption could pass it anonymously to these guys and they would distribute it round the virtual city, post it on the telescreens complete with photos, video, the works. They'd give the whole story out to anyone they met and even name names. Big names. The focus on corruption made it hard for the authorities to break it down on purely political grounds. For the first time, there was a way for people to get their voices heard in public. The Campaign took off in no time and soon it had plenty of offshoots, the Campaign for Honest Corporations, the Campaign for Ethical Treatment of Checkout Operators, the Campaign Against Landlords, the Campaign for the Liberation of the Bored and Lonely, so many that they all began to blur together and the whole operation became known simply as Àthe Campaign'. That's not to say that is was an alliance, because it wasn't. As far as I could tell the groups themselves never really linked up, I don't think they even had much formal structure. If you agreed with what they were doing, you could join, except you didn't even have to join - it's not like there were membership cards or entrance exams. You just had to join in, to become part of it, keep passing on the information, keep working on the politicians and the public. Do you remember Game Boys? or Space Invaders? Those crazes that would sweep the city for a year or so then disappear? Well, I thought, this is more of the same, that's what it looked like. It was a big game, played out in this virtual space, except this time the people playing had the illusion that it mattered and that gave them a passion for it. Like the Lottery, I thought, you play because there's a one-in-a-million chance that something useful will actually happen, but in reality, forget it. As usual, I was wrong.

The first hint that something serious was up came in the middle of a pointless real-world political sex-scandal. Turned out the mayor had been carrying on with some young assistant and then lied about it afterwards. Big deal. The underground press were jumping about because he was getting down with his insignificant other while he was on the office phone, making political deals, but even that failed to get the population interested and the whole thing was set to blow over until the Campaign got involved. For the first time, I was impressed. Somebody had leaked them a tape of the mayor during this moment of political miscalculation, the tape of the call in question, and in no time it was everywhere, virtual city-wide saturation, and up on the big screen playing nightly to a packed house. The tape was shocking, but the shock wasn't the sex, which was ordinary, but the phonecall, which was sleazy. The phonecall was from a Mafia syndicate, offering millions of dollars to the party in return for the freedom to run gambling syndicates across the state. The mayor twisted and turned, trying desperately to hold it together for the TV cameras, but no luck. Good-bye. Don't think for a minute that I'm anti-corruption - corruption is my life - but even I had to admit it was beautiful to watch. Score one to the good guys.

That episode put the situation into overdrive. Everyone who had ignored the whole virtual city experiment, the barely-coping-with-reality-so-leave-me-alone element of the population and me included, suddenly got interested. We wanted to see what it was all about, and were we surprised. The predictable nonsense of the early days was still there, sure, but there was different feeling about the whole place. It wasn't just a big recreation ground for the technocrats, neither was it simply a clone of the real city. It was something totally other, like nothing I'd ever seen before, and right then I felt a rush of excitement, a sense that the most unlikely things were possible, even a way out of my hopeless situation, and believe me that was an unlikely thing. I got myself a terminal, best not to ask how, and I went in 100%.

At first I was a tourist in my own city, that's what it felt like. The streets were familiar, the buildings in the centre not-quite-exactly like the real thing, the people bizarre. I had an off-the-shelf avatar, standard issue and person-shaped, and I think I was the only one - even now, when I see another amusing cartoon clone or horror-film zombie I reach for the fire button, but the programmers forgot to include one. I soon worked out that most of the action was hidden, on the edges, in the new constructions that were branching out all over, or in private, invitation-only conversations, but there was still enough going on in public to keep me occupied, and I decided to watch and learn. The Campaign was the obvious place to start, because they were public and proud of it. Every day a hundred meetings and little working groups, unfocused, barely connected but somehow co-ordinated. One of the tricks was to keep the Campaign's broadcasts on the telescreens going, because the screens were pretty much up for grabs, you only had to turn up and join the queue to get your material shown. So they worked in teams, lining up fifty at a time to make sure they got the space. It's always the way, make something public access and the local worthies get together and take it over. Still there was a kind of unspoken agreement that the Campaign never tried to use every screen, and they only worked at peak times, morning and evening, catching the rush-hour commuters. And just like TV, the rest of us freaks ended up with the late-night slot, broadcasting to the insomniacs, the alcoholics and the lonely. I got the hang of it soon enough, and then I began to notice the paranoia.

In the virtual city, the Campaign were irrelevant. The kinds of injustice they thought they were fighting just didn't exist - there were no politicians, no corporations, no race or gender issues and no weapons. The virtual city was developing on totally different lines, a loose affiliation of interest groups, a shortcut to the underground economy, a place to do business informally - and plenty of openings for a quick-thinking middle-man in the complex multi-transactions that characterise an economy with no official currency. In the real city, contrary to their best intentions, the Campaign were causing chaos. What began as a moral crusade, Joe Public taking on the system, had mutated into an uncontrollable free-for-all, complete with accusations and counter-accusations, propaganda, fake evidence, fake rebuttals of real evidence, false accusations of false denials of fabricated crimes. Every attempt to nail the corrupt and the greedy, every chance to expose the self-serving bosses and the bent corporations was turning back on itself. Public life in the traditional sense was fast becoming impossible, and the only people to really profit were the crooks. If that sounds backwards, you're not concentrating: once this kind of all-encompassing, spiralling paranoia takes hold, there's no hope in honesty, and when basic trust fails, the prize always goes to the most audacious and plausible lie. I point this out in passing, without surprise or interest. Politics was ever this kind of remote and unfunny farce, and day-to-day impact on my life: zero.

I began spending more and time online, in the calm and satisfying and hassle-free zones of the virtual city and by this time the two places, the real and digital versions, resembled one another very little. More and more it was becoming possible to live, work, shop, chat, hustle and hang out in the virtual world for days on end, interaction in real life being something to avoid wherever possible, and I wasn't slow to follow the trend. A business like mine, no fixed premises and no fixed product, crossed over with ease, and the growing obssession with the online life opened up new opportunities all around. Think of us as something like the stock exchange, or more (if you follow these things) like the commodities market, a kind of floating index through which any variety of transaction can pass, even coming finally to deals in actual space with actual things and good old-fashioned cash, something most people now happily pay to avoid.

The situation on the ground was deteriorating rapidly, in inverse proportion to the number of people who noticed or cared. Everyone was staying home and working over the network. To be on the streets meant you were a delivery boy or a housebreaker; to socialise in public was to kiss your status goodbye and mix with trash - trash like me. The Campaign continued to pursue their various ideas of justice, but they were slow to understand how deeply things were changing. Their operation still relied on getting information into the real world, where the telescreens now broadcast to half-deserted streets.

I spent some time trying to work out exactly what had happened, but it was all too complex to get a clear idea. One thing I could be sure of: people had wanted something to change. The virtual city offered another possibility, and people took it. But this wasn't an end, it was just another point in a long process. The two versions of the city had changed places, reversed. The virtual city had become the everyday reality for the majority of the population, and the real city a strange, marginal area. Political control was breaking down.

The Campaign saw their chance then, and they took to the streets, the real streets for the first time. Life in the virtual city had made them complacent, and they figured that all they had to do to finally achieve their aims was turn up in force. But they hadn't counted on the apathy of the majority, or the organised resistance that the authorities could still muster, and their first attempts to occupy the government buildings ended in disaster. The riot police met them head on, and nobody was prepared to fight it out. That might have been the end of it, but inevitably, in retaliation, the police started closing down the network servers. Big mistake.

What happened next will never be known for sure, because so many of those involved, hippy hackers and secret police, Campaign activists and mafiosi, were expert at covering their tracks. All most of us saw was the outcome, and it wasn't pretty. When the virtual city came under threat, it turned thousands of ordinary people into protestors, and the demonstrations that broke out became more and more like riots. Anyone who could be linked to the Campaign was subject to instant arrest. At the same time, the government computer systems collapsed, the price of everything doubled, and I made a fortune overnight.

The civil war that followed was short, violent, and inconclusive. The government fell apart as quickly as the citizens lost their enthusiasm for fighting. The city was shellshocked, and the people almost embarrassed at what they'd done. The motivation of the Campaign, and then ultimately of the city-wide riots, had simply been to break the discredited power structures that had controlled their lives. There was no sense of what might replace them, and no viable plan for the future.

So this is how it is. As the city struggles to get a sense of what happens next, I find that business is better than ever. We work in the virtual city, among the digital buildings that bear little resemblance to the battered and broken structures in the centre of the real town. We have an office, or something like an office, out in the suburbs where building is a free-for-all activity, and we have our own network of dealers and delivery boys, storerooms and suppliers in the real world who keep things running smoothly.

It's not a popular view, but I can't help hoping that things don't change again for a while. That doesn't seem too likely, though. People are starting to realise that there was a plan, after all, that they had a future in mind, they just hadn't noticed. This place, the virtual city, is the closest thing we have to a way forward. Everybody has had a hand in making it what it is, and it works. The word is that the surviving Campaign organisers are going to try and find a way to take the structures that have developed here back into the real city, to start rebuilding. I can think of worse ideas.

I know it's easy to say now, but I figure that if things had been different, we could have achieved the same result without the chaos, the violence and the trauma. Imagine the same experiment, the virtual city, in a place that wasn't already on the edge of disaster. Imagine what could have been achieved if the population hadn't been divided by corruption and exploitation. Imagine how well the virtual city might work if it could find a positive relationship with the real world, instead of being used, more than anything, just to escape. Imagine what could have happened in a city that was worth saving?

Related tools

We use cookies.
That's ok!
What? Why?