Brian Vaughn and Marcos Martin's The Private Eye is a web only comic that has a critical view of the internet. Set in the not too distant future, in the year 2076, it takes place in a time in which values regarding privacy and anonymity have been completely transformed, or "revalorized"--to use Nietzsche's terminology. Privacy is held as a sacred right, so much so that everyone has a secret identity, or several, and masks to wear when they go out in public. A generalized secret identity might seem like a critical take on the conventions of the superhero comic, but Vaughn and Martin's critical target is less the conventions of their medium than those of our world.
The reason for this change of values is only given in a brief reference to something that happened to "the cloud," the collective shared data of the not too distant future--releasing everyone's most private thoughts, images, and ideas to the entire world. Aside from this bit of history, the bulk of the representation of the past is conveyed through "Gramps,"the grandfather of the P.I. at the center of the story."Gramps" is us, the people of the present, complete with tattoos and iphone, seen in our eventual old age and decline. He not only has the technology and vocabulary of a denizen of the present, but the values as well. He constantly references the values of openness and disclosure, the ubiquitous idea of "sharing" for which secrets are by definition suspect. It is later revealed that "Gramps" ideal of full disclosure is just that, an ideal. His own career as a doctor was ruined when his sexual relations with his patients were revealed in the cloud's explosion. Gramps is suffering from some kind of dementia, and it is this dementia that leaves him searching for a wifi connection long after the demise of the connected world, and espousing the values of total transparency even after those values have been his undoing. Gramps' dementia reflects on the personal level the generalized dementia of a society that thinks it can live an ideal of total disclosure.
Vaughn and Martin's comic is riddled with such askew glances at the values and ideals of our present. In the future is illegal to take a photograph of someone without their permission, and one character expresses complete surprise at the idea that anyone would be interested in such a thing as pictures of celebrities' babies, making us wonder why such casual voyeurism passes as entertainment. Eventually the narrative of the comic begins to frame different relation between our present and its imagined future. The private eye of the comic's title is first hired, as is so often the case, when a beautiful women enters his office, only in this case she is disguised as a tiger. The woman wants her own past investigated, wants to know what can be known about her in this world of secrecy and privacy. True to the conventions of genre this woman ends up dead, and the investigation into her case begins to unravel a dark conspiracy. With the latest issue, number five of a ten issue run, it begins to appear that this conspiracy involves the president of a television company installing microphones and cameras as well as transmitters in televisions--making it possible for them to receive as well as transmit images and sound. Televisions would disclose everyone's private life. It is hinted that he intends to bring back the internet, to reconnect an isolated world of private individuals, and benefit from access to everyone's private thoughts and actions. Of course what is presented as dark conspiracy in the comic is our everyday reality.
The Private Eye is not alone in this idea of the present as conspiracy. I can think of two other literary examples of this, although they belong to alternative history rather than science fiction. Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, a novel set in an alternate world in which the Axis powers won World War Two, has within its narrative a novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy in which the US and Great Britain were victorious. It is a world radically different from ours in which another world, one that is closer to ours without being identical, exists as fiction. There are two realities in the novel, one is presented as the unfolding of historical events, the other is a fiction created by one individual. Another work of alternate history, Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union is perhaps closer to The Private Eye. In that novel which takes place in alternate reality in which the post-holocaust Jewish state is in Alaska (and speaks Yiddish rather than Hebrew), a Jewish homeland in Palestine is the object of a conspiracy. In both novels a historical fact, something produced by the confluence of multiple forces, intentional and unintentional, is presented as something intentionally created by one writer, in Dick's novel, or by a hidden conspiracy, in Chabon's.
To return to The Private Eye then, the shift of reality, in this case the internet from complex historical formation to conspiracy has two principle effects. First, and most immediately, it raises the issues of causality, of the very possibility of one individual, of even an organized group bringing about such a momentous change as a war, a nation, or a new technological mode of communication (with its corresponding shift of values). One could argue that presenting the present as a conspiracy lapses into a "great man" theory of history; presenting what could only be the effect of multiple factors, technological, economic, political and cultural, as the effect of a single intention and goal. This is the limit and consolation of every conspiracy theory; its inability to represent the complexity of real historical change and the reassuring idea that people, no matter how sinister, are still in charge. However, this lapse back into individuals and intentions as the stuff of history is undercut by the second effect. The representation of reality as a conspiracy denaturalizes a given state of affairs in such a way as to make the everyday appear sinister. The constant disclosure of identity, desires, and location through the internet and social media can appear absolutely dystopian through a slight shift of perspective. (To frame it in science fiction terms, even the most neutral description of facebook, twitter, or instagram would probably sound like a paranoid dystopia if it were somehow transported back thirty years to the actual 1984).To view the present as an effect, not as something simply given, is already to raise the question of who could bring it about and what they might intend. The fictitious conspiracy helps see, helps us map in Jameson's sense, the powers and forces which constitute our present. The present as conspiracy is also the present as history.
In five issues The Private Eye does a remarkable job of skewering our current culture of disclosure, using fiction to envision the powers that benefit from such relations. It is also a great story and, as the images here attest, beautifully rendered.