Handcuffs of the Future

“Call it freedom. It’s based on control. Everybody connected together. Impossible anybody should ever get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the Dick Tracy in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? It’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, the handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about in the Pentagon. Worldwide martial law” (Bleeding Edge p. 420).


Well damn, there’s the paranoia that I’ve been hearing riddles Pynchon. This scene is between Maxine and her father Ernie near the end of the book. There are up late at night watching TV and talking about the legacy of the Cold War. Ernie mentions that the Internet was “conceived in sin”(p. 420), a reference to the fact that DARPANet was the first real inception of the idea of a distributed system with no centrality to it. But it was created because of the threat of nuclear Holocaust, hence the “conceived in sin”. There is a lot going on in these few pages, and it is one of the places in the novel that Pynchon allows the characters to express concrete views about the technology that is ubiquitous in their environment, but so often goes uncommented upon.

The first line should immediately ring familiar, as Ernie is discussing a control society. The interpreting part of his description is that he seems to make this jump from surveillance to martial law. The first time I read this, I had to stop and re-read the paragraph to make sure I understood it correctly. The idea that Ernie is postulating is in direct contradiction to my own conception of what martial law means. Martial law, to me, means soldiers in the street and tanks on the corners, but Pynchon, through Ernie, is postulating an alternative. First let us break down why my conception of martial law is what it is. I believe it is because I still tend to think of power, especially military power, as an embodied presence with the ability to inflict physical harm or destruction on the environment that contains it. So the power of the military comes from their ability to perpetuate destruction. Pynchon is disagreeing with me I think. He sees power now as information. To him, the ability of the Pentagon to know where everyone is is tantamount to the same type of control that tanks on the corner provide. They no longer need to physically inhibit or destroy the world. They can control people by the information that the people freely give to them.

The line about the rubes is one of my favorites from the novel. I remember when I was younger, hearing people talk about how if the government could, they would love to have everybody implanted with a tracking device. It seemed so surreal to me that a democratic country would ever allow the government to do something like that, but as it turns out, they don’t have to. People will line up outside of the Apple store for days to buy their tracking devices. The control has been subsidized and capitalized. They don’t need to force anyone to do anything, we willingly enter into the control society, with our eyes open, but according to Pynchon I think, not really seeing.

Also, side note, I like how Pynchon gives one of the older people in the book the premonition of mobile Internet. Ernie for me took on the voice of Pynchon with a lot of what he said, and I just found that amusing.

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One Response to Handcuffs of the Future

  1. Well now. Going right to the heart of the matter.


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