Kim Kardashian, COVID and escape to the cyburbs

Kim Kardashian’s trip to a private island with a few close friends has attracted some criticism from normal people who are unable to outrun this virus in their Gulfstreams, but she is hardly the only one percenter to be using her wealth as an alternative to social distancing, face masks and work-from-home lockdown misery. Douglas Rushkoff wrote eloquently about the phenomenon of the rich moving out of cities to comfortable mansions in the country to avoid the pandemic. He talks about the rich building their “escape pods” and (with what I imagine to be frightening prescience) how the journey from video doorbell to autonomous robots sentries is constrained by money, rather than by ethics.

Inept government responses to COVID are pushing those escape pods to escape velocity irrespective of the actual risk. Indeed, as Rushkoff goes on to say, he “can’t help but wonder if the threat of infection is less the reason for this newfound embrace of virtual insulation than it is the excuse”. The rich have had enough of the rest of us and they don’t want to be another country, they want to be another planet.

As a wage-slave scrabbling to make a living in the post-pandemic ruins of a career, I will never be able to afford that private island with ground-to-air missile defences and live-in help. But I can afford a nice chair for my study, some patio furniture of when it’s warm and high-speed broadband (props to Virgin, by the way). With this, I can retreat from a dangerous, unpleasant and confusing physical world into a controlled organised and above all safe virtual world. I am more than happy to commute through cyberspace rather than on crowded, unpleasant and disease-ridden trains.


Escape velocity, Woking-style.

There must be a lot of people thinking this way right now, judging by the deserted streets I saw in London last week. And it is interesting to me because I agree with Sam Lessin’s observation that if a result of the pandemic is more online working, online commerce, online education, online government and so on, then we will see that digital identity will be a crucial pivot. His point that “if the jobs people need are in digital rather than physical space, the internet’s side of the fight will gain a lot of power” is accurate and I think the consequences of that win are more significant and more far-reaching than may at first be obvious.

The digital identity that I use in the online world will be vastly more important to me than the physical identity that I might occasionally need at an airport. Click To Tweet

In other words, the digital identity that I use to traverse the highways and byways of the online world will be vastly more important to me than the physical identity that I occasionally need at an airport (should I ever get to fly anywhere again).

Never mind a flight to the suburbs, I predict a flight to the cyburbs.

The safe, digital space where I will earn a living is a cyburb, a little corner of the internet where I will live with people are who, broadly speaking, like me. Kind of like the gated community that my cousin retired to in America. A crucial difference, however, between these gated communities in cyberspace and their real-world equivalents in the Hamptons is that digital identity will form a more effective boundary than the barbed wire and armed guards of the gated communities that the rich will retreat to in the real world. The people living in the cyburbs will be happy to pay taxes for better broadband and efficient home delivery and neighbourhood security, but it is going to be pretty difficult to persuade them to pay tax to support public transport in the city that they never visit, police they never see and services for (as they see it) the unchecked angry youth roaming the city streets.

When the residents decide on a new ordinance, they can enforce it instantly and effectively and will exclude transgressors by removing access from their virtual selves. There may be all sorts of constitutional and legal issues with stopping people you don’t like from walking down your physical street, but there’s no problem at all with stopping them from walking down your virtual street. In a reputation economy, justice takes a different form: taking away your attributes can be much more of a punishment than putting you in jail. Life will be ordered and managed. It will be safe.

Out in the cyburbs, code is law.

It seems to me that if society divides across the online and offline fault line, then for a great many people the emerging new world looks more appealing than the old physical world. Lessin’s observation that “a world where people come to earn money mostly online and disconnected from the physical world is a world of internet ascendancy” reinforces the view set out in my book Identity is the New Money (LPP: 2014) that we are going back to the future. What I meant by this was that mobile phones, the Internet and social media allow us to escape the urban anonymity of the industrial revolution and organise ourselves by communities. In the neolithic world, of course, people lived in one community and its boundaries were geographic. Our brains were assembled for optimal interaction in the clan of around 150 people, a number well known to social scientists. In the online world, each of us will belong to multiple overlapping clans that are defined by what people are rather than who they are and the boundaries will be soft, defined by credentials not identity.

These clans will range from friends and family to work and play. Between my Dungeons and Dragons clan and my extended family clan and my Arrest The Prime Minister clan, I’m fine. You can see why people will prefer to live this way. If I break the rules of the Woking FC Season Ticket Holder’s clan, then I will be cast out. End of story. There won’t be a bill of rights any more than there is one for Facebook Groups, no more free speech than there is on Twitter and no more right to reply than there is on Instagram.

Cyburbia might sound like a virtual Disney village to you, a bland echo chamber existence devoid of creativity or imagination, but to a great many people it sounds like heaven.

(This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on Medium, 7th September 2020.)