On first click, Omnipedia feels like the shadow-sister of Wikipedia: empty white space with the occasional image, marked up by slim black text and iconic blue hyperlinks. But we are on a different internet now. This fictional encyclopedia is essentially the narrator of Neurocracy, which is part game, part murder-mystery novella and part postmodern exploration of how we take in stories and information. It is a labyrinth of text – the reader, or player, navigates a 2049 version of our world by clicking hyperlinks. Having done some exploring, I believe it’s best to go in totally blind, though I will say that the central mystery concerns the death of the man who launched Omnipedia in the wake of Wikipedia, a character named Xu Shaoyong.
We click through from one fictional entry to the next, learning gradually that this future world is full of threats, from the presence of a civilisation-upending disease to binaural implants that track and enhance our experiences online, all the way down to dating shows that end in shocking loss of life. It feels unnervingly close to the internet as we know it, but with subtle differences that amount to clever environmental storytelling. For example, the GDPR cookie-tracking pop-up that’s now the doorman at the gate of every website includes both familiar text about data and consent, and a note about our “montages” being tracked – our emotional state, as tracked by an algorithm.
The storytelling style is rather like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but it rejects linearity in favour of allowing the reader-player to intuit themselves through the web of information. The online rabbit-hole becomes a literary device. There’s even an option, as there is on Wikipedia, to start on a random page. This is ambitious and confident writing – there is a sureness here that the machine of this mystery works so well that you can walk into the maze from any angle, and still find what you are looking for.
Omnipedia is an unreliable narrator – we are encouraged to look at the edit logs of each wiki page, to see what information is new and what has been deleted. This feature of Wikipedia, programmed into the encyclopedia for transparency, is used here as a postmodern storytelling tool, and it provides a strange kind of tension. Revealing what is new information and old information on the search for the truth behind Shaoyong’s death injects drama into the static, familiar space of a website.
New material has been added to Neurocracy every week, and its storytelling method is compelling. For me, the best way to engage is with a notebook, marking down my findings – but there is a thriving Discord community sleuthing away too. What is more powerful than the murder mystery, however, is the depiction of a world that feels uncannily close to our reality. There is a sense in each entry that what we see there could be just around the corner. This is what excellent science fiction does: it holds up a mirror to culture as it is, and shows us what is just creeping up behind us.