The Future Is… Cluttered

Young as I look, I have an old man’s attitude toward technology.  To me, a cell phone is just an annoyingly portable land line.  A computer is just a glorified typewriter impersonating a stereo system.  When I look at any new bit of tech, I see the older toys that inspired it.  I don’t (perhaps can’t) see it for what it is, or what it might become.


William Gibson's newest novel

William Gibson’s newest novel

William Gibson never had this problem.  Just about every serious reader my age remembers the 1984 publication of Neuromancer, the novel that defined (or maybe even created) our expectations for a computerized future.  Somehow, Gibson saw the pokey little machines of last century and made the fantastic leap into cyberspace, a term which he himself coined.  For that achievement, he earned science fiction’s triple crown of awards (Hugo, Nebula, and PKD) and cult status as an oracle of the near future.

Gibson is still writing.  While the world at large is catching up with Neuromancer, Gibson has lost interest in the future, turning his energies to defining our rather peculiar present.  In Spook Country, Gibson explores the possibilities of Locative Art, digitally rendered images tied to a specific GPS location and viewable only with the aid of a clunky VR helmet.  Examples from the book include the corpse of a virtual River Phoenix outside the Viper Room, a hotel carpeted with flowers, and a giant squid whose skin surface is composed of ever-changing TV and movie grabs, destined to hover outside a Japanese department store.

Another piece, which is alluded to but not directly described, is an apartment where every object has been annotated, often more than once, by the resident.  In a modern example of life imitating art, Spook Country itself is heavily annotated on a website called NodeMagazine, named for an as-yet-unpublished and possibly fictitious magazine in the world of Gibson’s book.  (I get a headache just thinking about it.)

Node Magazine

Node Magazine

Also published in 2007, Halting State by Charles Stross pushes the idea of digitally augmented reality a few years into to the future, where it has become a fully realized, commercially exploited technology.  The VR helmet has been replaced with trendy glasses, through which users can view a wide variety of ‘overlays’ onto the real world.  Need directions?  Just type your destination on your nonexistent keyboard and follow the fat red path down the sidewalk until you reach the blinking building.  Bored with the scenery?  Log on to your favorite game and battle some orcs and goblins on your way.  Guy on the bus bench ahead of you look dodgy?  Click a virtual menu button and any criminal record should appear above his head.  Assuming he exists at all.

While all this might sound both useful and amusing, a moment’s reflection should cause you to reconsider.  Once this technology becomes widely available, the whole world becomes one big Philip K. Dick novel, where what you see and what is real are two very different things.  What’s worse, what you see has been created by Pixar, sponsored by Coca Cola, and jammed into you irises by Microsoft.  Reality itself gets painted over to the point where it is no longer visible, like a billboard entirely obscured by graffiti.  Except in this case, the graffiti is the advertisement.

I pay the bills teaching English composition.  My job is hard enough already.  I compete for my student’s attention with laptops, cell phones, iPods, and the lure of instant entertainment they represent.  Add augmented reality, and my job becomes impossible.

Halting State

Halting State

See that guy in the back row?  He’s watching a porno instead of listening to my lecture, but I can’t tell because only he can see it.  The dude next to him is drawing a Hitler moustache across my lip and emailing it to his buddy across the room, who is busy dissing me on RateMyProfessor.  The girl in the front row looks like she’s paying attention, but that’s just because she’s mapped Edward Cullen over me in real time.  Another student has turned me into a zombie.  Another is filling the air around her with butterflies and faeries, all of which are visible only to her.

Are you beginning to get the picture?

Do me a favor.  Once you’re done reading this, step away from the computer for a minute.  Go to a window, or better yet go outside.  Feel the wind on your face.  Look up at the sky.  The plain, ordinary blue sky.  No virtual dragons flying there yet.  No digital pterosaurs.  No mile high letters of fire advertising Jesus or hemorrhoid cream.  Just blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  Take a deep breath.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

Dave Hurwitz

3 Responses to “The Future Is… Cluttered”

  1. Actually, Gibson himself covered similar territory to the Stross book you mention back in ’93 with Virtual Light. But, much more interestingly, both of them sound suspiciously like the real-life wearable computing and “mediated reality” pioneered by Steve Mann. His book, Cyborg, while occasionally preachy and overindulgent of Mann’s artistic ramblings, is still a real eye-opener about the positive applications of the very same technology. And hey, even the preachy bits usually make good points about making technology enabling and empowering to the individual rather than coddling, numbing, atrophying and co-opting. I highly recommend it.

    That the majority of applications of this technology will be time-wasting and branded by corporations makes it no more or less damaging or destructive than any other technology. And come on, apathetic students have never needed more than a pleasant view out a window or the close physical presence of someone for whom their hormones are all carbonated to tune out a teacher. Even shades and the ability to sleep without looking “asleep” will do just fine. Students who apply themselves will learn and those who don’t won’t, same as it ever was.

    How many people already fritter their lives away with addictions to drugs, sex, TV, or plain old comfortable sloth? If they’re frittering it away on World of Warcraft now or in escapist mediated reality in 10 years, that’s just the next evolution of the time-suck.

    But as for competing for the attention of students, the prospect of failing a class is either going to be sufficient motivation or it won’t, just like it is now.

    Are we going to end up like Varley’s “Eight Worlds” future in which only cognoscenti actually do any work or know how to read while everyone else ends up just putting in the appearance of work and otherwise just soaking up oxygen? Maybe. But I kind of doubt it. I mean, we managed to not blow ourselves up as a species despite about a half-century of Cold War and Mutually-Assured Destruction.

    Or maybe we’ll get to The Singularity™ and we’ll just live in abundance and it won’t matter like Internet utopians like Cory Doctorow seem to think. (Though ever notice that they never actually describe how their Libertarian “Ad-Hocracies” will actually be established or maintain themselves? Funny, that.) Or we’ll be “copper-tops” in the Matrix, and it won’t matter, either. 😛

  2. Sonya,

    I’m not sure I believe in The Singularity. In my completely uninformed opinion, Artificial Intelligence in the sense that most people understand it may not be possible. Right now, we’re much better at making machines that behave like bugs than ones that behave like people. The other core technology of Singularity fiction, nanotechnology, just gives me the willies. Tiny little machines that can reorganize matter? The military applications are both obvious and terrifying.

    As for augmented reality, while it may have some positive uses, it would allow people to construct a completely egocentric pocket universe to disappear into. (This at a time when half the world still lives in the cultural and technological equivalent of the Middle Ages.) How am I supposed to teach a simple concept like Objectivism when reality itself is an annoyance my students can dismiss at will?


  3. […] sub-genre that really doesn’t have proper name yet, but that I like to call Near Present.  Notable works in this field include William Gibson‘s Blue Ant Trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, […]

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