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 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of life imitating art, Spook Country itself is heavily annotated on a website called NodeMagazine, named for an as-yet-unpublished and possibly fictitious magazine in the world of Gibson’s book.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.)
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.
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.