Saturday, April 12, 2008

Future Shock

When I have too much time on my hands, I start researching. This essay is on technology, not game design. Sort of.

There is a lot of noise being made by futurists of all shapes and sizes. Predictions on what kind of technologies will come when, extrapolated from the idea of an exponential curve. It certainly seems possible, plausible. You have to admit that vastly more futurists' predictions have come true than any prophet or precog in the history of mankind. They have a hit rate of between 10% and 25%, and they are predicting very specific things. There are no wishy-washy could-be-this, could-be-that predictions. When you say "there will be software to translate text into sound so the blind can use computers", there's not a whole lot of wiggle room. You're either right or you're wrong.

The thing about an exponential curve is that the damn things kind of sneak up on you. Things seem to be fine, then a bit unstable, a bit wonky, maybe... suddenly everything goes vertical and the whole world is fundamentally different.

What's worst is that the kids don't even notice...

For example, cell phones. Half the world's population uses cell phones. Not half the world has cell phones, but in many cases, those without cell phones will frequently use someone else's cell phone. Third-world villages might only have one cell phone... but, damn, I mean, that's a village with no running water (no source of water in the village at all). That's a village with no utilities... and they've got a cell phone?

That's science fiction, that's what it is. Every time I picture it, I get a little shock. A little bit of, "well then, that went vertical while I wasn't looking..."

There are a lot of other technologies that are about to go vertical. How long do we have? Five years? Ten? Maybe twenty, if the government bans them?

How do you think you'll feel when you buy your ten-year-old one of those science kits for Christmas... but when he completes it, he's re-engineered your front lawn to glow safety orange at night?

How about when your printer breaks down, so your eight-year-old goes into the basement and makes you a new one? He's not even a geek, any more than a teenager with a cell phone is a geek. It's simply that the technology is in their blood. In many cases, literally.

To me, everything smacks of future shock. I don't think about "oh, with this technology we could do such-and-such". That's easily predictable. In twenty years, it will cost about as much to buy an outfit as to buy a 3D printer that can print you that outfit. It's not science fiction. It's not a guess.

The question is, what kind of shock waves will it cause?

The idea of science going asymptotic is fun for me. But we already see the stretch marks from our current slow advance. Not just in the form of panicking religions, but in every aspect of our society.

Even with something as easy as email... a lot of otherwise bright middle-aged professionals have a really hard time with email. Oh, they'll use it... but they sound like nine year olds. They can't write emails. There's just some kind of short-circuit in their head.

Cell phones, yeah. I'm feeling it. I went to buy the cheapest model of cell I could find, and it comes with a camera. I couldn't find one that didn't come with one. Future shock!

I want to use the camera, but... it doesn't click. It doesn't register in my brain, somehow. Even though every teenage girl in America can do it second nature. I mean, yeah, if I think of it, I can take a picture... maybe I could figure out how to send it to something other than my phone? But I never think of it. It just doesn't exist to me, even though I've always wanted a camera.

Sure, This sort of thing is clearest with certain nutjobs who refuse to believe in evolution. Somehow, the idea just... slips by their brain. They can't grasp it, so they deny it. Some days, I feel like denying that my cell phone has a camera. In decades past, I would just not use the camera, live my life, and die without ever using it. Regardless of what I believed, or whether I argued against it, the next generation could get on with it without me.

But the pace of science is outstripping the roll of generations. It will only get worse. A child born today and a child born five years from now will be growing up in two radically different worlds, as odd as that sounds. When each child is ten, they will have very different holiday wish lists.

The one born today will have his birthday in 2018. He will want a VR-XBox 9000. You know, the one that simulates every cell of the enemy exploding simultaneously and shares it with your friends worldwide?

The child born five years from now, his tenth birthday will be in 2023. He will want a construction AI to build him custom game machines with adaptable capacities for each game individually.

Those are guesses.

But they're probably good ones.

It's easy to say stuff like that. I mean, you can think, "yeah, that sounds cool, if I understand what you're talking about..."

Have you stopped to consider what it actually means? This isn't you getting a cool new technology. This is a child being shaped by a cool new technology.

You can already see it. These are people whose lives incorporate Flickr on a fundamental level. They are young people who grow up understanding that they post photos of every goddamn thing in the universe for all their friends to see. It's part of their brain. It's the same way that I fundamentally understand that computers are The Thing. To them, computers aren't The Thing. Computers are a medium. Computers are a default. Sharing information is The Thing. Friends can stay in touch every second of their shallow little lives, even if they are far away!

Ten years from now, sharing information won't be The Thing. Sharing information will be the medium. Sharing information will be the default.

What kind of weird, wholly ungoverned society will evolve out of that? What is The Thing on top of sharing information? Five years later, that thing will be the default... what will be built on top of it?

This cannot really be slowed down much.

All I can think is that our current method - our consumer/industrial society - it can't really last very long. It isn't built to withstand the ability to build open-source cars in your basement, or to manufacture your own prom dress based on a photo of your favorite actress. It isn't built to adapt to a hundred million children all working in amorphous synchronicity. It certainly isn't built to work in a world with no third world.

What kind of future is there? How bad will the future shock be? Will there be violence to try to stop it?

Those questions are infinitely more interesting than the relatively simple ones of "what technology comes next".

What is your opinion?


Olick said...

You know, I'm afraid of violence, and social revolution, and the collapse of society as we know it.

But not as much as I'm afraid of not being able to comprehend the next technology.
Of having someone who's five be able to flawlessly operate the next generation of computers, where I become clueless. Of having some fifteen year old, who's not a genius or anything, proving he is already on a greater level of comprehension of games, or musical theory, or computing than I am.

And that frightens me, who has spent his entire life growing WITH the technology around him, rather than it outgrowing him.

Craig Perko said...

Whatever comes next, it has to take into account that nobody - even the newest generation - can keep up with technology.

Some people are predicting a new kind of design - spimes, for example. To me, that sounds like bandaids on bullet wounds. There is still a fundamental issue: we cannot learn as fast as we can produce knowledge.

Whatever comes next will have to address that, and I don't think that packaging up the things we can't learn in polite, easy-to-use little black boxes is the way I want it.

jim said...

It's interesting that you went the whole post without mentioning the technological Singularity. I don't know if this is because you're unaware of the concept or because you think it's crazy hyperbole; it essentially amounts to a secular Rapture.

Charles Stross posted fairly recently about the exponential uptake in technology use this recently, inspired by an article in The Economist.

I actually wrote about this in a blog post; I'll give you the short version here:

If you take the problem science fiction writers currently have, that it's hard to make plausible predictions more than 20 years into the future, and consider that the 20 year prediction window is shrinking rapidly, you realize that sooner or later it's going to get to the point where the prediction problem affects everyday life. You can't make reasonable plans for the weekend, because you can't predict where technology is going to be.

What makes that scenario implausible is that like most things exhibiting exponential growth, human progress is limited; in this case, limited by the very cognitive ability we're using as a measuring stick -- how can you make improvements on something you can't comprehend?

The answer is that we our puny hu-man brains won't be doing the work. It'll be either augmented humans, in which case you need to upgrade yourself and ride the technology curve all the way up or you'll get left in the dust, or artificial intelligence, in which case all you can do is hope that our robot overlords are friendly.

Either way, the resulting world is one vastly beyond our current level of comprehension. That's the singularity.

Here's a particularly optimistic take on the concept:

Charles Stross has written some pretty great SF that addresses these topics. I recommend Accelerando, which is actually available for free on-line:

Olick said...

The interesting thing, to me, is that even now I've never felt like things progress too fast. In fact, without the internet(and even then, until about 6 months ago I've never taken much thought into technological progress, on this scale), I would have never really thought that 'wow this is totally revolutionizing the world' because from my viewpoint, it wasn't.

In fact, in some cases it appeared to me that the hype that things were moving faster now was nothing BUT hype. Computers that are suddenly outdated in a month? Yeah something else has been developed, but it doesn't actually mean the computers are as obsolete as they were said to be. And I think I took this attitude about technological progress in general. Yeah its moving fast, but its more a symptom of an incentive to move fast (profitability) combined with better information dispersal (internet computing mostly, also the ability to travel trans-continental in two days) that allow it to move that fast.

In the meantime, most(just many?) futurists claim that a drastically different future lies within our lifetime, one that promises (threatens?) to change the way humanity interacts with the world around it, and itsself.

And I'm sitting here in my computer room, talking to someone who lives half a continent away from me, and believing that this only represents a shallow top-level paradigm change, rather than the deep one promised to us.

I guess, visiting the singularity issue, to me it asks the question, at what point does this become absurd? Not being able to make plans for the weekend because we might have achieved a new tier of technology is definitely way over the line of absurdity here. In fact, it makes the whole idea of the technological singularity seem less like a mark of progress, and more like a mark of pointlessness. Technology exists to improve and understand the next tier of technology. I realize its not as simple as that but taken on its own or out of context it seems a lot like progress for progress sake.

This comment has ballooned significantly. Maybe its because its so late.

Craig Perko said...

Of course I'm aware of the idea of singularity, but I think it's too badly defined, too charged.

Instead, I think we'll slide into a weird new society in much the same way that Olick slid into our current weird society. Just... you know, faster. And maybe more violently.

Patrick said...

You may enjoy the music of Dan Deacon, he catagorizes his music as belonging to the genre of "Future Shock".

I'd like to explore a genre of game design that deserves the same name.

Craig Perko said...

I would call it "psychedelic trance", personally... but, overall, I agree. I would like to see games which explore the idea of future shock.

There are significant design issues... hmm... that actually would make an interesting post!

Interesting to write, at least. :P

David said...

I have to say that this is in the category of most-intriguing-stuff-you've-written-so-far. While I hadn't thought of it in exactly these terms, it will be a wonderfully libertarian environment. As with nature those who can adapt will thrive... but as you've demonstrated there will always be pockets of people who do not move forward.

And who says you *have* to keep up with everything? It's not like you lie awake at night right now because you don't understand the exact nature of wave dynamics, etc. It's enough to enjoy the ocean. I can't hope to reach the heights in musical composition which Vivaldi, etc reached. I can enjoy their works. In the same sense, I may not completely understand the next art movement (audience directed AI-mediated meta-audience performance art?) but I can still appreciate whatever truth, beauty, or humor it finds.

As for future shock, I have a hard time thinking anyone in our generation will have anything but the greatest ennui with regard to the next technologies. Pockets of people will still be playing D&D even if it's on X5DBoxes with full sensurround. The nature of our relationships hasn't changed much even through 3 or 4 such singularities and I have a hard time thinking it'll be any different afterward.

I personally will still spend as much of my time as possible lost in the woods. In fact this might increase, as our everyday lives become more hectic, we'll retreat further. I already create silence bubbles in my life by *gasp* turning the cell phone off.

As for violence, well, I'm sure there will be people who try to stop things, just as they are now, but in reality, just as now, it'll be futile... since their terrorism will soon be completely useless to the people they wish to scare.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I do stay awake nights thinking about all the things I don't know... :D

Anyway, I think the answer is probably as you've touched on: a vanishing of information exchange. An isolating, a buffering.

Instead of always being plugged in, instead of always being around people, I think it's likely that the future will put a very high price on attention, and people will spend a whole lot more time in very small groups.

I don't think that connectivity is going to fade away, but I do think that the chaos of Flickr and similar is our equivalent of dinosaurs: huge, beastly brutes that only flourish in this weird little jungle we've built.

That jungle won't last long: we're already chopping it down. What will remain will be just as lively as dinosaurs, but smaller and more agile. More personalized information sharing, less global information sharing.

I think this will be caused largely by overzealous data-miners... but that's another story.

Anyway, I could write this kind of essay every day, but this isn't a futurist blog: it's a game dev theory blog.

I guess I'll probably write more futurist crap anyway. It's fun.

David said...

Well, as game designers and artists, I think the future is just as important as it is to technologists. Especially since, when the new kids are all plugged in for their entire childhoods, it's possible what they'll be seeing is what we produced. He don't want to bore them! : )

Patrick said...

Please write more futurist crap, we'll keep giving you crappy comments. :P

PJammaGod said...

I'm inclined to agree with Craig in regards to humanities future colliding with a technology singularity. We'll probably shudder around and crash into a "different" society, but it's not likely to be anything that blots out the previous inhabitants in the stark way that a singularity explains.

However I do see something akin to the concepts behind The City and the Stars occuring. With the way our technology is advancing there are will very likely be technologies that people reject on various basis (ethical, spiritual, economic, cultural etc), instead choosing to "remain behind".

I'm keenly interested in what will happen between the cultures that choose to "remain behind" and those that push foward. I find Peter F Hamilton does a great job of exploring this concept which fascinates me more than a singularity.

Craig Perko said...

I agree, but I'm not sure it's simply "people who choose to stay behind". I think we'll find multiple, competing strains of high technology as we continue to accelerate, and I think that we'll find a lot of people get left behind by a lot of technologies, even if they don't want to be.

David said...

We'll have wars between people over different "cutting edge" ideologies, i.e. what it means to be cutting edge.

Wars between people who think that technology should be pretty versus those who think it should be functional.

Wars between the "always-oners" and the "disconnectors". : )

Craig Perko said...

I hope they're more like geek "wars" over Star Wars and Star Trek, rather than real wars. But, yeah, that's what I think is most likely.