6.21.2008

Retro

It's fun to look back at what we thought the future might be.

It's why Tomorrowland was better before they updated it, and why Buck Rogers, The Jetsons, Star Trek and the like make us grin. It seems we've come far enough that Ghost in the Shell has entered this category as well.

Ghost in the Shell felt incredibly futuristic at the time of its release, and saw 2029 through a particularly Japanese lens-- a world of artificial humans, gleaming Tokyo skyrises, and rampant cybercrime by extranational organizations.

It's a world where people replace their bodies with mechanical ones and love jacking cables into their skull sockets, and today it all seems pretty silly, if still cool in its retro way. The original movie is almost 15 years old now, and the manga it's based on even older, so it has a right to be outdated.

But it makes me think about what form my version of a soon-to-be-retro future vision might take. And it mostly centers around the net, subconscious media, and the death of the written word. I imagine a world where each one of us is connected to the other by a digital "psychic" network.

I've been using Twitter from my computer and my phone, allowing me to see what my friends are up to at any given moment. Between blogs, social networking sites, and web-enabled cell phones we're capable of being connected to our chosen network of individuals and organizations constantly-- constantly, but indirectly. To update my current activity on Twitter, I have to access a web-enabled device, open up the software, type in the text, and upload the entry to the net; similarly, to check my friends', I have to access a web-enabled device, navigate to Twitter or refresh the page, then read their entry. Along with needing the physical device present, I also need to occupy multiple parts of my body-- eyes, fingers-- to complete any given transaction. Even a cell phone call requires at least my ear, if not a hand. All of this makes communicating with others a semi-exclusive activity which, when attempted simultaneously with another act, is distracting at best and dangerous at worst. In any case, it's cumbersome. At the root of all this is that we must input and output data physically, via our hands and sense organs. Our bodies introduce one step of remove.

I imagine a world where any required communications hardware is minuscule and acts merely as a relay-- it could be carried on something like a keychain or necklace, or maybe implanted subdermally if you're more sci-fi inclined. This device is keyed exclusively to the user's particular brainwave pattern, and transmits data directly into and out from the user's consciousness as pure knowledge. The sense organs are bypassed entirely, allowing the user to acquire new information without manually processing it via representation in the world.

Consider a present-day RSS feed from a news organization like CNN. Maybe I have it set up on my cell phone, and each time the RSS is updated, I receive the headline as a text message (I may reply to the message to receive the full story as a series of texts.) I feel my phone vibrate, open it up, check my new message, read it, and now I have at least the knowledge provided by the text: "Obama secures Democratic nomination," let's say. This process assumes I notice my phone has received a message, and that I am able to execute the required functions with my hands and eyes to receive this knowledge.

In the future I'm picturing, once I've attuned myself to the future version of CNN's news feed, each time the feed is updated I simply "know" what has happened. So, I've signed up, I'm driving along in my car, someone at CNN updates the feed, and within moments I simply become aware that Obama has been nominated.

It's a world where the collective unconscious exists as a literal entity. When a major news event occurs, everyone in the supermarket would instantly know what had happened, and be able to turn to one another and share their shock, sadness or delight without having received the information itself from an audio/visual broadcast, or relayed it via word of mouth.

From the invention of the printing press to the popularization of the internet, text has been the primary means of mass communication; the technology I'm picturing ("direct knowledge transmission"-- DKT?) would make the written word all but obsolete. Buildings could be wired to transmit information from limited-proximity nodes, making physical signage pointless: as one approaches a door they become aware that it's the men's bathroom, or better yet a map of the building is transmitted to anyone crossing the threshold onto the premises, providing the user with the foreknowledge of where their destination is and how to get there. Decentralized information would no longer be visual or auditory-- instead of using Google image search to look up pictures or video of a celebrity, you would transparently become aware of what they looked like, just the way you remember the faces of people you've met in real life. Many concepts could be received simultaneously by the user, condensing the act of processing a day's news into seconds, instead of the minutes or hours taken to read a series of news stories or watch a cable program. Foreign languages would no longer be a communication barrier, as your conversation partner's speech would be translated into your own language by the net in realtime and delivered straight into your brain. At any time you would have knowledge of your current bank balance, the time, date, phase of the moon, strength of the US dollar, what music your best friend is listening to, exactly how far you are from the corner of Market and Sixth in San Francisco (and how to get there from your current location,) so on and so forth-- the act of wondering about any given concept would send out a query to the net, and in moments you would become aware of the knowledge you seek.

I'm not the biggest sci-fi buff: is this vision of the future already an established one that I hadn't been aware of? Is it too out-there to be a feasible future at all, or will it soon seem short-sighted and quaint like Ghost in the Shell's mechanical humans? Imagine if we never had to type another word or make another phone call, but had more knowledge instantly available to us than ever before.

3 comments:

robbie said...

This reminds me of this guy. I haven't looked into him much, but there was recently an article about him in the NY Times, and I randomly heard him on the radio last time I was in Florida. I don't know if he's ever brought up anything like your idea.

There's a lot of potential danger (false news, or false memories, or the crippling effect of everyone knowing, at the exact same moment, that some horrible thing has happened, to name some possibilities); there are a lot of potential dangers in most new ideas, but not many innovations are so direct and personal. Nonetheless, this would be one of those phenomena that would be unstoppable once it became possible.

Steve gaynor said...

Kurzweil presented the conference keynote speech at GDC this year, which was my first exposure to his ideas. I did find his presentation exciting and sort of inspirational. I'm not sure how much this line of thinking was inspired by Kurzweil though; maybe more than I'd considered.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I've always thought every person should write at least one future novel in their life. It's always a profound exercise in exploring your own psyche.

I'm a huge Kurzweil fan and I actually took his prediction that an A.I. is going to go sentient in the next decade to heart. My own stab at the future dystopia is a world where machines treat us like domesticated pets who play video games and work meaningless jobs to breed out any desire for success in us.

Like most of the blog novels I wrote it's dark, short, and nasty but I wanted to explore the idea of an AI becoming sentient and co-habituating with humanity. I've never understood why people think a computer would need to kill all of us to take over the planet.