I read George Orwell’s 1984 when I was way too young and have carried its message with me – possibly too closely – through my career in technology and media. Working in the space, its far too easy to see how the tables could be turned, allowing for a society with pervasive surveillance and monitoring to arise. I already live in a country that’s covered with CCTV and find it a little too Big Brother like (and i’m not talking about the TV series here, folks).
In reading Halting State by Charles Stross, a similar – but less sinister and more dysfunctional – world view emerged.
Stross creates a world where technology has (largely) been developed with the best of intentions but sometimes its failures or misuses lead to disastrous consequences. In his near future, the characters wear glasses that automatically anticipate what their wearer needs and projects it for them – very cool – at first I couldn’t wait to sign up to get a pair.
But, what happens when these don’t function QUITE as you’d expect – at one point a policewoman wearing them has CopSpace (the all pervasive police information service that communicates with her glasses) crashes in the middle of a police manuever leaving her helpless. Do we want to be THAT dependent on our techology? The idea of CopSpace is sinister enough – but devices that make us dependent on it and that aren’t reliable make it seem truely scary, to me. And what of the character who’s fighting in a virtual world on his and ends up getting stabbed in the real world because he forgets the guy he’s fighting in the virtual world is standing only a few feet away in the real world?
One chapter is called “Systems Fail People Die” – and I think this illustrates perfectly what could go wrong in a world where we become overdependent on underperforming technology and systems.
The plot of Halting State revolves around a blur between the boundaries of reality, gaming and other media. Pervasive gaming – via the video glassses – is prevelant and characters are faced with deciphering when messages they get from their ‘games’ might be from authorities in the real world and not just characters. Initially, it sounds cool and entertaining – but as the characters find out that these systems could be using them as pawns in something far more sinister, it becomes creepier.
Please don’t read this as me being anti-technology – I’m not. Much of the technology that Stross describes could be wonderful and make our world a better place – but there’s a fine line between personal services and surveillance systems. Thanks to Phillip for suggesting this good read.
On the upside of this and back in the real world, I heard from Ken Brady (CEO of Genkii) today about the launch of Sparkle – the first live mobile touchpoint that allows users to communicate into virtual worlds while they’re on the go. Seems great to me – allowing users a pervasive connection to their virtual lives (ok, it’s only Second Life for now but that’s still damn cool) can only strengthen their relationship with the content and services there. From what I can see (still wishing for an iPhone here!) this is a great first step towards something I blogged about shortly after I met Ken in Korea last year.
Check out this video of how it works and the coverage its had on TechCrunch:
I read Halting State recently, it’s a fantastic book. Now I’m reading Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge which deals with very similar themes.
Rainbow’s End is high up on my “too read” list. But at the moment, I’m teaking a break from cyber punk and enjoying this: http://www.amazon.com/Death-Life-George-Pendle/dp/030739560X