Close to a decade ago, a couple of friends and I kicked around ideas for an online cyberpunk RPG. We wanted something playful, contemporary, something more Snow Crash than Neuromancer, something that would feel creepier to a sociologist than a Scifi fan.
The game never panned out, and the webcomic that spun out of it is perpetually under construction. But along the way we hammered out a lot of predictions about where society and culture – and the world of tech – would go. A lot of them revolved around media and communication technology. For my own amusement, I started jotting down some of the key elements that made up our fictional future in 1997:
- The rise of shows like COPS and Big Brother in the UK would catapult low-cost 'reality shows' to the top of the entertainment heap.
- Devices like cell phones, PDAs, music players, televisions, and desktop computers would be seen as different ways of accessing the same 'pool' of information.
- Explosive bandwidth growth would make it feasible for creative individuals to self-publish video and audio as easily as text -- and this would happen everywhere, not just in a few scattered archives.
- The United Nations would launch a large-scale military intervention in Africa, but would be ground down by a long-running insurgency and civil war; eventually, the Vatican would emerge as a peacebroker.
- Individuals without an online 'history' or trail would be suspect in the same way that people with ski-masks in banks are suspect.
- 'Business networks' would become the multinational conglomerates of the 21st century. Companies without access to the patent protection, infrastructure access, material discounts, and marketing resources of these organizations would find themselves locked out of the global market.
- A handful of immersive multiplayer online worlds would become popular enough to enter the world of pop culture. These would become venues for meetings and private communication in addition to 'play'.
- The explosion of cheap media would lead to the emergence of different tiers of online media personalities. Creative streamers would produce raw materials like local news and punk music and standup comedy, well-connected aggregators would hype the cream of the crop, and previously-powerful studios, labels, and networks would be reduced to prestige-oriented funders/promoters rather than gatekeepers.
- As networks and studios lost power, and businesses moved towards distributed employment, network infrastructure companies would gain more and more power.
- More and more corporations would draw employees into a 'cradle-to-grave' lifestyle, with employees living, eating, and socializing on campuses. Some would be paid in 'business network' credits, living consumption lifestyles funded by at-cost discounts on in-network products. Think Mining Company Towns from the old west.
- GPS would be everywhere.
- Fidel Castro would collapse while delivering a speech in March of 2007 and die three weeks later.
- People would continue to be the best pattern-matchers in the world, and the massive flood of data sweeping the globe would make those skills even more important.
- Different transport protocols (Cell phone networks vs. wireless computer networks vs. cable television vs. ethernet connections) would become increasingly transparent to end-users. Making a telephone call over your computer or sending email with your phone or downloading music with your television would be normative.
- Emergent terrorist threats would be a far bigger danger than any nation-states.
- First-world nations would drift back to the practice of employing "armies for hire" to reduce the infrastructure costs of major military operations.
- Consumers would begin to see bandwidth, and connectivity services like email and telephone calls, as background necessities supported by ads rather than premium services to be purchased.
- A group of MIT students would develop workable conversational AI in 2011.
Obviously, there were some hits and misses. But it’s interesting to see how much of the stuff we were looking at in the mid to late 90’s is beginning to come to fruition in the “Web 2.0 World” of collaborative content and software-as-a-service.
I think a lot of those developments have been at the heart of my dwindling enthusiasm for the fictional world we created. More and more of our speculation has turned into the mundane reality of Gizmodo – heck, even CNN’s tech section. Slowly but surely, the interesting parts of our brainstorming became the weirder, edgier parts where mysticism and mythology melded into chaos theory and neurobiology research. I wonder, these days, if it’s time to ‘reboot’ the project and take a fresh look at it, nudging some of our weirder and as-of-yet-unrealized ideas into the world of today.