Spending my teenage years revelling in classic SciFi such as Star Trek TNG, I believed that future was as much about technological advancement as it is about social development. The issues of women empowerment and equal rights to all, irrespective of sex, race, creed or orientation was engrained very strongly in those shows. Now the question is: “Is the future already here?”.

Technological advancement

I recently stubled across this tweetstorm from Noah Smith which kind of got me think about the technological convergence.

 1/Far-future sci-fi is coming to an end.

2/This is because of technology. Tech is starting to change the basic parameters of the human experience – emotion, communication, etc.

3/We’re starting to realize how little our lives resemble those of our ancestors – and how much less our descendants’ will resemble ours.

4/All the far-future sci-fi now is posthuman/transhuman stuff. You read a Hannu Rajaniemi book and you think “These people aren’t like us.”

5/Or you read a Charles Stross book, and you think “These people *are* kind of like us…but how does that make sense??”

6/Far-future sci-fi was always about how technology changes a ton but humanity stays the same. Now we know that just doesn’t happen.

7/Maybe in the early 20th century, when tech advances mostly augmented our physical abilities, far-future people acting like us made sense.

8/But nowadays, IT and biotech advances are changing our societies and our minds, not just letting us move faster and life heavier things.

9/On the plus side, near-future SF, like Ramez Naam’s “Nexus” or Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake”, is getting more mind-blowing.

10/And what near-future sci-fi used to be – Neuromancer, Snow Crash, etc. – is now just called “real stuff happening in the news”.

11/I’ll miss the dreams of spaceships and aliens. But living in the sci-fi future is even more fun than reading it! (end)

I wonder if VR will inspire a growth spurt in near-feature sci-fi movies just because it is more cinematic and compelling on screen than most of today’s technology in which the primary action consists of a programmer typing on a keyboard.

Steven Spielberg is set to direct the movie adaptation of Ready Player One next, and I see it as a natural spiritual successor to Minority Report, which contained a lot of ideas from futurists that Spielberg gathered for a brainstorm session prior to production. Minority Report felt like medium-term sci-fi when it came out, and it’s already clear that many of its predictions were off. From a technological point of view, if not a social one, Ready Player One reads like very-near-term sci-fi.

Given the momentum of VR now, it’s time to mine this fertile ground for more high concept movies that explore the norms after mass adoption of the technology. Given the incredible price pressure on VFX shops in Hollywood, many of which are closing up or suffering margin compression, a spurt of movies featuring a lot of VR scenarios would be a welcome supply of work, too.

Euguene Wei could not contain his excitement when he said: “I realized the other day that I will watch, in my lifetime, a VR movie about VR technology. I’m excited. No spoilers please.”

Should we throw caution into the wind?

Tadhg Kelly makes an interesting point when he notes: “It always sounds a bit New Age, but most socio-marketing thinking about all things digital tends to conclude that everything is going atomic. You might call it tribalism, niches, the Long Tail or anything like that, but all spring from the same source: given choices the market takes choices. Given the opportunity to branch away from the slopstream of controlled markets, that’s what the market tends to do. By this we generally mean that digital rewards efficiency, like a better taxi service, a better shopping service, a better way to get everything you’ve ever wanted delivered to your door.

But we also tend to equate atomization to rewarding niches and say that going digital represents some fundamental disruption of monocultural user taste. Now you can satisfy your urge to listen to obscure Cuban Jazz because it’s out there somewhere, and by extrapolation so can everyone. This is sort of true but not as true as some would wish. The Cuban Jazz may indeed be out there (on Spotify or Pandora perhaps) but most of it remains unlistened-to. Users may have all the choices, but still tend to favor number 1 over number 11,111. This may be for social reasons (not wanting to be left out) or simple laziness (not wanting to go digging through multiple pages just to find the thing you want) but it’s fact.”

Long tail? Really?

Indeed as the digital realm has evolved it has often led to mono-networks, like the App Store, Netflix, Amazon, Google, Steam or Facebook. In theory the App Store is democratized in favor of many developers. In practice it’s top heavy. Same for Netflix, same for YouTube, same for trending posts on social networks. It’s easier to go with the default search engine that everyone says is good rather than strike out and find out what DuckDuckGo is. (And if anything this seems to be even more the case in Asia where some truly colossal companies pretty much are the Internet for end users). The long tail may exist, but it’s not as fat as was hoped.

Digital rewards some disaggregation and divergence, but both often simply to form new aggregation and convergence points. The determining factor of the degree of monoculturation seems to be whether the target audience is technically literate or not, and often the assumption that the audience will grow more so over time is unfounded. Digital divergence is also pretty bad at surfacing new ideas. In every instance of a new platform (such as Periscope, say) it automatically gets put to old uses (selfies, cats, etc.). The niches that the digital realm surfaces are often driven by a sense of cause, but that cause often pre-exists its digital kick.

So this is why sometimes the new doesn’t work. And sometimes why it does. This is why sometimes the revamped old doesn’t work. And sometimes why it does. Digital stuff seems to follow the adage that it’s better to tell new stories in an old way or old stories in a new way. But not new in a new way or old in an old. New media is best for retelling old tales while old media is best for telling new tales. Kickstarter for re-vamping old tech obsessions, television for Game of Thrones.

VR isn’t some scrappy startup scene like the Homebrew Computer Club. It’s a playground of febrile corporate vision projects of the kind that struggle to express what their market, product, purpose or business plan really is. Maybe VR seems awesome in demo, but nobody nowhere knows what it’s supposed to be for. This means VR needs a tribe to sustain it for the 1, 2, 4, 8 or 16 years it’ll take to become a thing. And so the question is whether the VR tribe is large enough. And if not, whether those outside the tribe can really be convinced to strap on the goggles. There are no direct analogies to answer that question, but plenty of negative pointers. One example is the general shape of the peripherals (fancy joysticks etc) business. If VR follows the peripheral-market model it’ll convert maybe 1 in 10 of existing users on platforms to its cause, that probably equates to a too-small audience. Another example is the user-repellence issue. VR, much like 3DTV and movies, makes a non-zero amount of users feel nauseous when they try it. That’s kind of a turn-off, and its solutions are increasingly amusing.

Tadhg signs off saying: “This is why I’m tending to be wary of both VR and smartwatches, and any claim that either represents the future. They may represent either end of a spectrum, but they represent extremes. Much as Google Glass represented an extreme or 3DTV represented an extreme they’ll have their devotees. But I have a hard time seeing either as anything other than a niche business – and each a niche business with structural issues. Rather than this being a year of tiny screens or giant eye-wrapping immersion, maybe this is a year when we’ll look at what we already have and figure out what more they can do. Maybe this is a time to tell new stories in old ways.”

Are we there yet?

On a technological level, I am convinced that we are slowly but steadily moving on the right path. On a social level, I am a bit concerned, especially given the rising tide of discriminatory legislation – recent developments in Indiana with its Religious Freedom Act. However, it is heart-warming to see technology leaders such as Tim Cook, Mark Benioff and Fred Wilson speak out on the issue.

It is my humble hope that we move beyond these issues and delve into the real mysteries of the universe. I will leave with Captain Picard’s signature phrase

Make it so
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