In the near future, will we walk around projecting Obi Wan holograms out of our smartphones? How long will it take for a smartphone or hand-held device to shoot out a lightsaber? And the ever-pressing question: will George Lucas sue you?
Further proving that not only does life imitate art but that technology imitates both, the company Wicked Lasers released their Spyder III Pro Arctic laser last year, with a design that looks curiously similar to the lightsabers in Star Wars. So similar, in fact, that George Lucas threatened to sue the company if they didn’t cease and desist.
The Spyder III laser–which can be used for a wide range of utilities, including presentations, construction work, surgical operations, bar code scanners and DVD players—pumps out an entire watt of energy and is the first consumer laser to have four modes of operation. If used incorrectly, it can also be potentially hazardous (possibly causing blindness if shined into the retina), which caused the manufacturer to release a series of product modifications.
The modifications haven’t stopped the legendary Star Wars guru from threatening to take Wicked Lasers to court if it doesn’t change the design. While the laser is being marketed to industrial, military, and research agencies, there is certainly nothing to guarantee that a zealous Jedi fanatic won’t shell out the $200 on the price tag in order to be able to walk into Starbucks looking like Count Dooku (even though Dooku is a Sith lord).
And therein lies the danger. So far, the laser has not been responsible for any major burn injuries, blindness or radiation exposure claims. But who’s to say Lucas and his people won’t manufacture one in order to kill off the lightsaber imitator?
Historically, Lucas has been spiteful, sometimes in surprising, accidentally progressive ways, and unabashed about protecting his Star Wars brand from copyright infringement. But to the point where he would sue a laser company over its “hilt” designs? Lucas may just have to accept that handheld devices and contemporary gadgets could bear striking similarities to movie weapons.
In our mashup society it’s becoming more and more popular to blend different aspects of pop culture—copyright monsters like LucasFilms, Google and Disney may just have to CHILL out and make room for a little Fair Use. At least when it comes to lasers and pirates.
Guerilla Marketing And The Singularity
Could we find there’s no limit to the reach of guerilla marketing? As we hurl ourselves toward a future of sentient nanobots and global AI networks, what will become of advertising and its sneaky, drug-addled step-brother, marketing? I found myself thinking about this at the 2011 Singularity Summit, when filmmaker Jason Silva (a self-described “techno-optimist transhumanist wunderkind”) presented a film in the vein of his “The Immortalist”, a work of ‘art’ that feels more like Ashton Kutcher describing quantum mechanics at a poetry slam. This film, and in fact Silva’s entire presentation, felt curiously out of place. Smacking of hackneyed Hollywood orchestration, the film wielded roughly the intellectual curiosity of Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” video.
Roland Emmerich Likes The Singularity
What makes this guerilla marketing? Well, Jason Silva’s presence there, and his presentation itself, was being filmed by a documentary film crew embedded by director Roland Emmerich, who is in development on a 2013 feature film called Singularity, which has reportedly tapped Ray Kurzweil as its top consultant. My theory is that Jason Silva will play a naïve proponent who cheerleads the positive possibilities behind the singularity before being killed off by either rampant self-replicating nanotechnology or malevolent artificial intelligence. I submit that his short films and his appearance at the Summit will be featured in the film, as a fictional cautionary tale. Speaking of fictional cautionary tales, the fact that Silva is dating Heather Graham, who was present at the Summit and appeared in some of the shots, bodes well for my theory. If it turns out Graham is in Singularity you can be sure Silva’s appearance at the Summit was a cunningly leveraged marketing ploy by Emmerich that will pay off big time in 2013.
Advertising In An Accelerating Future
I found myself shocked that even a community as savvy and future-shocked as the Singularity Institute could let themselves be infiltrated by a Hollywood guerilla marketing team. While some analysts have speculated that the actual Singularity will make human endeavors such as advertising and marketing obsolete—as this staggering schism in history will surely render new industries and modalities that will fundamentally change the nature of capitalism—I have to respectfully disagree. The global economy relies on advertising and consumerism as its bone marrow. In the coming decades I see us likely to descend even further into a technocratic nightmare fueled by a savvy corporatocracy that harvests consumers like an abbatoir to lifestock, using new technologies to vacuum away the noxious fumes.
“Fuckin’ magnets, how do they work?”
The hacktivist collective Anonymous, a decentralized critical mass of civil disobedients, creatives and situationists, made headlines a few years ago by launching a DDoS campaign that exposed some of the Church of Scientology’s privileged documents. In order to punish the Church for its attempts to monetize truth-seeking and intimidate followers, Anon decreed nothing less than the destruction of the entire religion. After the dust settled, rumors of collective’s death were greatly exaggerated. Now with the rise of WikiLeaks as a global force and calamitous economic conditions brewing civil unrest among the populations of the world, the second decade of the 21st century is fertile ground for bold culture jamming, led by a technologically savvy cabal of revolutionaries with no central authority and a catch-all message broadly interpreted as being warm and cuddly with the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Recently, the group has been active again, cracking a massive child pornography ring and infiltrating government and law enforcement agencies all across the world. There were even rumors afoot of an Anonymous plan to attack Facebook, which turned out to be false, or perhaps just premature. But murmurs still persist about an Occupy The Airwaves campaign to hack into the FEMA Emergency Alert System, essentially hijacking all radio and TV stations, with a pro-Occupy message.
Ideas don’t bleed…
Over the weekend I attended the 2011 Singularity Summit in New York to assist my friends, filmmakers Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado, who are shooting a documentary, The Methuselah Generation, about the science of life extension. Along the way, we filmed a lively conversation between life extensionist Aubrey de Grey and economist Robin Hanson about the implications and probability of extending the human lifespan through biotechnology and cryonics. And I was lucky enough meet science fiction author David Brin (creator of the Uplift series), who agreed to give my short story about an AI charter city a shake.
Ray Kurzweil started up the Summit with a presentation about how accelerating computational powers and AI technologies will lead to the Singularity sometime during the 2040’s. Perhaps to his chagrin, Kurweil has become somewhat of a guru for technophiles who wish to herald a “Rapture for the Nerds”. To his credit, Kurzweil fans this fire only with scrupulous research and a fairly remarkable track record for predicting trends in technology. Much has been said in recent years about Kurzweil shaping the timeline of the Singularity to coincide with his lifespan (the man has openly said he does not expect to die), and there is probably some truth to this—the part not in parentheses, that is. But as far as delightful ruminations and thought experiments, backed up by hard science, Kurzweil’s a powerful force in the world of futurism.
Other presenters included Peter Thiel, Sonia Arrison, Jason Silva (who I believe was doing guerilla marketing for a Roland Emmerich 2013 feature about the Singularity—more about this theory in future blog), David Brin, and Ken Jennings, former Jeapordy champion who recently lost to IBM’s Watson. Elizier Yudkowsky presented research pertaining to problems we are encountering in trying to program friendly AI. Max Tegmark attempted to explain why he thinks we’re alone in the universe and why it will be up to humans to allow for the meaningful dissemination of intelligence throughout the universe.
Mix that in with interviewing a 16 year old cryonics customer who fully expects to be amphibious someday, screening the trailer for The Methuselah Generation (parts of which will be in 3D!), and taking an inside tour of the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zucati Park—thanks to my new friend Sage—and I’d have to say my first trip to New York was one big miraculous mind-fuck.
Curiously enough, I saw the same meme presented at both the Singularity Summit and Occupy–“The Beginning is Near”. It seems as though both advocates of transhumanism and protesters against rabid economic inequality share subtle religious undertones: the faith in vaguely defined concepts bringing clarity to a chaotic and unjust world that is in dire need of planetary evolution. Part of me still fears that the Singularity may end up exponentially fueling the very Corporatocracy that Occupy and myself fear is currently strangling the life out of our mental and physical environments. Though, perhaps it’s nothing a few nanobots can’t fix.
Dystopia and Escape
Some science fiction writers would argue that humankind in the future is far more likely to destroy itself altogether than it is to colonize the solar system, much less the stars. Problems such as nuclear warfare, overpopulation, and pollution of the environment are much closer to the reality of the future than a technology that will take us away from earth. They would further argue that humankind, unable to solve its problems on earth, would have no better chance of solving them in another star system.
In short, not all SF writers are scientific optimists, and their pessimism shows up in many forms, the best established being the dystopia.
The dystopia is the opposite of the utopia. The term utopia (which, in Latin, means “nowhere”) comes from Sir (and now Saint) Thomas More’s work of that title, Utopia (1516). His fictional land of Utopia, set on an island far removed from his native England, is an ideally organized society that allows for maximum human happiness. The point of his story, though, isn’t to suggest that humankind can build that perfect world. He makes, instead, a critical point. By comparing his world of sixteenth century England to an ideal one, readers become aware of ways in which they could improve their world. This is the general pattern of utopian literature written before and after More’s work.
Dystopia As Prophecy
The dystopia (sometimes called “anti-utopia”) is the worst possible world humankind can envision, and typically it is set in the future. It has the same critical intent of the utopia. By looking at how bad things can become, we look to the present to take corrective action in order to prevent those projected ills from coming about.
The dystopian mode is often considered the most prestigious form of SF, probably because its ideas are, in the opinion of some readers, more serious and relevant than the ideas in the usual run of SF. It is certainly the case that mainstream talents, when they write SF, most often chose the dystopian mode in which to work. For example, neither George Orwell (author of 1984) nor Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World) is considered an SF writer (at least they didn’t consider themselves SF writers), but each wrote a dystopian work. Although mainstream talents tend to write dystopias when they chose to write SF, standard SF writers also write dystopian literature. C. M. Kornbluth“s “The Marching Morons” (1951), Fritz Leiber‘s “Coming Attractions” (1950), and Harlan Ellison‘s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967) are excellent exercises in the dystopian mode.
ORWELL’S 1984 Dystopia
The “worst possible world” that we have chosen to concentrate on here is Orwell’s 1984. An interesting side issue concerning 1984 is the fact that mainstream critics are reluctant to place it in the category of SF. They point out that Orwell drew on only a few of the SF conventions in order to build his story, and had little interest in SF as such. (1984 is, in fact, one of the rare instances in which Orwell used SF conventions. Although Animal Farm has a displaced setting, Orwell does not attempt to make the story scientifically plausible.) SF fans, though, suspect that mainstream critics consider 1984 too good to be SF.
Whatever, 1984 doesn’t bank much on technological hardware. The one technological innovation that is in the novel–the telescreens—aren’t necessary for the premise of the story. That is, 1984 as a vision of a totalitarian future could have been worked out without a technological premise. If it is SF, it isn’t hard SF of the Vernian kind.
Instead, Orwell deals with social and behavioral sciences, sciences that are human- centered. Orwell shows us the people of the future in their social, psychological, linguistic, and political dimensions. We see people forced into new social relationships, psychologically conditioned to think differently, taught a new use of the language (Newspeak), and controlled by an evolved form of totalitarian government. Finally, the novel is about the use of political power, and the threat that the misuse of power holds for the individual.
In focusing on human-centered issues, Orwell shows us a new perspective on the technological applications of science (at least science as we’ve seen it in SF). That is, optimistic SF has shown science leading the way as humankind conquers the galaxy. In 1984, we see that science is in the hands of the people who hold political power. “Science” does not save Winston Smith; It is just one more tool that the Party can use to mold him to its will.
1984 has come and gone, and Orwell’s projections have not literally happened. Others argue that Orwell’s projections have come about, but in a figurative sense rather than a literal sense. Orwell himself probably had no precise timetable for his projections. He came by the title by transposing the last two numbers of 1948, the year during which he worked on the novel.
But if we take his title as a literal prediction, we might note that what he projected for 36 years into the future (from 1948 to 1984), when compared with what had happened in the previous 36 years (from 1948 to 1912), isn’t so far-fetched. In the 36 years between 1912 and 1948, the world had seen two global wars, the rise of three totalitarian systems (Russian Communism, German Nazism, and Chinese Communism), mass annihilation of civilian populations, formation of secret police organizations, and the mechanization of warfare—these just to name some major developments. With another 36 years comparable to those 36 years, the scenario depicted in 1984 doesn’t seem so unreasonable at all.
Actually, his working title for the novel was The Last Man in Europe (meaning, we assume, that Winston Smith was the end of the line for the humane traditions of western civilization), and the decision to publish the novel as 1984 was a late one. Although the first title is in many ways more descriptive of the theme, no reader will deny that the precision of the date on when these dire events were to come about give a special punch to the story. (Although the punch might have been stronger before 1984 than after.)
But we must realize that Orwell, finally, wasn’t making predictions so much as he was giving warnings. He saw how in the post-World War II years, the Eastern Bloc countries and the Western countries were settling down for the Cold War. War hysteria was on the rise in the late forties, and many feared that once again humankind would be plunged back into warfare. Orwell shows us a horrible world that he hopes we will never let happen. Such warnings are one of the uses of dystopian fiction.
FUTURE DYSTOPIAN DISASTERS
Since the 1950s we’ve seen a growing number of stories about future disasters. In several cases, the disaster stories seem similar to the dystopian fiction. Some scholars, however, argue that disaster fiction represents a whole new type of SF, one that has largely replaced the dystopias.
Disaster fiction, which predicts some untimely end or (more usually) near-end of earth, has several major categories: over-population, post-nuclear war, and ecological disruption. The over-population stories include Harry Harrison’s Make Room. Make Room (1966), John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), C.M. Kornbluth and Frederick Pohl’s Space Merchants (1953), and J.G. Ballard’s “Billenium.”
The many well-written post-nuclear warfare stories include Russell Hobby’s Riddley Walker (1982) and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957).
The stories concerning ecological disaster are more miscellaneous and varied, as they seem to cover a host of ills that beset earth (typically in the near future). A number of these stories show humanity, greatly reduced in numbers, attempting to live without the technology to which it is accustomed. In George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), an unknown virus kills most of the world’s population. In Larry Niven and Jerry Pournell’s Lucifer’s Hammer (1977), a giant meteor does the same job. In Piers Anthony’s Rings of Ice (1974), perpetual rain and world-wide flooding wipes out humankind.
In many of these stories, the title alone gives us an idea of what goes wrong: John Christopher’s The Long Winter (1962) and No Blade of Grass (1956), Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), J.G. Ballard’s Drought, The Drowned World (1963), and The Wind from Nowhere, and Philip Wylie’s When Worlds Collide (1932)
The Meaning of Dystopia Theories
The very large number of these future mishaps invites a consideration of their meaning. Scholars have, in general, speculated that all these visions of future disasters reveal the deep uneasiness that humankind feels in the modern world. But some of the more focused theories are as follows:
Fear of science and technology. If space fiction shows humankind a way out of its predicaments, the disaster stories tell us that there is no way out.Science and technology are, after all, a devil’s bargain, and the payment has come due.
Warning against humankind’s pride. Humankind assumes that it has mastered nature. Uncontrollable disasters show us that nature still has a few tricks up her sleeve.
Warning of class conflict. Bruce Franklin, a Marxist critic, says that disaster fiction reveals the fear that the capitalistic exploiters have of the underclasses. In this interpretation, the coming disaster is the end of capitalistic exploitation.
Depth psychology. Some readers speculate that the disaster stories reflect a species death wish, a desire to be punished for inborn guilt. Although this abstraction may strike us as far above the details of most disaster SF (and pretentious besides), we should not dismiss it too quickly. J. G. Ballard, a highly respected SF writer, has stories in which the inner torment of the central character becomes projected into planetary holocaust. The external world functions as metaphor for a character’s inner world of torment.
In general, the dystopian visions and future disasters stand in opposition to the optimism of the space fiction. They represent one more direction in which SF explores the issues of the modern imagination.
The public sphere, our little clown’s autopsy. With marketers so ravenous to calibrate our consumption patterns they actually embed themselves among us– donning tattoos and piercings, or whatever styles their subjects embody– and document our lifestyles. They compile their findings into power-point presentations and sell them to companies that want to tap into consumer spending habits. This relatively new form of guerilla marketing, called “cool hunting”, often targets the youth demographic (whose annual spending is well over $100 billion). It is either an innovative method by which to conduct market research or an impediment to the organic evolution of culture—it depends on who you talk to.
After first reading about cool hunting in ’s No Logo years ago during my intensely liberal Santa Cruz education (full disclosure), I began sending my resume to some of these firms in the hope that they would unwittingly afford a Gonzo-style cynic an inside look at their methods. Only two of them took the bait. A Los Angeles based cool hunting company called Look-Look paid me $150 to photograph examples of green-washing and experiential retail. Another company, The Intelligence Group, supplied me with a real gem: sample pages of The Cassandra Report, their tri-monthly analysis of Gen X/Gen Y lifestyle trends which companies like Verizon, Microsoft, MTV and dozens more subscribe to at the annual cost of $35,000-$50,000.
One of the trends featured in that issue is something called HyperSpace. According to the Cassandra Report: “Everyday objects will become computer interfaces – new opportunities for marketers and brands to embed advertisements and fully understand consumer preferences.” This concept deposits social networking into the real world. People with Internet-ready cell phones will be able to access on-line information about objects and locations in their physical environments by entering codes found there, or by simply scanning them with their phones. Users of this network will be able to tag these objects and locations—clicking on them as if hyperlinks, essentially—and share their latest finds (such as a great new diner!) with friends and people prowling for recommendations.
Pioneering entities, such as Yellow Card, Socialight, and Semapedia.org, are promoting what they consider to be functionalities of Web 3.0. Semapedia.org is a non-profit that wants to “connect the virtual and physical world” by providing cell-phone readable 2D barcodes that people can use to link to wikipedia.org. These barcodes, and “triggers” like them, are already common in Japan and parts of Europe. According to Socialight Co-founder Dan Melinger, HyperSpace represents a “new paradigm for communication, [utilizing] asynchroyonous place-based messaging.” Melinger stresses that the application is opt-in only, and that although the technology will allow mobile carriers to track users’ physical locations down to within a few blocks (using GPS-like systems), guidelines are in place to ensure that their information is kept private.
Will linking objects and locations in our physical environment to on-line networks help to someday purge the public sphere of its marketing mayhem? A profusion of small “triggers” and symbols replacing traditional advertisements could certainly make our Main Streets less audio-visually grotesque. But if the triggers themselves are gateways to brand marketing platforms, anything and everything we see could be imbued with commercial transmissions (similar to how we oblige to watching short ads at the beginning of CNN videos).
Make no mistake, companies will be closely monitoring whether or not we elect to receive these transmissions: Hyperspace will allow marketers to track our clicks in the real world the same way they currently track our links on the Internet. This will forever transform the public sphere. Instead of the old days of navigating through public spaces that contain discrete advertisements, denizens of the Web 3.0 era will live in Web-encoded corporate environments.
The clown’s autopsy will move inside of our heads.
After watching a movie a couple years ago (can’t remember which one, probably Air Bud 2) I was jiving down the sidewalk in rhythm to the Commodores’ Machine Gun (the hip-grinder from Boogie Nights) when I looked up and saw a monolithic face rushing toward me out of the sky. It was a holographic billboard advertisement for the new A&E series Paranormal State. When I got home I looked it up and read about their even more audacious advertising scheme in New York.
A&E was also promoting their new series by utilizing a technology called “audio spotlighting”. In NYC, on Prince Street, as people walked by a billboard for the show, a voice in their heads whispered, “It’s not your imagination. Who is that? Who’s there?”
Traditionally used by libraries and museums, audio spotlighting transmits beams of sound onto specific targets the same way a light bulb projects rays of light. While it seems like the voice is speaking directly in your mind, it is actually just reverberating outside your skull. Holosonics President and founder Joe Pompei says the technology will help cut down on excessive noise in crowded city areas like Time Square. The technology has attracted criticism from groups like the Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics (cognitiveliberty.org), who charge the technology violates the individual’s right “to have decision-making authority over matters affecting his or her mind.”
I spoke with Pompei about whether his audio spotlighting technology, when used in marketing campaigns, qualifies as subliminal advertising. He dismissed this as propaganda disseminated by his detractors, or the “tin-foil hat paranoids”. Anyone who actually understands the technology, he says, knows there is nothing malicious going on. The debate is likely just the opening salvo for a new civil rights battle over mental privacy. The CCLE also points out “neuro-marketing” organizations like the BrightHouse Institute in Atlanta as violating mental privacy. BrightHouse uses MRI scanning to decode patterns in people’s thought processes and devise custom-tailored advertising schemes.
If traditional advertisements compete through noise and glare to get our attention, will replacing them with quieter, more surreptitious advertisements (such as ones beamed into our heads) make the public sphere less of a madhouse? Or are we simply making it easier for marketers to reach us?
What’s to stop a company or government agency from shining anon your front lawn, or your bedroom window, or the driver’s side door of your car?
Instead of having to trash those annoying flyers on your windshield in the morning you may find yourself humming loudly to drown out the voices in your head.