Dispatches from the Digital Revolution
In the past, I’ve been consistently optimistic with regard to the turbulence generated by the digital revolution. Let’s update reading, I’ve been saying; let’s enhance it and glitz it up and maybe even mold it into something entirely new.
However, two recent developments have made me seriously question the viability of reading in the future. I came across the first in this ReadWriteWeb article, which addresses the rumors that have been swirling around the creation of a new kind of “living” toy by ToyTalk, a company founded by former Pixar and SRI International engineers. ToyTalk’s CEO, Oren Jacobs, was Pixar’s chief technology engineer for twenty years, while the CTO, Martin Reddy, is a computer science PhD who worked on geospatial visualization technology at the Artificial Intelligence Center at SRI International—the organization that built Siri.
According to the article,
Imagine a children’s toy designed by the people behind the Toy Story and Finding Nemo movies but connected to the web and chock full of artificial intelligence. Then add in visual tracking, speech recognition and massive network scalability…Imagine the youngest of children using Web-connected toys carrying character-driven chatterbot artificial intelligence programs.
What exactly does this mean? The way I see it, it means that tablets in the future may very well be much more like Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons (which I’m not altogether opposed to, for obvious reasons) than like the iPads and Kindle Fires of today. Obviously, a tablet/ereader/computer in the form of a toy makes more sense for a child than for an adult, but what will a generation of children who grow up with such companions expect when they cross over into adulthood? Laptops, or grown-up versions of their charming, sparkle-eyed little buddies? The latter would be my guess.
Make no mistake. If ToyTalk pulls this off, it’s going to mean the birth of a generation that acquires information in a way that’s drastically different from anything that came before. It’ll be a true digital revolution.
But hold on to your hats, bibliophiles. It gets so much worse.
Science fiction writers have been predicting the advent of virtual reality superimposed over our real world for a long time now. The book that immediately comes to mind for me is Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, in which humans live in an augmented reality, constantly interacting with whichever version of the world they choose—including alternate realities inspired by J.K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett. Of course, there’s a menacing AI running amuck behind the scenes, but it actually sounds really cool, while being obviously impracticable for any number of reasons.
And by impracticable, I mean perfectly practicable and in fact already almost in existence, in the form of the new virtual reality glasses currently being developed by Google. According to this New York Times article, these nifty and thoroughly terrifying gadgets are taking shape at the shady Google X laboratories, where engineers are also apparently working on “robots and space elevators.”
The new glasses will be powered by Android, and will project information, entertainment, and ads onto the lenses. According to the article, “The glasses are not being designed to be worn constantly — although Google engineers expect some users will wear them a lot — but will be more like smartphones, used when needed, with the lenses serving as a kind of see-through computer monitor.”
HA. Yeah, they’re not going to be used “a lot.” More like constantly and by everyone, once they filter into the mainstream, and eventually get distilled down into contact lenses. Know anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone with which they’re preoccupied almost every minute of the day? Yeah, that one person is probably the same lone ranger who won’t be wearing these babies three to ten years from now.
Personally, I hope these glasses come in some fun, fly, and flashy styles, because I know that for all my ranting, I’ll be hopping onto that bandwagon with the utmost alacrity. It all just sounds mindblowingly awesome. At the same time, and for the first time, it genuinely makes me worry about the future of books in any form. Can words compete with interactive, real-world stories—essentially living whichever novel or movie strikes your fancy, every day of your life? Can the written word hold sway when your adorable little AI companion can whisper sweet nothings—or cold, hard facts—into your ear as it plays patty cake with you?
I just don’t know. And it scares me more than a little. If anyone thinks I’m wrong to be worried about this, by all means, sprinkle some hope in my general direction. Because as it is, I’m pretty sure Google is going to be changing its name to “Skynet” one of these days.