I haven’t written a lot on this blog for a while.  Partly that has been due to the way a lot of my posts seemed to get inexorably drawn into the black hole of the vitriolic shambles that passes for politics in the US these days (or, it has to be said, increasingly the world over, as the forces of populism flex their muscles).

The lack of posting has also been because a major focus of this blog in the past has been the implications of the design of our social media environments and with that in mind, I was worried that pretty much anything I wrote over the last two years would be a variant of a giant “I fucking told you so!”  Looking back over those posts, some of them from years prior to the election, I’m struck by the fact that pretty much everything I was worried about–the potential for privacy violations, people mistaking communication for community, arseholery for activism, the seemingly purpose-designed suitability of social media for stalking, harrassment, doxing–all pretty much came to pass.  And while I received my fair share of ribbing for being a tech curmudgeon, those pieces now read as being, in effect, too timid, not remotely pessimistic enough to countenance a Cambridge Analytica, or Twitter playing whack-a-mole as it wiped out tens of millions (!) of fake accounts.

If I wrote about all that again I’d also have to face the sad fact that for some of my friends all this has made virtually no difference.  Despite even tech monopolies themselves admitting that maybe their products are not entirely healthy for us, too many people I know are so thoroughly invested in the myth of social media as a civic-minded community building enterprise that their denial is as armor-plated as that of any President Pennywise supporter.  On the rare occasions I log into Facebook anymore it is the same sad parade of people shopping their kids, tired memes from a couple of years back, the same old people posting every new rumor and outrage without any fact-checking.  And photos of food.  Always photos of food.

A more positive reason for the lack of contributions is that my gaming interests have shifted somewhat in the last few years, and there will, I hope, be more about that from this point on.

But the focus of this blog has always been artificial intelligence in all its various definitions.  Including art and artifice.  Including intelligence in the data-gathering sense.  Including, on not a few occasions, artificial people who think they are intelligent.  Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why people seem to be so passionately in love with one form of AI in particular, a love made all the more extraordinary by the fact that it really doesn’t work all that well.  Or sometimes at all.

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Evil Within

It is now abundantly clear that MAGA-ism involves simply bringing back all the most reprehensible aspects of the US past and trying to make them acceptable to talk about in polite company.  Although clearly we are also in the process of rewriting what polite company means.  So perhaps it was inevitable that this process of making America grate again would turn its beady-eyed stare upon the videogame industry.

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Cassini Pole

The giant hexagonal storm at Saturn’s north pole, as photographed by Cassini.

I’ve been thinking a lot today about the Cassini probe, and its imminent demise, early tomorrow morning (EDT) as it undertakes a planned suicide dive into the atmosphere of Saturn.

My friend Richard Easther (who is an actual cosmologist rather than an interested dabbler like me) has written a lovely eulogy for the mission, “Set the Controls for the Heart of Saturn,” which in addition to being both informed and evocative naturally gets big bonus points for the Pink Floyd reference.  He articulates many of the emotions I’m feeling: the way this mission evokes a sense of wonder and takes us both back to the days when we were adolescents poring over the latest images in books and magazines from Voyager.

The many retrospectives of Cassini’s discoveries over the last week have also made me realize something else.  The unmanned space exploration program undertaken mainly by NASA/JPL with some help from the ESA and the occasional Russian rocket should be understood categorically as the defining technological achievement of humanity.

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Learning to Love Wisely

Posted: August 16, 2017 by Twitchdoctor in Uncategorized

Stomping

What can one of the most violent video games ever created teach us about love?  Check out my essay on love, videogame criticism and Wolfenstein: The New Order in Kiwi literary magazine The Pantograph Punch.

vr

Virtual Reality demonstration, courtesy of the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas-Austin (Creative Commons License).

Will 2017 be the year of Virtual Reality?  Part of the answer to that question involves recognizing that we’ve gone through several periods since the early 90s when someone, somewhere would be ask: is this the year for VR?  And it never was.  Nevertheless, with gaming permeating almost all aspects of life in over-developed nations, broad cultural familiarity with body motion controllers thanks to the popularity of the Wii, and new systems like those being built around the Oculus and Vive (not to mention the fact that the systems are backed by deep-pocketed tech company players who can afford to sustain losses), VR may start to emerge as more than a high-end gaming oddity.

VR promises to offer some amazing enhancements to existing gaming experiences and to open up completely new sensory experiences.  But what I’ve been thinking about lately are two isses that seem a lot more prosaic.  This first is that almost no one is asking the obvious question: do we actually need VR?  The default development and marketing assumption is that people are clamoring for this, but are they?  In the first of two posts examining games and VR I want to focus on one gaming area that VR developers have already been targeting heavily: space exploration sims.

Part 2 will focus on a concern sparked by reading a recent review of some of some new VR apps: how is VR going to influence the design of the spaces in which we live?  What will VR mean, in short, for the design of our houses?

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sunset

Yoga by Alliance Russe.  Creative Commons License via Flickr

 

Everything is fine
And you know the sun will always shine
Two and two always equals four
And life is simple when you’re sure
The world’s on someone else’s shoulders
Leave it there ’til it gets colder
Two and two always equals four
Did you never hope for something more?

 

Jesus Jones, “Two by Two”

Oddly enough, the election result hasn’t shaken my faith in the US electoral process.  However the tidal wave of idiocy it has unleashed is coming perilously close to destroying my faith in democracy in general.  What is really dispiriting is not so much what I’m seeing from Trump apologists; their reactions have been entirely predictable.  But the cluelessness being demonstrated by some liberals has been jaw-dropping.  There are entirely legitimate reasons to be pissed off at this election result.  And people should stay pissed.  Because there is a lot of stuff being brought out into the open now that has always been there, but to which large sectors of the nation have been blind.  It is virtually impossible for you to be a young person growing up today and not know that racism is alive and well in the US or, at the very least, that race is still a primary yardstick by which we measure the success of this perpetually evolving national experiment.  It is difficult (although, unfortunately, not impossible) to be growing up today and not realize how misogynist your culture is.  Awareness followed by denial is of course always an option.  But I’m going to be strongly tempted to slap the next person who says “I’m not a feminist but. . .”

A lot of progressive anger at this result stems from the fact that it all just seems so damn unjust.  A temperamentally unstable merchant of hate won.  The party that engineered a shut-down of the entire government, took the nation to the brink of a ruinous debt default, and raised childish tantrum politics to an art form, now gets to pretend to be an adult and control all branches of government.  That, however, is a hard but useful lesson: there is no necessary connection between democracy and justice.  Often you get justice in spite of, not because of democracy.

However, the election aftermath is, sadly, providing ample additional evidence of what I wrote about in “The Trump Card:” the biggest threat to democracy may be Americans’ own piss poor knowledge of how their system of government works.

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testPlease don’t tear this world asunder
Please take back
this fear we’re under
I demand a better future
Or I might just stop wanting you
I might just stop wanting you
Please make sure we get tomorrow
All this pain and all the sorrow
I demand a better future
Or I might just stop needing you

David Bowie, “A Better Future”

Well, as has been obvious to the rest of the world, the US has been on a bit of a drunken bender for the last year and a half, behaving a lot like a college student when his or her basketball team loses (or, let’s be honest, wins or loses): smashing shit, blowing things up, setting things on fire, tipping things over.  Decency, taste, respect, fairness, democracy.  Stuff like that.

Then on November 9th America, bleary-eyed, mouth like sand, head pounding, woke up, rolled over. . .and discovered it was in bed with Pennywise the Clown.

“Did you and I. . .you know. . . Oh God!”

This was to be the third in a sequence of posts (after “The Griefing of America” and “The Trump Card“) that was going to look at some ways in which adapting concepts from the world of game design could improve some elements of the democratic process.  A couple of them were going to be tongue-in-cheek but there were also a couple of serious ideas mixed in there.

Now all that is beside the point.  The challenge is now a lot more basic.  To attempt to safeguard the democratic process from further abuse and to hold on to the idea of America as a nation that welcomes difference, celebrates diversity, and doesn’t spend all its time immersed in a fearful haze of mutually contradictory conspiracy theories.

Yeah, only that.

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