The world of game design is particularly prone to seduction by dreams of a slick, technological future.   This, however, is simply part of a larger cultural dream where new technologies will in and of themselves transform our future for the better.  We often seem powerless to resist these seductions, despite the fact that these dreams are so consistently exposed as incomplete at best, or downright misleading at worst.  We are in the position of millenialists whose latest deadline for the Second Coming arrives and departs; instead of learning the obvious lesson we simply recalculate according to another arcane logic and set a new date.  It is useful, therefore, to look at some of the factors that corporations in particular use to help blind us to some of the obvious flaws in visions of technology-driven progress. 

The Future is Plastics

One of my go-to sources for this is “Farewell to the Information Age,” by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg.  There is a lot going on in this article but one of the things it does is talk about how the definition of information has shifted over time.  We use “information” in a particularistic way (information about things) and it also has a cybernetic sense (the content carried by a signal).  Yet, the way that most people use the word “information” now (an abstract, formless, unquantifiable substance, as in “There is a lot of information on the web” or “Keeping track of the flow of information”) would be unrecognizable to someone as few as 200 years ago.  This third usage is in some ways a fusion of the other two meanings.  After all, if information is knowledge about individual things “information” in the abstract must be lots of knowledge about lots of things, right?  Nunberg argues instead that the word owes its origins to an older sense of character molding.  Individuals are “in-formed,” shaped and sculpted by materials they read and experiences they encounter.  This, he notes, is the sense in which Austen uses the word throughout her work, as when Emma criticizes Mr. Martin for not being “a man of information beyond the line line of his own business” or Fanny is praised in Mansfield Park for being interested in “information for information’s sake” (in other words, interested in developing herself not as a marriageable commodity but as a person) (both quoted in Nunberg, 113).

Nunberg’s major purpose in this article is to consider the ways in which this abstract sense of information, “a kind of intentional substance that is present in the world,” shapes the practice of futurology.  His particular interest, naturally, is those who were then and are still forecasting the imminent disappearance of the book, but his argument applies more generally to those who are constantly trying to sell us the promise of a brave new technologically-enhanced future.

Nunberg starts, therefore, with a wonderful example from a 1950s edition of Popular Mechanics that demonstrates what the home of the future will look like: a woman cleaning her ultra-modern plastic living room furniture with a hose.  This example, he argues, illustrates two failures of the futuristic imagination.  The first is what I think of as the “appreciative fallacy.”  This line of thinking focuses on a specific technology that is currently regarded as particularly badass and assume that a) it will continue to appreciate and b) that we will continue to appreciate it.  Thus, as Nunberg points out, plastic stuff was really cool in the 1950s and everyone assumed it would be cool in the future.  No one foresaw that in a little over a decade the counter-culture would be using “plastic” as a term of abuse (Nunberg 103).  Certainly no one saw that one part of the furniture future would belong to IKEA.  And no one foresaw the terrible vision of the future embodied in giant furniture barns like Marlo’s (those places where people go to buy aircraft carrier-sized beds to fit in the oceanic master suites of their McMansions) where real wooden furniture would be made to look like cheap plastic.  The problem, as Nunberg describes it, is that futurologists underestimate just how durable are many of the elements of our social world.  Think of how many things that are still with us were supposed to be rendered obsolete by the brave new world of computers and the internet: fax machines, pencils, paper. . . (a point made much more comprehensively in Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information).

The other problem with futurology–call it the oblivious fallacy–is the opposite of the first: this way of thinking takes elements of our everyday world for granted and fails to consider that aspects of our society that we regard as fundamental will change.  In that vein, the stunning thing about the Popular Mechanics article that Nunberg draws to our attention is the way in which it clearly imagines that in the future housework will be performed only by women.  The article can’t envision a future where the gender norms so firmly established as part of 1950s America will ever change.

Where do you want to go today?

I was reminded of this when I attended a talk recently by Chris Dede, a well-known and highly regarded Professor of Learning Technologies with the Harvard School of Education.  The talk was about emerging technologies in education and the only downside was that we first had to listen to a lot of palaver from our university’s own technology bigwigs.  We were told how technologically advanced our school is, how we’ve been on the cutting and edge and remain there, and how we have some staggering number of classrooms equipped with response technology and so on.  I remember it as being a staggering number because not a single one of my colleagues, as far as I know, has ever taught in one of these rumored high tech palaces.  Back in the real world, I’d been waiting the better part of 6 weeks to have a projector in my class replaced, one that I’d identified to our tech support people before the semester started as on its last legs.  After dicking around, finally it appeared that the only time available during the entire week when the projector could be replaced was–you guessed it–during class time.  Obviously my university’s technocracy are just as deluded as any bright-eyed futurologist about the real limits of technology and the degree to which its day-to-day use is mired in entrenched institutional ineptitude.

We now resume our regularly scheduled programming.

Dede’s talk was fascinating in many ways mainly because it was solidly grounded in many practical realities.  To me it was of interest primarily because so many of the educational applications he has been working on are built using commercially available game engines and many of them are designed using principles from the world of game design.  As part of his talk, he showed the following video from Microsoft, which some of you may already have seen:

Looks great, doesn’t it?  What an amazing world.  Anyone who can’t tear themselves away from their current smartphone or (and this seems to be the target demographic of this video) those who have invested in the glorified paperweight that is the iPad will be wetting themselves at all those cute little devices.  And all those professors who have managed to use Power Point to bore the arse off students more effectively than at any previous point in our pedagogical history are no doubt similarly soiling themselves over those touchy-feely teaching windows (get it?  It’s Microsoft?  It’s a window.  Subtle, eh!).  Look how cute!  They made a dog chase a ball!

There is another kind of futurological mis-step that Nunberg doesn’t cover explicitly, and it has nothing to do with what will or won’t change, it is simple cluelessness about your current reality.  Take Microsoft’s vision of air travel, for example.  Really, do you or anyone else you know think that our airline experience is moving in that direction?  Last time I flew it was nothing like the Starship Enterprise cabin that Microsoft offers in its vision of the future.  Instead it resembled an overcrowded and singularly malodorous Turkish bath, except that I probably would have had more leg room in a Turkish bath and wouldn’t have had to put up with some snotty ankle-biter kicking the back of my seat while their parental unit lay passed out after too many $15 rum and cokes.  Microsoft and their ad agencies really need to get off their corporate jets and try flying commercial once in a while.

But what really interests me about this vision of the future are all the things it takes for granted, the kind of social structures, institutions and material realities that it assumes will still be viable components of our future.  Here are a few of the more obvious ones:

  • Plentiful energy, in general.  All those funky swipable desktops and windows are going to need power to run.  Lots of power.  Already our energy grids are straining at the seams.  These grids have collapsed in whole or in part in California recently, and here in DC a large proportion of residents can’t bank on reliable residential power.  Perhaps this is just one of the quiet assertions of privilege that underlie this video: the rest of us may be sitting on stationary bikes trying to power our own washing machines, but in the corporate enclaves the power (in several senses) will always be plentiful.
  • Plentiful oil, in particular: I see plastic.  Lots of plastic.  Lots of compounds that are going to need a lot of petrochemical products to make.  All part of the great global denial, of course.
  • Plentiful space.  The video imagines a future where somehow, despite the fact that our species has not yet shown any inclination to stop breeding itself to death, we all have a wondrous amount of personal space.  Look how wonderfully spacious that airport is.  I’ve been in airports that look like that. . .at 4am.  In reality, that moving walkway would be crowded with people, many of them pushing past one another armed with grotesquely over-sized pieces of luggage, mowing one another down because they are so busy staring at the devices in their sweaty palms.  In much of the developed world we don’t now have the kind of personal space shown in this video; in the developing world of course the situation is even worse.  Which raises the rather interesting question.  In Microsoft’s future, where did all the people go?  Is part of their vision the elimination of large chunks of the population?
  • Trees.  In the future, apparently, some of us get to live in tree houses amidst lush arboreal landscapes.  Of course, global warming will by that point have ensured that the last forests are located somewhere up near Hudson Bay.  Perhaps the dude in the tree house is located in a national park, it is highly unlikely that many parts of the future world are going to have access to that many trees.
  • A world free of pollution.  Meaningful progress on cutting greenhouse gases to date?  Zip.  Chances of you being able to sustain a lush rooftop garden in Houston?  Zip.
  • Newspapers.  This is a particularly tragic case of futurological blindness.  Obviously Microsoft and its adverteers can’t be oblivious to the catastrophe overtaking the traditional news industry.  But like some of those inside the news industry they imagine that technology is the answer to the problem.  We just need newspapers we can swipe with parts of our anatomy (of course, depending on the newspaper, people have been using newspapers for this purpose since they were invented).  The plight of the news industry is only in part the product of technology issues; it is also related to complex social realignments in what people want from their news, how they use it, even what is defined as news in the first place.  No amount of sexy nanotech foldable screen technology is going to help with that.

Your Call is Important to Us

What is even more subtle in this video is how much of its vision of the technological good life relies on the assumption of structural power inequities built into global culture.  Look at that first sequence, of the child from the US (presumably) collaborating with a child from India.  Think about the time difference between these two countries.  In order to for this cutesy (and largely pointless) educational interaction to take place someone’s kid is going to have to get up in the middle of the night.  I’m betting it won’t be the adorable white tyke.  Maybe this is just Microsoft’s way of getting kids on the sub-continent used to their future as outsourced customer service reps for future Microsoft products (which, if history is any guide, will need a lot of customer service).

Microsoft is, of course, determined not to acknowledge the one most influential factor in their ability to execute this vision of the future: their own corporate history.  As this delightful parody makes clear, this vision of the future is, after all, brought to you by “the people who brought you the Zune, and Windows Vista:”

This is a particularly smart parody because it is attentive to the many small factors of our social reality that end up shaping our futures more powerfully than whizz-bang technologies.  The reference to future devices that are “kind of like an iPhone, but with an extra piece that you can lose sometimes,” for example, captures perfectly the way in which the efficient dreams of imagineers collide with the reality of klutzy human beings.  Think about the fate of many of our devices now: people smash the screens on their phones, drop them in the toilet. . .my students are forever leaving their phones in taxis on the way home from an inebriated uptown spree and sending out desperate FB messages for everyone to send them their new contact information.  A streamlined technological future is entirely possible, as long as it doesn’t rely on human beings.

I wasn’t entirely sure what Dede wanted us to make of this video.  To me it was seductive but patently ridiculous (which is usually the case with anything seductive, if you can actually get to the point of engaging your brain rather than other parts of your anatomy).  Yet, he seemed to want us to take some aspects of it seriously.

Go Play in Traffic

You see this same kind of futurological cluelessness writ large in some sectors of the gaming industry these days.  For example, consider this ancient (2007) pitch from HP for its Mscape platform:

The mediascapes idea is part of a wave of research into so-called augmented reality applications.  As both a pure gaming and educational technology augmented reality holds a lot of promise.  Yet it has been really slow to develop, despite the recent popularity of devices like the iPad.  This video shows some of the reasons why.

First we need to look past the paleolithic logic that underlies the video.  It is a shock, in many ways, to see this as the product of 2007 rather than 1997.  HP not only considers that gaming is only for boys, but is quite happy to showcase a game featuring the tired, sexist cliche of “woman as reward.”  Obviously the criticisms of this tunnel vision from within the industry itself (let alone outside it) simply passed HP by.  Perhaps this has something to do with lack of popularity enjoyed by this platform?

But it is worth looking at this video for the other types of sociological blindness it manifests and the most obvious of these is its portrayal of urban space.  Again, like the Microsoft video, notice how in order for some people to fully embrace the showcased technologies in all their glory it is vital that no one else be around?  This doesn’t correspond to any urban space with which I am familiar.  (If you wanted a deserted building-scape amongst which to play, of course, you could simply have filmed this ad in any US suburb during the day.  That, of course, wouldn’t be nearly as sexy as an urban landscape, many of which already look as if they were created by a level-designer for the latest dungeon crawl game).  What is most obviously bizarre about this video is its assumption that this anonymous urban space (which could be anywhere in the world, the video implies) is a thoroughly safe place for kids to play unsupervised and through which they can run carrying expensive electronic devices without fear of being mugged (or worse).  Depending on what kind of urban space we are talking about this assumption ranges from dangerously misguided to pure fantasy.

This is, however, why there is more going on with the gender politics of the video than the primitive “women as trophy” sexism.  The absence of any women using the technology could well be a tacit acknowledgement that the real urban spaces are dangerous, and therefore the only ones who should be out and about in them are boys (another kind of sexism, of course).  But the larger point of the video is that it isn’t simply showing us a device or a technology, it is trying to create for us the kind of experience we will have with that technology.  That is why in this video and in the Microsoft futurama, other people largely disappear.  These videos promise not only that this is what you will experience while using the technology (you will become so immersed in the augmented reality that you really won’t see anyone else around you) but that this is in fact people’s greatest desire: to make others disappear by being completely absorbed in their own technologically mediated world.  This is the main reason people use cellphones and media players now: to shut out the world immediately around them.  Now, Microsoft and HP promise, we can give you even better tools to make that happen.  You will live in an enhanced, sophisticated mediated world where you are connected to everything all the time and everything is manipulable with a swish of your pinkie.  And you will be, finally, satisfyingly, utterly alone.

These are just ads, I hear you say, of course they are going to be overblown.  True.  But it is important to realize that these are not just ads for products.  Microsoft’s ad isn’t an ad for any product at all, although it is obviously an ad for the company itself.  What these ads attempt to do is get us to buy into a particular vision of the future that will prime us to buy the specific products that are coming down the line.  They also encapsulate another, more insidious message that the Microsoft parody picks up on explicitly: we are going to do this to you regardless.  Do we think this kind of mediascape technology being used this way is a good idea?  Doesn’t matter, because HP has dumped it on you already.  Do we really want to spend billions developing large swishy windows to enable globalized rich kids to draw animals and clouds with one another at a time when much of the world’s population doesn’t have enough to eat?  Doesn’t matter, because this is what Microsoft is going to work on.  As Nunberg demonstrates, these visions of the future will turn out, in the future, to have had little basis in reality.  But they keep our eyes fixed in particular direction and encourage us to avert our gaze from everything else in the meantime.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid.  The Social Life of Information.  Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Nunberg, Geoffredy.  “Farewell to the Information Age” in The Future of the Book. ed. Geoffrey Nunberg and Umberto Eco. U of California P, 1996.