Archive for the ‘Technology and Society’ Category

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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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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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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Rage

Rage this way, Flikr image by Anne. Creative Commons License.

The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy — everything.

George Orwell, 1984

Recently I’ve turned my attention again to the question of the connection between games and what we often refer to, in all seriousness, as real life, more specifically, to the potential for games to intervene in reality and transform it in some way, hopefully for the better.  The is the concept of Alternate Reality Gaming (ARG) popularized by Jane McGonigal (although not originating with her) which is distinct from the co-opted cluelessness of “gamification” (whose only purpose is to sell you stuff).  It is also different from the concept of Augmented Reality Games where reality serves as a platform for the game, but the purpose is more traditionally one of entertainment and diversion only (think–gah–of Pokemon Go).

The reason I’ve been thinking about this is, not surprisingly, as a response to the horror of the current US presidential election season, which feels as if it has been going on since about three weeks after the last election was decided.  Many conservatives and liberals in the US, who can’t even agree on what to put on their toast in the mornings, seem united in their belief that the current election season has not simply plumbed new depths but has in fact powered up a giant drilling rig (drill, baby, drill!) and is boring straight for the center of the planet.

Before we can talk about how games might improve the US electoral process in a couple of small but significant ways, however, we have to look squarely at the nature of the problem.

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Image of Solitude

“Solitudes” by ArTeTeTrA. (Creative Commons License)

Go Outside and Smell the (Paper) Roses!

It is no secret that videogames are blamed for a lot of the world’s ills.  Simplistic associations between videogames and societal violence persist despite the ambiguous and often downright flawed research in this area.  I suspect this particular gaming albatross is never going to disappear, but just in case that it does, the forces of reaction are lining up new evils to associate with interactive entertainment, chiefly childhood obesity and addiction.  This of course is nothing new.  Governments have routinely targeted the new media of the day in order to try and expand their control over information; parents have regularly lambasted the media du jour in order to dodge responsibility for their own parenting decisions.  I am, however, routinely shocked at how effective the level of societal brainwashing has been.  Many of my students have absorbed the “evil influence” argument to some degree.  This is perhaps not so surprising in those who don’t consider themselves gamers (although many of them are; they just don’t play “those games,” you know, the bad ones; playing Candy Crush obsessively doesn’t make you a gamer but playing Call of Duty does, in their minds).  Yet even people who have been playing and enjoying all manner of games for years, who think of “gamer” as part of their identity, have absorbed some of these negative stereotypes.

Yet behind all of this there is often a much more basic dismissal directed at games, a snooty high-mindedness that declares that those who play videogames are simply “missing out.”  What they are missing out on is sometimes unspecified; the proposition is left hanging, a vague assertion that gamers are missing out on “life” in some unspecified way.  Sometimes the criteria are established: they are missing out on “social interaction” or “the great outdoors” or “creative play.”  Such charges are, of course, usually based on hopelessly romantic notions of what each of those entails.  Anyone who has stood in line to get coffee at Starbucks with a group of people who can barely look up from their phones long enough to voice their order (and in fact usually continue texting, etc. without even offering the person serving you your drink the courtesy of eye contact) should know better than to offer platitudes about the vast and exciting world of stimulating social interaction that is waiting for people just outside their front door.  Moreover, it is worthy of note, isn’t it, that this “gamer generation” of “millennials” (and I honestly have no idea what that word means anymore, if it was ever supposed to be anything more than a term of abuse ready-packaged for deployment by grumpy curmudgeons like me) are actually those who are seeking out experience, the extraordinary and the extreme, in unprecedented numbers.

With all of this as background, it occurred to me recently, that the real hidden tragedy associated with videogames is that it is the people who don’t play them who are missing out. (more…)