Flight of the Vajra: Unplugged Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2012-02-17 17:24:00 No comments

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One of the common elements of the future we're seeing now (as opposed to the future we saw fifty years ago) is a world where most everything in it has a digital representation, us included. Sometimes this is used for satire — viz., Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, where the horrid implications of always "being in touch" are carried to their logical extreme.

Twenty years ago, nobody imagined that something like Twitter would even emerge, let alone have the kind of pervasiveness that it does. Actually, I should stop right there: it's not that technologies like Twitter and (ugh) Facebook are indeed wholly pervasive, but that they seem that way right now.¹ Give it five years, and I'd bet you my next box of Cuban cigars (if I smoked) that they'll have melted away and been replaced with something else. Maybe not something better, but certainly something different.

While writing Vajra I became convinced that it would not be possible to know the precise shape that such technology would take in our lives. In other words, for us to speculate about what far-future variant of Twitter they would be using would be like someone in the 1910s wondering how many Model Ts there would be on the road and if they were finally in some color other than black.

I'm also reminded of the moment, easy enough to miss, in the terrible movie Lost in Space, where the daughter character breaks out her video diary device with its conspicuous Silicon Graphics Inc. logo. Or the in-dash Nokia-branded phone in the car in the even more terrible 2009 Star Trek remake. These things say less about the power of corporate money for sponsoring and branding than they do about how easy it is to not really think about the future, and just populate it with bits of the present.

So: communications technology. The way I saw it, once you gave people the possibility to become part of the very digital fabric they used, a lot of things become unneeded. No one carries a phone, because you are the phone: everything that phone used to do has in some way become a part of your very being, or been diffused throughout the environment you now move through every day. So there are no phones in this story, not even any computing devices as we know them now — but rather a pervasive atmosphere of computation and connectedness. That's about as forward-thinking as I could get without making a total fool of myself.

I'm looking back over what I wrote just a second ago — specifically, the words "populate [the story] with bits of the present". I don't meant to say that in itself is a bad thing, only when it's a substitute for genuine reflection on the future. The story I'm writing is indeed populated with plenty of bits of the present. That future is filled with people having meals together, arguing good-naturedly (or not so good-naturedly), creating art, going places, seeing each other, etc.

Yes, how they do all those things is drastically unlike what we have now. But I decided early on that a future where people did things that we of 2012 have no way to refer to or connect with culturally would make for a story that almost no one would want to read in the first place.

¹ The more you live or work with something, the easier it is to believe the rest of the world lives or works with it as well. This rule goes double, possibly triple, for anything in the tech industry. I'm growing a little tired of neophyte colleagues of mine — or even folks I know who really should know better — professing completely unfeigned astonishment when they tell me someone they know doesn't have a Facebook page, doesn't bother with Twitter, and for the most part is indifferent to the Web. How can they possibly live without acknowledging the impact of these things on their lives!? My answer was "A lot more easily than you think." I dread the idea that five years from now I turn out to be the naïve one.

Tags: Flight of the Vajra technology