||Beginning with a plink...
Computers have become an increasing part of our lives since the 1970s when the 'plink-plonk' sound of electronic tennis, replete with stark white graphics, arrived in our living rooms.
Just when we got used to the after-images of white balls streaking across our field of vision, after a long tennis session, we got the Space Invaders. With noisy precision they marched down the TV screen, in response you had to recklessly launch endless missiles to stop them ending your enjoyment. Instead of after-images we got repetitive strain injuries from these extraterrestrial attackers!
Space Invaders became a part of popular culture and at the same time they were inescapably linked in the popular imagination with home computers.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s computers were no longer the toys of the military, or computer nerds. They invaded our offices and workplaces. They influenced the special effects and graphics of our films and TV programmes. Likewise they changed the sound and production of pop music. The cashpoint and direct-dial banking/insurance have become a way of life.
Games have become far more sophisticated and PCs dominate our working lives, schools, hospitals, shops, etc. The insidious seepage of computers into every nook and cranny of our lives is having a profound effect on us, whether we like it or not!
A superhighway code
With such esoteric sounding developments as CD-ROM, Internet, Multi-Media, virtual reality, information superhighways and the hype sounding them, we are at the dawn of a new and frightening computer dominated era.
Computers today are essential to Governments and large organisations because they can handle and access increasing amounts of information and data. This is a two-edged sword because it is now easier for more people to get access to this data, but it also means that sensitive or secret data is also more vulnerable. In addition computer networks transcend national and organisational boundaries which means that it is harder to control or censor them. Hence the current fears about computer pornography being accessible to youngsters or hackers robbing banks or spreading viruses.
At any phase of technological change such fears always emerge and new strategies have to be employed to cope with the changes. For example, in the pre-World War One years there were fears in Britain that the newly built German Zeppelins would help invade and conquer our country. These fears were inflamed by cheap novels, films and newspapers, to such an extent that thousands of people throughout the land believed that they saw the lights of German airships hovering overhead at night. One or two people even said they met the pilots of these craft and others confessed that they had invented these phantoms of the night. In retrospect we can see that these panics were the consequence of the change in power from naval forces to air forces. Today we accept aircraft as a part of everyday life but then they spelt doom to the Empire.
Prophets of doom can see the computer as the propagator of doom. But, like aircraft or other similar technological innovations, computers can add immeasurably to our way-of-life.
What makes PCs different from anything before them is that we can interact with them to enter and change real or imaginary worlds. With the products of Silicon Valley and Hollywood combined we're getting games that are like entering a movie or movies that are like entering a game. These are new fictional worlds that we can explore and play with but they are only the beginning. In future the players/audience will have greater control and say over what fictional worlds they enter and how they interact with these worlds. The barriers between producers and users will not disappear entirely but the distinction between will often be hard to spot. This is because games/movies rather than remaining static will evolve and change according to the way they are used.
With new and more powerful animation and graphics software packages I'd like to see people creating their own movies/games, just as people can sit down and write letters today.
Such programmes need not be only for entertainment purposes. Video, still photography. text, sound recordings can be edited and mixed to create a family history, diary, stories or reportage.
Now let's move further into the future. With more powerful PCs you could enter a virtual movie where you are the virtual star. A symbol of yourself could be shown on screen and manipulated by you or you could just see everything through your character's point-of-view - movement through the movie might be via a keyboard or through the use of a virtual reality helmet and gloves. Other virtual people could enter and change the story. For example, your virtual self could be used to go on a quest for a magic sword. To get there you need to gather supporters, funds, arms, etc., to enable you to fight the forces that oppose your quest. Virtual actors/players would play these parts to help or thwart you. This isn't fundamentally too different from existing games except the level of interaction, movement, graphics and possibilities would be greatly increased.
In more practical matters you could have virtual TV programmes where rather than 'real' participants you could have virtual guests who could plug their latest multi-media books. On a more personal level you could actually meet the virtual resemblance of old or new movie stars (indeed in a world where you could become the star of your own movie/games would any new stars emerge?). You could ask them all sorts of questions and they'd reply in an appropriate manner. Why stop at movie stars? you could have virtual replicas of Einstein, Mozart, Napoleon, you name them. Meeting them could be part of special 'documentaries' or entertainments.
The world of documentaries could be far more exciting and educational. Your virtual self could enter a computer generated Jurassic Park where you could learn about dinosaurs, or you could go on a wild-life safari or go door-stepping naughty second-hand computer hardware salesmen. Such studies could be carried-out at your own pace and be directed in the areas that interest you (e.g. in the dinosaur park you could just learn about a specific type of dinosaur or you could just stroll around to look at them and just learn a few basic facts.
You could even enter discussion groups about various topics that branch-off from these documentary programmes. With a friend or family all of you could enter the documentary together and look/search through the programme together. You could even go on a study tour with a guide who will show you the best parts of the dinosaur park and the parts that are most relevant to your studies/interests.
It's virtually me
Let's just think about the implications of having a virtual self moving through virtual environments that can be entertaining, educational, formal. informal, private, exclusive or public. Obviously many will charge an entry fee of some kind or will have restricted access. You could even envisage virtual supermarkets which you could look around, select what you want and pay-for all in one virtual setting. There could be virtual shopping malls, and you might even have products chasing after you in an attempt to persuade you to buy them.
The informal, public spaces could be places where you might meet other virtual people but there'll have to be certain social rules and skills. If people are left to do what they like you could be virtually bullied, mugged or verbally attacked. We could imagine a scenario where children could easily stroll into such areas and be privy to discussions that are not suitable for them. Children could be assaulted by virtual perverts waiting for likely victims. Even if you're an adult you could be plagued by virtual bores or bullies who might spoil your chance to join or enjoy discussion groups.
The structure of these environments could be such that it does not cause too many problems for the participants. Perhaps we could see virtual police or virtual neighbourhood watchers who might report on virtual people who misbehave themselves!
On the plus side, you will be able to 'meet' more people who inhabit all parts of the world. Rather than long telephone calls, you'll have long virtual meetings. This could be as wearying as a transatlantic call from a long-lost Aunt, but that's the price we'll have to pay. If we are clever enough we could use a computer generated virtual self to meet boring relatives and friends, and it can provide a short synopsis of the encounter afterwards.
In terms of information and knowledge the possibilities are enormous. You could explore the sound, video, film and text libraries of the world, attend lectures at virtual universities, look round virtual art galleries and museums, look round virtual cities of past, present and future. There could be virtual recreations of existing monuments (Stonehenge), past monuments that no longer exist or totally imaginary monuments and buildings.
Rather than a lonely interaction between person and computer, the future will have people using their computers to meet and interact with more people than they ever could in reality. Indeed, with millions of people using a virtual internet to link them together, the structure of these interactions could well be modelled on towns and cities. In a virtual city you'll go to pubs, clubs, cinemas, entertainment palaces, shops, etc. Each of these could be owned by different organisations/individuals and they will grow/develop/re-develop/disappear just like real shops and buildings. For private interactions you could have a virtual home where you'd arrange to meet virtual friends and relatives. Virtual homes could be individually designed ,or you could get a virtual home designer and architect, or you could use a standard model.
Virtual cities, towns and villages could develop and reflect the interests/society/culture of those who create it. You could become a virtual tourist who just enjoys visiting these exciting new 'places' that will become part of the electronic world.
Virtual cities would also contain offices and workplaces. Virtual businessmen could go on virtual trips to meet colleagues and clients. All kinds of work could be conducted in this manner - virtual journalists for example could meet their virtual editors to discuss stories (that would be published in multi-media form or in a virtual city 'news' zone).
As a virtual citizen you'll be able to meet national and local government officials, attend council or parliamentary meetings. As a consequence your opinions and vote might have far more impact.
This discussion has taken us away from TV and cinema as we know it. I think this media will change and transmute so that it will be hard to see the distinction between audio/TV/cinema/newspapers/magazines/books/tapes/cd music discs/computer games as they all become mixed and merged via the home PC. Purists might shudder, but we only have to see how TV sets are slowly but surely becoming integrated with PCs, fax machines, answerphones, hi-fi systems, cable and satellite, etc. The wide-screen hi-fi TV system (and/or virtual reality helmet) will become the centre of all home entertainment and communication.
Rather than being a passive media consumer there will be the chance to have your own voice and presence on the virtual internet. The virtual cities will probably still be in the control of similar types of organisations that exist today. There will still be creators of audio and/or visual entertainment but here again the distinction between them is likely to become blurred. You could guide the unfolding of your entertainment just as you can surf TV channels today, or mix media just as people read the newspaper/watch TV and have the hi-fi on at the same time, today.
It will probably be years before the hardware and software is sophisticated enough to create the virtual cities/landscapes I have envisaged. Probably things will evolve in a totally different fashion, but it is worth thinking now about the implications of where PC technology is taking us.
There are obviously fears and worries about this new technology but the creative possibilities alone are liberating and astounding.
Note this article was
written in 1994.
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