CNN has a rather silly (what else?) piece up called “Why games will take over our lives,” interviewing Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell. Among other things, it speculates that within the next five years, “toothbrushes will be hooked-up with Wi-Fi Internet connections,” so that when others know how often we brush, we will have an incentive to brush more often. From this, the piece moves in short order to the central thesis:
Schell says dental hygiene — and, really, just about everything else — will become a game. He thinks the “gamepocalypse,” the moment when everything in our lives becomes a game, is coming soon — if it’s not already here.
The article usefully illustrates what seem to be two recurrent features of futurism. The first is one of the most basic moves of futurists celebratory and alarmist alike: take some techno-social trend, blur its boundaries to near-dilution, and thereby extrapolate to everything, so that in just a few short years all of society will be defined by it. (Speaking of which, remind me to write about the looming portmantocalypse.)
This move is particularly evident in fictional futurism of the self-consciously “cautionary what-if” variety: think Repo Men and Surrogates, just to name two recent cinematic examples. And all transhumanists seem to have some rapturous vision of the future as defined by their favorite technology. But this move is also evident in much futurism of less extreme varieties, both contemporary and historical.
All this is obvious enough, but there is something of an equal but opposite problem that is much more subtle: it seems that the combined popularity, fervency, and specificity of futuristic speculation winds up blinding us to how basically correct much of it turns out to be. When we (legitimately) dismiss the “gamepocalypse” scenario, it becomes that much easier to shrug off the extent to which gaming, virtuality, and digital immersion really are altering our lives. The extreme predictions end up functioning like a disinformation campaign.
The problem of futuristic specificity is particularly acute in fiction (which all speculation is to some extent). This is because much of the power of fiction is aesthetic: For example, we aren’t just repelled by Orwell’s 1984 as a philosophical response to its narrative, but also because we are drawn into its world, imagining ourselves in it and experiencing the dread of what it feels like to live in its dystopia. But the moral repulsion that 1984 teaches us to recognize then becomes linked to our aesthetic sense of it. Rather counterintuitively, because our own world still feels like our plain old everyday world and not like what we read, 1984 remains emotionally hypothetical, numbing us to how our society has come to resemble that of the novel in some ways (e.g., especially, surveillance). Even if we might recognize it on an intellectual level, it’s hard to find the resemblance nearly as worrisome with reference to the book — not because we’re unfamiliar with the book, but rather, in a way, because we’re too familiar with it.
(hat tip: Ann Kilzer)