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Future Shock: Unpacking the Zeitgeist

The following was written by Charles Stross in his blog, and is intended to represent an attempt to describe this recent WoWInsider news article to a hypothetical person from 1977 (during which I celebrated my very 1st birthday). A practically futile task, which illustrates perhaps better than anything else just how rapidly technology and society have progressed in my lifetime so far:

I'm trying to work out how I'd go about explaining this news item from WOWinsider to someone thirty years ago, in 1977, and it is making my head hurt because there are too many prior assumptions nested recursively inside it to unpack easily. (Unless the person in 1977 who I'm trying to explain it to is John Brunner, who I think would get it first time.)

Okay, let's take it from the top:

There exists a vast, global data network for exchanging information between computers. It's called the internet. It's used by corporations and governments and other groups such as people who like to dress up as furry animals to keep tabs on us.

These computers aren't just big mainframes; most of them are small brightly coloured consumer items. Some of them are disguised as pocket radio telephones that play music and double as television cameras. (Yes, TV cameras the size of a pocket calculator.)

People use their personal computers for playing games. (Some people have more than one computer.) Many of the games run over this "internet" and let people play against, or with, each other in teams in imaginary cartoonish worlds where they can take on the character of mighty-thewed barbarian heroes or dress up as furry animals. (Yes, the personal computers have flat colour television screens to display data. Why do you ask?) They can also chat to each other by typing on their computer keyboards.

One of the more popular multi-person internet games is called "World of Warcraft". When you join, you start out with limited resources, and you need to collect gold and magic weapons and kill monsters and go on quests to acquire loot and gain higher levels (which come with whizzy new abilities). A bit like that new-fangled Dungeons and Dragons game everyone's talking about, except using a computer instead of dice and rule books and lead figurines. (Yes, there are several million people doing this right now. This isn't rocket science.)

Grinding your way up to higher levels is boring, so some enterprising eastern sweat-shop owners have come up with a new business scheme; they fill offices with low-paid staff sitting at computers who go on quests, acquire loot and gold, and then sell these for real-world money to impatient gamers. This practice is known as "gold farming" and is frowned upon because it takes a lot of the fun out of the game for those people who're playing it as a game.

Gold farmers need to advertise where potential customers can see them.

There is a common practice on this "internet" called spamming — sending out huge volumes of advertisements via electronic mail and other media. Because the cost of delivering electronic mail is nearly zero, and the recipient pays the fees, spammers can deluge mailboxes and send out millions of junk messages. Indeed, ninety percent of the electronic mail conveyed over the vast intercontinental data network consists of offers of pornography, drugs for erectile dysfunction, and attempts to con recipients out of their bank account details.

Advertisers in a game world annoy the players; it's a form of spamming. So the corporation who run World of Warcraft have built robot filters that destroy spam messages in chat sessions.

So ...

Being unable to stand on a soap box using a megaphone to yell "buy our gold!" one particular gold farming company decided that to get their message across, they'd create hundreds of new characters in the game — all gnomes, all identically outfitted — place them at precise locations, and drop them from a very great height, so that their splattered corpses would spell out the address of the firm's shop front on the internet.

Got that? Good!

Your question: at which step in this narrative would my 1977-era audience first say "you've got to be shitting me!" ... and when would they start moaning and holding their head in their hands?

There are thirty years' worth of future shock condensed into this one news item. And the reason I'm writing about it is that I don't think I could get away with putting such an conceptually overloaded incident into one of my novels; it would take too much set-up and require so much infodumping that many readers would lose interest. This Russian doll of a news item contains some rather scary pointers to where we're going, and a harsh warning about the difficulty of accurately portraying plausible futures in literature.

from: http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2007/07/unpacking_the_zeitgeist.html
discovered via: heron61


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2007 11:34 pm (UTC)
I love that! :) I've always thought that 'past views of the future' and jokes based on that sort of premise were funny.
Jul. 19th, 2007 06:54 am (UTC)
This was totally fascinating!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )


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