Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
This year, the Back to the Future movie turned 25. We’re only five years away from the future the trilogy imagined, and our hover cars seem a long way off. But a few things did happen this year that can help us imagine what the world might look like a few years down the line as our interfaces and virtual experiences become more tactile, our narratives and relationships to information transform, and our very brains are rewired by our 24/7 connectedness.
• The iPad — Apple’s oversized iPod has been mocked for many reasons, some of them quite legitimate. But as a web-connected device beautifully designed for experiencing touchable content it is as of yet unmatched. Certainly, the closed system of the app store is one of the things we might wish would disappear in the future. But a glance between the offerings in the iPad app store and the Android Market is reminiscent of the fight between the first Nintendo and Atari consoles. The Android Market, like Atari, may let almost anything through, but it risks becoming a crowded dumping ground for poorly produced content with gems lost in the shuffle. The iPad app store, on the other hand, has already become a more carefully guarded launching pad for small developers and revisiting old classics like Monkey Island and 7th Guest–a pointed reminder of how much more powerful this tiny device is than the hulking computers of the past.
• Kinect — For years interface innovation in the console wars has been mostly the domain of Nintendo. But with hi-def TVs more popular, the Wii is not aging well, and now the other consoles are making a play of it. The Kinect at first glance is a toy aimed at the casual market, but the technology itself points to so much more. Check out the video of World of Warcraft Kinect-style for a glimpse of what could be. The hands-on, or hands-off, interface of the Kinect promises the potential for new forms of augmented reality and more engaging manipulation of virtual objects. Right now, it may be a way to get vague feedback on dance moves, but in the future it may be an interface as ubiquitous as the touchscreen is already becoming. The computing technology we all envied Iron Man might not be so far away.
• Streaming Netflix — Netflix already killed the video rental store with its mail-in model for DVD rental. But the original Netflix system was dated: after all, why do we need to spend postage to mail around a physical version of a digital experience? The next step, streaming video, required widespread adoption of high-speed internet. This has been the year for the number of devices capable of using streaming Netflix to rise, and the company has finally admitted that this method might replace the mailed DVDs. A new plan is now available for just streaming content–no DVDs required. This is another nail in the coffin for the home video collection, as the on-demand viewing is even more convenient than pulling a DVD off of your own shelf.
• Gamifying the school system — This year, the term “gamification” has basically emerged out of nowhere and been the subject of a lot of talk. A novel by Rae Mariz called The Unidentified offered a vision of gamification for the school system, complete with corporate sponsors and leveling as an alternative to progressing from one grade to the next. Experiments with turning classrooms into games have become more common, with attempts at everything from gamifying homework to running classes with guilds and quests. We might not be in a full-scale overhaul yet, but with the educational system seeking more ways to connect with the so-called generation of “digital natives”, change is coming.
• eBooks are everywhere — Electronic book readers finally came into their own this year, with the number of readers increasing and the technology gradually approaching the comfort of actual books without the hassle of hauling hardcovers. The fights between publishers and distributors are particularly telling for the future of the electronic book, and the publishing industry now has to deal with the same widespread problems as the music industry has been failing to sort out for years. If even more restrictive DRM becomes the answer, the win will still go to physical books, but innovative options like the Nook’s LendMe option point towards a better solution.
• eBooks don’t have to be boring — Despite the innovations in nonlinear and interactive literature over the past several decades, the electronic books at the center of the current surge are mostly nothing more than text documents with the same pagination and linear content as a bound book. Yet a few experiments point towards more exciting possibilities to come: interactive picture books on the iPad, for instance, add elements of play to familiar stories from Dr. Seuss. But the most interesting iPad novel so far is also a play on the form of the book. Neal Stephenson ‘s The Mongoliad is being advertised as a collaborator writing project that allows for fan participation. Subscribers to the novel can create fan materials that become part of the text itself so that the world can expand beyond even the vision of the writers. Unlike normal fanfiction, which exists outside the text that inspires it, these fan additions will be part of the growing book itself.
• Google Books Ngram Viewer — In the cool toy category, the Google Labs Ngram Viewer is a preview of what we can learn as we digitize more texts. Digital information is more easily analyzed with quantitative methods, and while the results of this early version may be misleading, it’s fascinating to type in words and chart their popularity. Imagine the next generation: able to tell you, for instance, which regions the books were published in where a word appears, or the demographics of the writers, so we could in theory track the spread of ideas using the same approaches as the tracking of the path of a virus.
• Wikileaks — On the other side of digital data, Wikileaks has brought issues of information security and government accountability to the forefront. There’s a range of opinions on the movement itself, but perhaps one of the most important aspects to emerge from the surrounding debate is the need for better precedents in the handling of virtual data. In the past, the path from whistle-blower to the public was relatively straightforward: a newspaper or publisher had to bring the text into print. Now, information can pass through many people and be distributed instantly by entire networks–and holding them legally accountable for a violation of security is a path towards making the Internet in the US feel suspiciously like access in China. The eventual resolution of the Wikileaks events has the potential to transform the way information of this kind is handled in the future.
• The Internet is making us dumber–or smarter–depending on who you ask — June of this year saw the publication of two books with competing visions of the effects of the Internet on our brains. One, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, pointed out that the very nature of Google and hypertextual information means that we never spend time with ideas in depth anymore: instead, we jump from one thought to another (rather like we’re doing here hmm). The other, Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, considers how our free time is now spent in creating spaces like Wikipedia that arise from collective knowledge and represent a fundamental transformation from our past roles as consumers of knowledge packaged by others. Between the two and many others we’re starting to get a picture of how our world has changed fundamentally.
• Tron Legacy fails to impress — Nearly thirty years ago, Tron offered movie-goers a glimpse of what it might look like inside an arcade video game. The limited color palette and strange relationship of competing “programs” made a certain amount of sense at the time, as computers were still new and their workings a mystery to many. This year’s sequel offered a similar vision of the world inside the computer, complete with pseudo-Buddhism worthy of a Matrix film and programs governed by rules-based systems ala Asimov. Despite these debts, the resulting movie was a disaster, in large part because our virtual spaces have become far too sophisticated to be dismissed as programs congregating in night clubs. We know our computers better know, and they are capable of too much for movies like this to portray. Here’s hoping that 2011 will bring a cinematic vision of virtual space more worthy of our ever-expanding connections with digital worlds.