[This article has become the most popular item I've ever posted on this blog. Thanks so much to everyone who has read it and passed it along!]
When it’s busy like this the viz sometimes shifts like the color bleed you used to see on those old Sunday comics, way back in the day. Ubiquitous fiber pipes & wide-band wireless still can’t give enough bandwidth to the teeming multitudes downtown. The viz starts to lag, gets offset and even orphaned from the hard world it’s trying to be a part of. Hyperclear Ray Ban augments, lenses ground down by hand-sequenced rock algaes to such an impossibly smooth uniformity, run through with transparent circuity & bloodied rare-earth elements, scanning the world in multiple dimensions, pinging the cloud at 10GHz and pushing articulated data forms through massive OLED clusters just to show me where I can find an open null shield and the best possible cup of coffee this side of Ethiopia. Then the pipes clog and those ridiculously expensive glasses turn into cheap 3D specs from 2010 pretending to make 2D look like real life but instead here they’re doing the print offset thing, flattening my world into color shifts and mismatched registers.
Marks are flickering in & out, overlapping & losing their z-order. A public note on a park bench glows green – something about the local chemwash schedule – then loses integrity to one of my own annotations left there, like, a year ago. A poem I cranked out on a late night bender but it’s unreadable with all the other layers clashing. Even the filters get confused when the pipes clog. If you look around fast enough, marks start to trail & stutter in a wash of data echoes like when screens used to have refresh errors. Only now our eyes are the screens and the whole world gets caught in recursive copy loops.
The Ray Bans correct it pretty quickly, attenuating the rendered view and pushing up the hard view as the dominant layer. But for a moment it feels like you’re tripping. It used to be physically nauseating, a sudden vertigo brought on by that weird disconnect of self & place. Like so much of life these days, you spend a lot of time adapting to disconnects between layers. Between real and rendered. Between self & other, human & machine. Between expectations & outcomes.
The arc of glorious progress that opened the 21st century seemed to have found it’s apogee around 2006 or so and then came hurtling back towards Earth. And it wasn’t like earlier “corrections”. This one was big. It was a fundamental stock-taking of the entirety of the industrial age to date and things were suddenly, shockingly, terribly mis-matched from the realities of the world. Planetary-scale disconnects. The carrying capacity of economies, nations, ecosystems, and humanity itself came into clear & violent resolution by the 2020’s when everything started to radically shift under the twin engines of hyper-connectivity and ecological chaos. These two previously unexpected titans directly challenged and usurped the entire paradigm of the developed and developing worlds, setting us all into choppy and uncertain seas.
Sure, we still get to play with the crazy cool tech. Or at least some of us do. What the early cyberpunks showed us, and what the real systems geeks always knew, is that the world is not uniform or binary. It’s not utopia vs. dystopia, win vs. lose, us vs. them, iGlasses or collapse. It’s a complex, dynamic blend of an unfathomable number of inputs, governors, and feedback loops constantly, endlessly iterating across inconceivable scales to weave this crazy web of life. So we have climate refugees from Kansas getting tips from re-settled Ukrainians about resilience farming. We have insurgencies in North America and social collectives across South America. The biggest brands in the world are coming out of Seoul & Johannesburg while virtually-anonymous distributed collaboratives provide skills & services across the globe. And we have Macroviz design teams from Jakarta & Kerala directing fab teams in Bangkok to make Ray Bans to sell to anybody with enough will & credit to purchase. Globalization & it’s discontents has proven to offer a surprising amount of resilience. Heading into the Great Shift it looked like the developed world was headed for 3rd world-style poverty & collapse. But it hasn’t been quite that bad. More of a radical leveling of the entire global macro-economic playing field with the majority settling somewhere on the upper end of lower class. Some rose, many fell. It was… disturbing, to say the least. It simply didn’t fit the models. Everyone expected collapse or transcendence.
We humans want things to be as simple as possible. It’s just natural. Makes it easier to service the needs of biosurvival. But we’ve not created a simple world. Indeed, the world of our making looks about as orderly as the mess of 100 billion brain cells knotted up in our heads or the fragmented holographic complexes of memories & emotions, aspiration & fears, that clog it all up. We built living systems as complex as anything the planet could dish out. Not in the billions of years nature uses to refine and optimize but in a matter of a few millennia. We raced out of the gate, got on top of the resource game, took a look around, and realized the whole thing needed to be torn down and completely redesigned for the realities of the world. The outcomes no longer fit the expectations. In some strange fractal paradox, the maps got so accurate that the territory suddenly looked very different from what we thought.
The null shield was created as a black spot. A cone of silence for the information age. They’re like little international zones offering e-sylum in select coffee shops, parlors, dining establishments, and the finer brick-and-mortar lifestyle shops. And in conflict zones, narco-corridors, favelas, gang tenements, and the many other long-tail alleyways of the ad hoc shadow state. The null shield is a fully encrypted, anonymized, opt-in hotspot that deflects everything and anything the global service/intel/pr industry tries to throw at you or copy from you. What’s better is you don’t even show up as a black spot like the early implementations that would hide you but basically tell the world where you were hidden. You’re invisible and only connected to the exact channels you want.
These were originally created for civ lib types and the militarized criminal underclass as a counter-measure to the encroaching security state. But as traditional states universally weakened under the weight of bureaucracies and insurmountable budgets (and the growing power of cities and their Corp/NGO alignments), the state’s ability to surveil the citizenry declined. All the money they needed to keep paying IT staff, policy researchers, infrastructure operators, emergency responders, and the security apparatus – all that money was siphoned up by the cunning multinationals who used their financial wit & weight to undermine the states ability to regulate them. Now states – even relatively large ones like the U.S. government – are borrowing money from the multinationals just to stay afloat. The iron fist of surveillance & security has been mostly replaced by the annoying finger of marketing & advertising, always poking you in the eye wherever you go.
Keeping on top of the viz means keeping your filters up to date and fully functional. Bugs & viruses are still a problem, sure, but we’ve had near-50 years to develop a healthy immunity to most data infections. We still get the occasional viz jammer swapping all your english mark txt with kanji, and riders that sit in your stream just grabbing it all and bussing it to some server in Bucharest. But it’s the marketing vads and shell scanners that drive the new arms race of personal security. Used to be the FBI were the ones who would scan your browsing history to figure out if you’re an Islamic terrorist or right wing nut, then black-out the Burger Trough and grab you with a shock team right in the middle of your Friendly Meal. Even if they had the money to do it now, the Feds understand that the real threats are in the dark nets not the shopping malls. So the marketers have stepped in. They want your reading list so they can scan-and-spam you wherever you go, whenever, then sell the data to an ad agency. They want access to your viz to track your attention in real-time. They want to fold your every move into a demographic profile to help them pin-point their markets, anticipate trends, and catch you around every corner with ads for the Next Little Thing. And they use their access to rent cog cycles for whatever mechanical turk market research projects they have running in the background.
Google gave us the most complete map of the world. They gave us a repository of the greatest written works of our species. And a legacy of ubiquitous smart advertising that now approaches near-sentience in it’s human-like capacity to find you and push your buttons. In some ways the viz is just a cheap universal billboard. Who knew that all those billions of embedded chips covering the planet would be running subroutines pushing advertising and special interest blurbs to every corner of the globe? There are tales of foot travelers ranging deep into the ancient back-country forests of New Guinea, off-grid and viz-free, only to be confronted by flocks of parrots squawking out the latest tagline from some Bangalore soap opera. Seems the trees were instrumented with Google smart motes a few decades ago for a study in heavy metal bio-accumulation. Something about impedance shielding and sub-frequency fields affecting the parrots…
So while the people colonized the cloud so they could share themselves and embrace the world, the spammers, advert jocks, and marketing hacks pushed in just as quickly because wherever people are, wherever they gather and talk and measure themselves against each other & the world… in those places they can be watched and studied and readily persuaded to part with their hard-earned currency.
Or credits or karma points or whatever. Just like the rest of the big paradigms, value has shifted beyond anybody’s understanding. Gold and currency at least attempted to normalize value into some tangible form. But the markets got too big & complex and too deeply connected to the subtleties of human behavior and the cunning of human predators. While money, the thing, was a tangible piece of value, the marketplace of credit & derivatives undermined it’s solidity and abstracted value out into the cold frontiers of economics philosophers and automated high-frequency trading bots. So much of the money got sucked up into so few hands that the world was left to figure out just how the hell all those unemployed people were going to work again. Instead of signing up for indentured servitude on the big banking farms, folks got all DIY while value fled the cash & credit markets and transfigured into service exchanges, reputation currencies, local scrip, barter markets, shadow economies, and a seemingly endless cornucopia of adaptive strategies for trading your work & talent for goods & services.
Sure, there’s still stock markets, central banks, and big box corps but they operate in a world kind of like celebrities did in the 20th century, though more infamous than famous. They exist as the loa in a web of voodoo economics: you petition them for the trickle-down. Or just ignore them. They’re a special class that mostly sticks among their kind, sustaining a B2B layer that drives the e-teams & design shops, fab plants & supply chains to keep churning out those Ray Ban iGlasses. Lucky for them, materials science has seen a big acceleration since the 2010’s with considerable gains in miniaturization and efficiency so it’s a lot easier to be a multinational when much of your work is dematerialized and the stuff that is hard goods is mostly vat-grown or micro-assembled by bacterial hybrids. Once the massive inflationary spike of the Big Correction passed, it actually got a lot cheaper to do business.
Good news for the rest of us, too, as we were all very sorely in need of a serious local manufacturing capacity with a sustainable footprint and DIY extensibility. Really, this was the thing that moved so many people off the legacy economy. Powerful desktop CAD coupled to lo-intensity, high-fidelity 3d printers opened up hard goods innovation to millions. The mad rush of inventors and their collaborations brought solar conversion efficiency up to 85% within 3 years, allowing the majority of the world to secure their energy needs with minimal overhead. Even now, garage biotech shops in Sao Paulo are developing hybrid chloroplasts that can be vat-grown and painted on just about anything. This will pretty much eliminate the materials costs of hard solar and make just about anything into a photosynthetic energy generator, slurping up atmospheric carbon and exhaling oxygen in the process. Sometimes things align and register just right…
So here we are in 2043 and, like all of our history, so many things have changed and so many things have stayed the same. But this time it’s the really big things that have changed, and while all change is difficult we’re arguably much stronger and much more independent for it all. Sure, not everybody can afford these sweet Ray Bans. And the federated state bodies that kept us mostly safe and mostly employed are no longer the reliable parents they once were. We live in a complex world of great wealth and great disparity, as always, but security & social welfare is slowly rising with the tide of human technological adaptation. Things are generally much cheaper, lighter, and designed to reside & decay within ecosystems. Product becomes waste becomes food becomes new life. Our machines are more like natural creatures, seeking equilibrium and optimization, hybridized by the ceaseless blurring of organic & inorganic, by the innate animal disposition towards biomimicry, and by the insistence of the natural world to dictate the rules of human evolution, as always. After all, we are animals, deep down inside, compelled to work it out and adapt.
Time’s up on the null shield. Coffee is down. And the viz is doing it’s thing now that the evening rush has thinned. Out into the moody streets of the city core, the same streets trod for a thousand years here, viz or no. The same motivations, the same dreams. It always comes back to how our feet fall on the ground, how the food reaches our mouth, and how we share our lives with those we care for.