01/24/2013 07:23 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

What Sci-Fi Can Teach Us About the Present and Future of Information

Combine growing attachment to smartphones with advances in cutting-edge goggles (think Google Glass), and what do you get? Acceptance of augmented reality (AR), which supposedly became ready for "prime time" last year. With the technology out of the incubator and in our living rooms, Silicon Valley's mouthpieces are becoming increasingly comfortable generating hype about the exciting new world it will create. Get ready, they say, for a "more information-rich, more navigable, more interesting, more fun" existence.

Equating more with better is an old advertising trick. The message is so deeply burrowed in our psyches that it sounds less like Madison Avenue and more like an ancestral call. Is it shallow? Yes. Is it easy to pick apart in academic discussions and stern parental lectures? Sure. Does it reek of the idealistic Internet coverage that we've been long bombarded with? Absolutely! But, let's face it. The ideal wouldn't persist if it didn't work. We're suckers for the supersized.

Persuasive jingles need desirable products, or at least evocative references to them. According to one article, AR will improve urban exploration, museums visits, shopping, our experiences of travel and history, customer service, safety and rescue operations, and home decoration. Another suggests AR can breathe new life into reading by adding "great depth and additional understanding to the narrative". AR cooking, gaming, and automobiles are targeted too, as is the hallmark of human uniqueness:our mind.

With so many changes to look forward to, Evernote CEO Phil Libin speculates that soon it will seem "seem barbaric" to look at the world without AR lenses. "The experience is so powerful," he says, "that you feel stupid as soon as you take the glasses off".

Although it's difficult to look beyond the incomplete detail and revolutionary rhetoric, authors who specialize in liberating the imagination from technological myths are up to this challenge. Of all them, Tim Maughan--whose short story, Limited Edition, is currently shortlisted for a British Science Fiction Award -- is the perfect person to talk to.

Maughan and I began to exchange ideas about technology when he contributed to a recent article I wrote for The Atlantic: "Augmented Reality Racism." Indeed, while the three stories comprising Maughan's "cyberpunk++" novel Paintwork addresses many possibilities-- rapacious corporations unleashing ubiquitous virtual reality advertising that becomes a blight on the urban landscape ("Paintwork"), authoritarian guilds from massively multiplayer online games achieving undue cultural status and social-political influence, ("Paparazzi"), and impoverished countries feeling pressure to pursue economic development by embracing crass technology fueled commercialism ("Havana Augmented") -- he gives so much attention to the future of AR that it is, arguably, the main character.

Evan Selinger: What inspired you to write speculative fiction about AR? Why this topic? Why approach it with this genre?

Tim Maughan: I'm not sure exactly when or how I decided to write about it, to be honest. The first of this group of short stories I wrote was Paparazzi, which doesn't actually feature much AR apart from in the opening scenes, it's mainly about good old-fashioned virtual reality. It was an attempt to do two things as a story: to put together some ideas I'd had about online gaming communities and economics, and to have a stab at world-building. The AR stuff came out of the latter.

The next thing I wrote was Havana Augmented, where AR does play a central role. But, I wrote that when I was in holiday in Cuba and wanted to write something about the conflicts of pride, ideology and pragmatism that the country is currently facing. Paintwork again is about AR, but really it's about public and corporate control of urban spaces, and the unique questions of authenticity that artists face in a digital culture. Again, with Limited Edition, I very clearly wanted to write about the 2011 UK riots, consumerism and their portrayal in both traditional and social media. AR just became a handy tool for exploring and visualizing these things.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I never sat down to "write about AR". With all these stories AR is just a metaphor, a literary device that allows me to talk about current social issues and themes in a hopefully accessible and quite visual way. But then that's how I view science fiction in general, as a writer -- a vehicle for exploring and presenting the present rather than predicting the future. I'm not really very interested in that, or at least not doing it precisely or accurately. In fact sometimes I feel that SF that gets the future wrong is perhaps more interesting; it often means that it's representing the time it was written better. Failed predictions say a lot more about the period they were imagined in than successful ones, perhaps.

Evan Selinger: What do you think of my depiction of AR as your main character? Most people would consider it a category mistake -- a misplaced bit of anthropomorphic projection. However, there's a rich theoretical and literary tradition of thinking about things as having agency. The French philosopher Bruno Latour maintains this outlook, as does Richard Powers, one of my favorite authors. Simulation technologies are characters in his Plowing the Dark.

Tim Maughan: That's an interesting take, and one I'd not really considered before. I guess it could be true -- but as per my previous answer, I view AR as a literary device, so maybe the main characters are the themes that I'm trying to explore? I think that's perhaps a fairer assessment.

I must admit, I'm quite badly read in regards to contemporary SF. I haven't encountered Powers before. His work looks very interesting, and I'll check it out.

Evan Selinger: I don't want to make Paintwork sound overly didactic. It certainly is rich literature. Nevertheless, your treatment of commercialism and advertising radiates such despair that I'm tempted to see your stories as the literary exploration of a philosophical thesis -- one suggesting that the ties binding innovation to the market ultimately cast a dark cloud over the future. Can you elaborate?

Tim Maughan: The ties binding innovation to the market ultimately cast a dark cloud over the present. We have access now to technology that could improve the human existence for all and it's primarily the market--and the sanctity in which we hold it -- that prevents us from making the most of them. Despair is an odd concept, and highly subjective. I was asked at a con panel recently if I felt my work was dystopian, and I replied that I felt it was realistic. It got a laugh at the time, and was said slightly tongue-in-cheek, but I was also being quite serious. Dystopias are relative. One man's dystopia is another's reality, or even utopia. It all depends on where you're standing -- what your ideological outlook is, and, perhaps, what you understand.

Let me try and explain with a quite mundane example. I'm always a bit bemused by Internet-rage against Apple's release cycle. People get incredibly upset when they see a new iPad released within a year of the last one, as though that's the most insidious, exploitative thing capitalism could do. It's really not. Even from a purely consumer point of view, it's small fry compared to how capitalism manipulates individuals, societies, politics and democracy.

Perhaps it's a sign of cultural differences between Europe and the U.S. Both regions have fully embraced consumer capitalism, but it feels over here that in the U.S. the market is hardly questioned, as though it's almost blasphemous to do so. Not questioning something leads to not understanding it, to not getting the full picture. If you don't have the full picture then when someone does question it can seem cynical, dystopian or full of despair, when it fact it might just be observational, perceptive. Not that I'm claiming my work is either of those especially, but perhaps because in the UK we are more open about questioning the market the things I talk about seem less radical or cynical. Cynicism is relative, to try and put it more elegantly. And it doesn't necessarily change anything in an immediate sense either--you can question the nature and effect of capitalism without being a Marxist revolutionary.

Evan Selinger: The fact that you choose AR as a dominant literary device suggests that you do see it as an especially good vehicle for opening up discussions that we're not having enough of right now. That was my goal in "Augmented Reality Racism", where I argued that it's easy to fall for the current AR hype because it only focuses on fun and harmless products. Can you elaborate on what discussions we need more of, why the standard genres for covering them aren't getting the job done, and how AR is a good for vehicle for expanding the discourse?

Tim Maughan: It's interesting you saying that it's "easy to fall for the current AR hype because it only focuses on fun and harmless products," because I think you're exactly right. But, I'd take it a little further. It's easy to fall for the AR hype because it still looks novel and exciting.

Technology becomes the most effective -- and thus potentially the most damaging, for want of a better word -- when it passes that novelty stage and becomes mundane and commonplace. The way smartphones have radically changed the way we lead our daily lives is perhaps the most recent example.

I'm sure most people reading this can remember when the first iPhone was launched, and how exciting and revolutionary it seemed: the mobile always on connectivity, the display, the touch screen and form factor. Now, they seem utterly mundane, ubiquitous. They're dull even. It's impossible to walk around any populated area pretty much anywhere on the planet without seeing dozens of them being used by all manner of people. And, the first iPhone was released just in 2007. It's been an incredibly short six years from revolutionary product launch to utterly mundane ubiquity.

And few of us have had time to pause and think about the effect it has had on us, either as individuals or society. What effect has the easy, constant connectivity had on our work or family lives? Combined with the explosion of social media -- another very rapid groundbreaking-to-mundane cycle -- what effect has that had on how we view the people around us? Or, physically far away from us? What effect has that had on how we view communication, discussion and debate?

When it comes to judging how technology effects us there's an understandable tendency to look at the bleeding edge, at first adopters and hackers, those that take the plunge and dive in. I think it's a tendency in part by academics and journalists to want to be seen as 'cool-hunters', finding the latest trends and speculating about what they could develop into. Always interesting stuff, but I'm not convinced the so-called cutting edge is as obvious as it seems.

One of the most interesting things about the 2011 UK riots was the use of Blackberry Messenger. They were basically flash-mobs organized over the BBM network, which proved to be highly effective and suited for the task. While Twitter evangelists like to take credit for the Arab Spring uprisings, the unrest in the UK involved mainly people that don't use that social network at all. The use of BBM caught journalists and experts by surprise, but with hindsight, its use is pretty obvious.

Blackberrys were massively popular in those inner-city communities due to the relative low cost of the handsets compared to iPhones etc., and the BBM service allows unlimited SMS style messages to be sent for just £5 month, as well as being able to 'broadcast' messages to everyone in your contacts -- including forwarding messages you've been sent, meaning it was very easy to spread information. All of which might sound very like Twitter, but BBM has a number of interesting differences. The most important is that it's basically a closed network, or perhaps more accurately, it is a true social network based on social connections. If you don't have a Blackberry and access to BBM you can't see what people are saying, and even if you do you can only see messages that have been sent or broadcast to you by someone you actually know. It's in effect a private version of Twitter. You can't go and look at someone's public profile. You can't search it. There's no hashtags or trending topics. The ramifications of this are that it's actually a far better revolutionary tool than open, centralized networks like Twitter or Facebook. It's very hard for anyone apart from RIM to monitor it -- which is why it completely caught the police, authorities, media and trend-spotters by surprise. And it's a corporate network -- not some open-source Twitter alternative or elusive, Anonymous dark-net. It's a very mundane, dull seeming system added to BB handsets seemingly as an after thought.

So, how does this transfer to AR? Well, I guess my point is at this stage it's very hard to tell. We can all talk about the cutting edge possibilities of new technology, but the truth is until it becomes commonplace and in the hands of a massive range of people we can't tell how it will be used. I don't want to bruise anyone's geek-pride here (okay, maybe I do a little) but being an early adopter only makes you special for a short while, and on your own you're not going to make any paradigm shifts. By definition you need everyone else with you to do that.

What discussions do I see AR, as a literary device, being able to open up? Well, the main way it differs from existing Internet, communication and social network technologies is its physicality--how it is rooted via display overlays and positional technologies in 'real world' spaces. As such it's a perfect idea for exploring the conflicts between public, private and corporate spaces--which is something I tried to look at in Paintwork and Limited Edition. How do we define a public space? Who controls what we see when we are in those spaces? Why, for example, is advertising seen as acceptable in public spaces, but graffiti is not? Both are forms of visual display that we are subjected to in so-called public spaces without invitation. These are questions that affect us today--I live in a major city and I can't step out of my front door without being bombarded by advertising (and it being Bristol graffiti too, although on a far smaller scale) -- and while it would seem that ubiquitous AR will only expound this situation in the future, discussing it now is actually a great opportunity to ask some questions about the present that we don't often consider.

For example, I'm always fascinated that people get very upset about advertising online, on web pages and in social networks. It drives people crazy with rage at times, which is utterly understandable, apart from the same people probably barely blink an eye when they're surrounded by billboard advertising in the streets and on public transport, or even when they're watching TV. They don't care about it at all, seemingly. Will they start caring when these two forms of commercial advertising reality start to merge, literally in front of their eyes, as will happen with AR? And, how will they react to the AR equivalent of graffiti or protest and social unrest? Or will this new technology -- as with your fictitious grandma in The Atlantic story -- just allow them to tune it out? Maybe it will let them tune out the latter, but I can't see how they'll be able to turn off the advertising as easily. Or, maybe you will be able to remove the ads by paying a premium -- and instantly we've created another class system, one where this time economic differences can effect how people actually perceive what are usually shared public spaces. But, again, we're not talking just about the future, but present-day concerns. Have you ever noticed how there's less billboards in the leafy suburbs? When was the last time you saw a gated community or a country house surrounded by Coca-Cola ads? It's a huge over simplification, but often it's helpful to think of the future as the present exaggerated, I think. Or, at least it is for me when I'm writing: sometimes exaggerations and lies can tell us more than the truth.