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Digital Trends

Late Summer Reading Edition Can we be honest with each other? It’s late August. You have no interest in reading about new trends in technology. And I don’t really feel like writing about new trends in technology. It’s hot and miserable and we are all planning on punting as much as we can until early September. So instead of writing about Bitcoin (again) or Augmented Reality (again) or Machine Learning (again) or Quantum Computing (again), I’m going to recommend four science fiction novels that I think everyone with an interest in technology should read. “What?!?” you yell angrily. “How dare you waste my time with rocket ships and aliens?!?” First, it’s not that kind of science fiction. All these books deal with current trends in technology projected forward into a possible future. Second, these particular books are VERY popular with entrepreneurs, investors and developers in technology. These are the people that people in technology read to help them imagine and then create the future. So, it’s useful. Also, it’s August. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline 2011 Cline’s novel is a bit of Generation X wish-fulfillment, one in which the pop culture of the 80’s and early 90’s has become celebrated in the year 2044. As someone who came of age in those years, let me reassure you that this is highly unlikely. True to this retro spirit, Cline’s novel does not imagine fundamentally new technologies. It just takes current technological trends to their logical conclusions. In the future, as imagined by Cline, there is an all-consuming virtual reality MMORPG called OASIS that is both game and substitute society. The world has broken down to a point where the in-game currency of OASIS is the only remaining stable currency. A group of young hackers follow an Easter Egg within the gameworld that will unlock unheard of power for whoever unlocks all the clues. (Which tend to concern 80’s pop culture and video games.) Application to Marketing: Marketing used to be narratively simple since it was typically shared on broadcast mediums to the largest possible audience. But marketing metrics have changed to value engagement over reach. This is sensible in an era of media fragmentation. If you can’t get everyone, it makes sense to just get some people really, really well. The Easter Egg at the heart of Ready Player One represents the type of rich, unfolding, complex narrative that will become more popular in marketing campaigns. Already organizations like Google are using these types of digital Easter Eggs to find potential employees who combine digital savvy and problem solving ability. Next Steps: While marketing continues to offer up simple messages and quasi-moronic narratives, the rest of popular culture is offering obscurity and complexity as features. Read More The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson 1995 Where do you start with Neal Stephenson? Any and probably all of his books (except Zodiac) could be included in this list. Stephenson is clearly a voracious reader in both technology and history and he applies his knowledge to create richly-imagined yet fully-human futures. In the Diamond Age, the world has become divided into Phyles, alliances of similar ethnic and cultural individuals that function as business syndicates under a set of Equity Lords. These Phyles are locked in a nanotechnology arms race. An engineer and designer is asked by his equity lord to create a storybook with virtual reality and remote human actors for his granddaughters. The books contain lessons and stories that encourage the user to become both educated and independent-minded. Application to Marketing: The book, also known as A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer is a model of how technology and narrative can coexist. Marketers like to describe themselves as “storytellers” and yet we fail to use the new technologies available to us to tell stories. On websites and apps, we have substituted the user journey for the brand story and, as a result, websites tend to be functional rather than richly engaging. Next Steps: Last year, Magic Leap hired Neal Stephenson. Magic Leap. Hired. A novelist. Yes, I believe this is significant. Read More Spook Country, William Gibson 2007 Gibson is another writer who could appear multiple times on this list. In fact, he is credited with being the first one to popularize the obscure technical term “cyberspace” way back in 1980. I have selected Spook Country because it is paradoxically the least like science fiction among his books to date. Published in 2007, it reflects the deep distrust of government that began to emerge in technology circles in the wake of the “War on Terror.” Post-Snowden and post-Stuxnet, this distrust has only grown more acute, as technologists struggle with the moral quandary of seeing their tools and methods become part of the national security state. Application to Marketing: Politics aside, Spook Country features a prescient description of what we now would consider augmented reality technology. In the novel, fictional artist Alberto Corrales uses a type of augmented reality technology to recreate the deaths of prominent celebrities using geospatial technologies and look-alike actors. The novel’s descriptions of groups of young people gathered around to watch these recreated deaths anticipates the groups of Pokemon Go enthusiasts I wade through on my walks through New York’s Union Square. At the same time, we have not yet reached the level of augmented reality Gibson suggests. But it is interesting to realize that recreations of celebrity deaths would be a popular, but grizzly use for augmented reality. Gibson reminds us that new technologies don’t alter human nature, for good or ill. The entertainments that will be most popular in augmented reality will resemble the popular entertainments of today. As the local news media says: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Next Steps: Magic Leap seems to be the company to watch on augmented reality. But give proper respect to Niantic Labs. Read More Zero K, Don Delillo 2016 Delillo is an odd writer to make this list. While he is not defined as a science fiction writer, his latest novel imagines a possible future world. But Delillo’s possible future might exist right now. Somewhere in the Asiatic Steppe, a group of like-minded financiers, technologists, designers, and artists have created “The Convergence” - a facility dedicated to the cryogenic freezing of wealthy individuals. These individuals agree to be frozen while still alive in anticipation of being revived in the future when science and medicine has developed cures for their various ailments. The stated goal is a kind of immortality. Delillo has captured something of the current mindset in elite technology circles – a mindset in which death becomes one more inefficiency to be disintermediated by technology. While there is something sad and a little pathetic about pursuing immortality, the people who have set this bizarre goal have influence. They believe that money plus technology plus brain power can solve any problem. Which would be admirable if they defined poverty, hunger, war, or suffering as problems worth solving. Instead, many very wealthy and successful people in technology become convinced of their own central role in a world historical turning point. Whether they call it convergence, singularity, superintelligence, or simulation, it is all ultimately reducible to a thinking-man's apocalypse. The more I've read, the more I've become convinced that the arguments for these apocalyptic ideas are weak and unsupported by evidence. This is because these are not intellectual arguments. Rather this type of thinking is driven by the same, emotional impulse that leads cult members to quietly take their cyanide and lie down in their matching Nike sneakers. The problem with this millenarian thinking is that other people become disposable. The protagonists in each of these fantasy scenarios are the elect, the educated, the technorati who see through the veil of illusion. Everyone else is, at best, nodes in the vast network. Sorry, Morpheus, but I'm not buying it. Next Steps: (Slowly stepping down off my soapbox) Have a nice August. See you in September. Read More

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