Six to Start

Neal Stephenson, YouTube and 3D

Yesterday evening, I went to a reading, Q&A and signing by Neal Stephenson at Foyles. Stephenson surprised me with his reading, which brought out a lot of the humour in the passages he read (from the beginning of the book, when the "clock monks", as he described them later, are interviewing people from outside the "monastery" that runs a clock that's told the time for millennia). The signing was, well, a signing. The Q&A, though, was a highlight, as much for the thought-provoking quality of the questions as the answers. Matt Jones and Lee Maguire have both posted about theirs. Following up on Lee's post, I'm sure it's not a terribly new observation that McCain is a reasonably good old-media candidate, and for all that Interface suggested HD would change things, it's really just an incremental upgrade of TV, so I don't think it has (or will), or that Obama, on the other hand, is the new-media candidate. (Short summary: McCain's got a strong single narrative, but Obama (and more importantly, his supporters) are able to tease at many threads, and turn their opponents mis-steps into memes: think of the tongue photo, or Palin's verbal mishaps.) Or, to put it another way, one wins at HD, but the other wins at YouTube. A larger point I want to bring up, though, is how (along with many speculative fiction authors) the Internet turned out to be very different from how it was imagined, even twenty years ago. Stephenson is a good example of this, not just in Interface, but (of course) in Snow Crash. Instead of a 3D immersive reality, we've ended up with a 2D text-based system, with a few bits of audio and video shoved into windows. In fact, one of the questions at the event was along the lines of "do you feel proud of the 3D environments that exist", and the Stephenson's answer was that 3D worlds were a fairly obvious development, and that he didn't feel as if he had a particular role in creating them- the venture capitalists and engineers deserve far more credit. I would have put it differently: "are 3D worlds a failed future, or is there just not a good instantiation yet?" In the post-talk discussion, it was pointed out that World of Warcraft exists, but to me, games seem very different from the likes of Second Life: we don't read email by a pool with spam represented as sharks, or go book shopping in a simulacra with boxy models, but instead we go to Amazon and read lots of reviews. Personally, I'm pretty sure that it'll always be like that, but I'd have been interested in an opposing view. Discussing this with Dan in the office this morning, he pointed out that Snow Crash didn't entirely get its 3D predictions wrong. Earth, for example, isn't something you're embedded in a universe with, but it does exist as just another window in your otherwise 2D interface, and we're able to watch a blue dot move around a map as we move around the real world, as Hiro does on the Raft. All in all, it was a lovely event to attend, and I hope that the next author Q&A I show up to has such a stimulating audience.