Future #66: On both sides of the looking glass
This week, we look at the increasingly blurred space between our virtual and physical experiences. From code that enforces laws (whether contracts or traffic) to aesthetics that flip flop between the metaverse and IRL, we examine how these spaces continue to merge. Stay tuned to the end if you really miss that modem squawk.
— Matt & Alexis
1: What we buy and what we get
At least once a month, one of us opens a closet or a cupboard and exclaims “how did we end up with so much stuff?” Whether you’re an apartment dweller carefully managing every cubic foot or a homeowner with closets and basements full of forgotten storage bins and disused holiday ornaments, it’s both common and somewhat bewildering how all these things came to be in your possession.
Paul Ford, a reliable source of interesting observations about the everyday, wrote in WIRED in January about his experience with a new synthesizer — in his construct, the Object — and all the things it then needed — the Enhancements — as a way to interrogate the provenance of “stuff”. Much of what we buy then requires other things to make it work better: the case for your smartphone, the extra controllers and games for your new game console, the various bits, screwdrivers, and tools for a cordless drill, etc. When looked at from a systems perspective, the manufacture and shipping of all that second-order stuff is intimidating.
Ford goes one step further to identify the reason for the Object and its Enhancements: an Experience. He posits that many of the Enhancements we need for a new object are there to reduce our time to get to the Experience, or are ways to make the Experience simpler to achieve. This framework provides a way to evaluate whether the impact of all that manufacturing and shipping is worth the outcome in the end, and whether that outcome may have been more meaningful had it been earned with time and attention rather than purchased and packaged.
→ A Grand Unified Theory of Buying Stuff | WIRED
2: Is this the real life?
When we look at the current discussion about the metaverse, it’s often difficult to distinguish from descriptions of prior virtual worlds, whether previous incarnations of VR (like Second Life) or even early internet spaces like MUDs and MOOS. Jay Owens explores these similarities in an essay that delves into what the metaverse might mean for us now. She argues that the thread connecting those 90s virtual experiences to our current state has largely to do with the tension between our offline and online lives, and what we consider “real”.
Today the question of “is online real” seems slightly absurd, especially after two pandemic years have rapidly accelerated the merging of online and offline that had been slowly underway for decades. Like so many things, it happened slowly, and then all at once. What’s strangest about the metaverse is not that it is so alien or futuristic, but that it’s obvious and mundane. The metaverse hype seems like a description of the lives we already live, just slightly more so — an evolution, not a revolution. As Owens says:
“Rather than a discrete ‘place’ that you may enter and exit from, it might be more helpful to imagine the metaverse as a persistent digital layer of reality. And as with the rollout of the internet in the first place, you won’t fully recognise what it is, until you realise you’re engulfed.”
→ Meet me in the metaverse | New Humanist
Speaking of the blurring of online and offline experiences, this Twitter thread by Victoria Buchanan highlights how metaverse aesthetics are finding their ways into real world design. They begin by pointing out how physical retail stores are “starting to borrow from the immersive nature of the metaverse to create real spaces which imply a kind of digital illusion”, including pixelated objects and glowing environments. They then go on to offer a wider array of examples in which digital aesthetics are informing the materials, morphology, and finishes of designed objects from clothing to furniture. (If all of this rings a bell, you may recall a similar set of conversations under the rubric of the New Aesthetic, circa 2012.)
This kind of dialogue between digital and physical aesthetics are one of our favorite design techniques. Robin Sloan once described this practice as the “dancing the flip flop”, where a work of art is pushed back and forth between the physical and the digital. He primarily discusses the flip flop as a process that a single object undergoes, like scanning a sculpture, manipulating it digitally, and then 3D printing the result. But we like the idea of extending the concept more broadly to the larger cultural back and forth we see described by Buchanan. Digital aesthetics arise in virtual contexts because of the unique affordances or constraints of those contexts, but then become a visual language that bleeds back into the design of physical objects and environments. And it’s in that translation that interesting things begin to happen. As Sloan puts it:
“When you execute a flip flop, you achieve effects that aren’t possible in physical or digital space alone. You also achieve effects that are less predictable. Weird things happen in the borderlands.”
→ Cross-reality retail | Victorian Buchanan on Twitter
→ Dancing the flip-flop | Robin Sloan
4: You’re not getting rid of lawyers that easily
One of the more esoteric but compelling parts of the recent cryptocurrency boom has been the promise of “smart contracts”: formal relationships between two entities, defined in immutable code. NFT’s have been a source of some innovation here; smart contract examples have included giving a portion of any sale, no matter how far in the future, to the item’s original creator, or subtly altering the artwork behind the NFT each time it changes hands.
Fixing these rules in code that must be followed has predictable results, however. First, code is not infallible, and there have been myriad examples of hackers exploiting loopholes in platforms to steal items and cash. Ed Zitron compared a vault robbery in which the thieves made off with $100 million in cash and jewels, and the skills and expertise required to do so, with a recent hack of a pay-to-earn game that garnered a bounty of over $600 million that required almost no effort whatsoever. The thief simply followed the rules exactly as they were written, but with a goal in mind that hadn’t been considered by the contract’s authors.
Surely, this is a matter of better code, one could argue. That’s unlikely as well when one considers the history of contracts and contract law, and the general messy fallibility of humans. Contracts were never meant to be self-enforcing, since two parties who both agree on the actual language of a contract may have different interpretations of that language, both at execution and years later when certain conditions may be triggered. A wise lawyer friend of ours once told us “a contract is the beginning of a conversation”, meaning that the terms of an agreement are simply the starting point for a negotiation. Hundreds of years of contract law have borne this perspective out, so why do we now think we can make perfect agreements that never need reinterpretation?
→ The Infinite Exploitation Of Cryptocurrency | Ed Zitron on Substack
→ Thread re: smart contracts | Alan Graham on Twitter
5: Cars that obey every traffic law
As armchair urbanists living in the densest city in North America, we often find ourselves swooning at the latest urban interventions put forward in Europe. Whether Seville’s bike lane transformation or Paris’s ongoing pedestrianization, there is no shortage of environmentally-friendly, health-promoting policies that Europeans are pursuing. So when we saw this story about Sweden piloting geofencing — i.e. rules that vehicles must follow depending on their location — we were intrigued.
Following an incident in which a driver stole a truck and drove it into a shopping center, researchers looked for ways to prevent such a tragedy in the future. They focused on telematics — the code and systems that make modern cars go — and geofencing, creating zones in which cars aren’t allowed, must travel under certain speeds, or where electric operation is preferred. Results are limited so far, but have shown real benefits in terms of both noise and air pollution by limiting large delivery vehicles to night operation and electric propulsion when in dense residential areas. Future tests will evaluate safety regulations in areas around schools or to protect cyclists in urban areas.
While these efforts are laudable, and should be applied to public transportation and other managed fleets, we have concerns about code overriding the need and judgment of a driver in all cases. As we saw above (and as we live every day) code is not infallible. A scheme like this could turn a hybrid vehicle into an immobile brick if it isn’t allowed to engage its combustion engine. Imperfect location triangulation could mean your car thinks it’s in a different place than it really is, subjecting it to incorrect limits. More optimistically, this tech could improve how vehicles communicate with each other; instead of requiring manufacturers to all interoperate with each other, a single standard at the road or city level could act as a Rosetta Stone, translating and relaying information among a whole network of vehicles that would each operate more efficiently and safely.
→ Can Controlling Vehicles Make Streets Safer and More Climate Friendly? | The New York Times
6: The Petri dish for social networks
The past several years have been rife with calls for social media reform. Social platforms have been struggling with societal consequences from fomenting political violence to negatively impacting users’ mental health. Yet when we talk about ameliorating these harms, there is a dearth of information as to what actually works. The platforms themselves have the infrastructure to do large-scale, data-driven experimentation, but may have conflicting incentives. In fact, many would argue that optimizing for engagement and profit have led to many of the negative consequences we are now trying to remedy.
In this piece, Chris Bail, founder of the Polarization Lab at Duke, describes how they are creating a neutral ground for understanding how to make social media work better for society. In essence, they have created a social media platform for research, where features can be tested and their impact assessed outside of the context of for-profit platforms. Ideally, this research platform can be used to better provide data about things like the optimal number of social connections in different contexts, or types of recommendation algorithms that discourage hate and division, or the impact of anonymity on a platform. This kind of data could enable appropriate and specific reforms, and hopefully lead to more promising outcomes from large-scale social platforms.
→ Social media reform is flying blind | Nature
One beep-boop thing
The Museum of Endangered Sounds is a collection of defunct technological audio, from typewriters to modems to the AIM notification earcon. Enjoy!
Any opinions expressed are those of Alexis Lloyd and Matt Boggie, and do not reflect on the policies, plans, or beliefs of their employers or any other affiliates.
After reading this, I have to wonder if the whole 'virtual and physical' distinction isn't a category error. What do y'all think?