While you’re reading this, a team of computer scientists, engineers, neurologists, and many other ologists are putting billions of computer equipment to the grueling task of reverse engineering the mammalian brain down the smallest detail. Depending which news source you turn to, the researchers of the Blue Brain Project have made it as far as recreating a brain with the capacity of a big cat, or a lab mouse. Pinning down the truth of such a secretive project is difficult. Some say the aims are to better understand sentience and higher brain functions in humans. Other claims state it’s the precursor to true AI. Whatever the goal is, this simulacrum of processing information is a concentration of man’s ambition to reimagine how information is stored and redefine what it means to communicate that information.
If you’re a gamer, or even remotely familiar with the basics of video games, you are no doubt familiar with the concept of found data. This replaces exposition and inner monologues in novels, flashbacks and voice overs in film. If you’re playing any of the Max Payne games, found data is packaged in the form of clues left behind by mobsters, letters between hookers and johns, messages meant for Max left by his seductive, gun-toting femme fatale. Play Deus Ex: Human Revolution and you’re inundated with pocket secretaries filled with personal messages; computers give Adam Jensen access to once-secure camera feeds; through augmentations to his body you can read subtle information about the person you’re speaking with. All of this found data is placed to build subplots, reinforce the framing device of the video game’s setting, and make the player feel more immersed in the gameplay by cluing them in to information that couldn’t otherwise be conveyed organically.
This works for video games for the same reason violence does, why music works in operas—it’s designed for the medium. In the real world this method of communicating information would be obtuse and definitely the result of one party trying too hard to engage the other. Most people communicate emotion, thought, and memory through conversation. And even as the manner through which we converse evolves along with technology—at the detriment of respective languages the world over—direct communication remains the chief method of thought sharing.
I recently played through the Full Bright Company’s Gone Home. The premise and gameplay itself could not be more at odds with even the most basic principles of cyberpunk—it’s a point-and-click adventure game set in the early ‘90s–but what it presents is very much aligned with the future that awaits us. Depending who and where you are in the world, you may already be there.
Like all adventure games, Gone Home’s progression relies entirely on found data. You’ve returned home to an empty house, isolated from communicating with anyone due to a brutal storm in the American NW, and must learn what has happened to your family in your absence. Moving through this home you learn all of what has transpired while you were vacationing in Europe, the change in people you knew, the story of how your family came to live in this home. The game itself is fine. If you can hold down a key, click, and read, you’ll exhaust all it has to offer without incident. And while the story provides something both honest and familiar to most of us, what stays with you is how your kid sister communicates with you even though she isn’t there. And she does it without having to link up her brain to yours.
William Gibson is a fan of Second Life, even with the seedy reputation that MMO has. He’s used it for Q&A sessions, readings, interviews, and casual hangouts. He touches on it in his 1996 novel, Idoru, and has come back to it in other works. Ghost in the Shell utilizes something similar in Stand Alone Complex with its chat arenas while on the hunt for the Laughing Man. Even the Matrix provides loading areas that serve the same purpose, though there are programs in that series that can provide the same function as Second Life. What do these all have in common? They redefine what it means for one person to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and memories to another person. It removes distance in an instant while giving data a value comparative to the spoken word. And we’ve been beta testing this platform for some time already. We call that program Facebook.
In all art forms it is a given that all work is derivative. When man upgraded from cave paintings to speaking words, his vocalization was derivative of pictures his ancestors had painted. Throughout the legacy of human chronicling through creative efforts, we’ve built upon what existed before and what erected around us.
You don’t need to see social statistics on those who play video games and those who use social media to find out if those who use one understand the fundamentals of the other. They do. It’s present in all tech and will be further integrated as time goes on. It’s hard for most to imagine a day not obscured by some third-party interface that has mimicked principles developed in computer games and software. Google Glass, Oculus Rift, any smartphone after 2005—in many ways we’ve been behaviorally conditioned to think of living with the basic principles of virtual reality, and because of it we’re slowly entering a world that will undoubtedly incorporate the rules of games.
I bring Gone Home to your attention because it is deliberately low-tech. Even in games like Bioshock, which occur further down the timeline, technology is askew for the pleasure of the player and for the ease it gives the developers. Gone Home, however, is all notes, answering machine messages, and cassette tape demos. It is deliberate in its presentation of familiar both to limit the demands of a low-budget production and to give the narrative the license to unfold as it does. But there’s a third, albeit unintended, reason for the lack of technological simulation in this title.
Imagine walking through your home. There’s a light socket you see just as you walk through the door. You see it whenever you come home. Up pops a message your partner had left for you, reminding you that the bill is due. You then go the fridge, and before you can open it there’s a reminder you set for yourself concerning dinner with your friends. You then consider a nap so you don’t spoil your appetite. You head to bed. A timed text message from someone in that group of friends arrives, telling you again that tonight is important and they’d be devastated if you didn’t show up. So you decide on a shower, or another activity to keep yourself busy until then. Does this sound intrusive? Perhaps annoying, even if it comes from people you generally like or love? The scenario imagined here is pretty standard in role-playing games. And if you own a Google Glass, you could’ve very easily arranged what you’ve just read. Not ten years from now, but two years ago, six if you were one of the developers.
Now post-it notes from your sweetheart or plans with your friends was not the impression I gave you in the beginning. Talk about memories and ideas and the mind connects to thoughts about love, sex, friendships, hardships, loss, rewards—the uncomfortable and ineffable trappings of life. In time, with proper interfacing, it could be just that.
Neural interfacing and brain computer interfacing has been big at TED Talks, been unveiled and returned to CES over the past few years. At present it works best with patients in need of prosthetics, and those unable to interface with technology due to paralysis and mobile disabilities. But like with all tech, it’ll become commercial in time. And when it does it’ll be more than just a relay of electricity coming close to the surface of the skin to move a prosthetic limb, it’ll be a redesign on one of the most complex biological developments in nature.
Imagine the scenario from before, the mundane return home at the end of the day. But now the BCI (brain computer interface) is in a piece of eye jewelry you’re wearing, or it could be implanted in the soft tissue behind your left ear. That same walk through the house is processed through new layers of information. Real-world objects are given identity linked to it from your own subconscious, or to data that links up to another user. Data’s now shared on an unspoken plane between people who don’t inhabit the same space. Found data enters the real world, and with that there can be a transference of information on a level that was once reserved for communication conducted face to face.
I chose Gone Home as an example because we’ve all returned to our homes to find a note left for us, received a message from a sibling or new romantic interest. Either bit of that found data tells a bit of story you would’ve otherwise missed. But that found data comes with restrictions that BCI’s and microprocessors can overcome, supplementing the real with the artificial. But the artificial acts only as a method of delivery something else real, housed in another mind, only to be delivered to yours.
The human capacity for communication has its limits. Out virtualization of reality has sought ways around that, aligning text messages in stratified arrangement so you can talk and, in essence, be different people with different people, at the same time. Privacy is a fond memory, and the threat of over-sharing is a real one most people have had to encounter since adopting to social-media methods of communication. When we meet the point of neural jacks, implants, and third-party BCIs, it’ll be those who revert to the old ways who’ll be remembering memory as it was. Some may just be left finding data.