But what about the flying cars?
July 20, 2007 1:38 PM   Subscribe

Why science fiction is hard. Inspired by reports of a creative new, Rube-Goldberg spamming technique in World of Warcraft, MetaFilter's own Charlie Stross imagines trying to explain gold farming to someone from 1977. (Previously: 1, 2, 3)
posted by straight (61 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
"In thirty years time, there are games complex enough that people will pay some agent to play for them, or to assist them in achieving the goals of the games."
posted by boo_radley at 1:54 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Not apropos of the post really, but:
I didn't know Charles Stross was a MeFite! Cool, I love his books!
posted by mrnutty at 2:01 PM on July 20, 2007

This is why I prefer "hard" sci-fi that includes didactic interludes that give background on the workings of technology. Arthur C. Clarke was very good at this.
posted by autodidact at 2:01 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Do you mean "hard" as in "difficult" or as in "hard sci-fi" which strives for a technical rigor? Or both? Well, yes, accurately depicting WoW and spamming within it would be difficult. But I don't think sci-fi writers should be confused with psychics. Maybe the right question is not what might have been written in 1977 that describes this event, but what could we read today and say that the writer was, in 1977, unusually prescient. Do the details of the Internet and the client devices matter, the genre of the game, the methods and counter-measures of spam? Or didn't 1977 have the objects and concepts in place so that a metaphorical understanding could take place? Improvisational theater + communication devices + TV + advertising + chain letter + deus ex machina seems sort of close.

Oh, and the spamming technique? Brilliant. It reminded me of this essay about designing worlds with restrictive vocabularies and how people will always find ways to communicate otherwise with available terms and objects. You'll never forget "I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny." and you just might use it.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 2:01 PM on July 20, 2007

Seems pretty much the same as trying to explain such a thing to my mother.
posted by octothorpe at 2:01 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

"In thirty years time, there are games boring enough that people will pay some agent to play for them, or to assist them in achieving the goals of the games."

posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:05 PM on July 20, 2007 [8 favorites]

I think trying to explain this to a New Guinea Highlander today would be harder.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:08 PM on July 20, 2007

I blow a 40 bag on ige.com and I'm PvPing the shit out of broke ass elves 10 levels above me hahaha I'm so

so lost
posted by four panels at 2:09 PM on July 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

I like this, because one of my favorite mental exercises is to escort historic figures around modern times. Taking Bach to the Cleveland Orchestra playing his music along with, say, a modern composer and someone 100 years after him - exactly because, the more you think about it, the more experiences and assumptions you realize you'll have to unwind (let alone getting dinner beforehand!).
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 2:11 PM on July 20, 2007 [4 favorites]

Taking Bach to the Cleveland Orchestra playing his music along with, say, a modern composer and someone 100 years after him

You mean like Bill and Ted?
posted by four panels at 2:12 PM on July 20, 2007

They did that? Cool.

Even taking Bill and Ted to an 2007 indie rock show would be fun.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 2:15 PM on July 20, 2007

One entire dimension that would further flummox the innocent 1977 dweller is that many of the gold farmers are in China. "China?! You mean China isn't Communist any more?" "No, China is still Communist." "Then... then how...?" "It's a long story..."
posted by languagehat at 2:16 PM on July 20, 2007 [5 favorites]

It's funny, I often use that conceit when recounting funny future-is-now anecdotes to friends: there is no way I could explain this to someone in the 1950s, too many hidden assumptions. Good post.
posted by everichon at 2:16 PM on July 20, 2007

"That? That's an iPhone. Buy some AAPL."
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 2:16 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

The Premises: Well, yeah, because the band would just be covering Wyld Stallions!
posted by papakwanz at 2:18 PM on July 20, 2007

"Maw come quick! This feller's got a type-writer with a tee-vee on it!"
posted by chibikeandy at 2:20 PM on July 20, 2007

Nice post. Made me think immediately of Caveman Lawyer (~50 seconds into the clip): "Your world frightens and confuses me! Sometimes the honking horns of your traffic make me want to get out of my BMW.. and run off into the hills, or wherever.. Sometimes when I get a message on my fax machine, I wonder: "Did little demons get inside and type it?" I don't know! My primitive mind can't grasp these concepts..."
posted by cog_nate at 2:34 PM on July 20, 2007

Another good example, I think, would be trying to footnote fandango_matt's recent guidebook such that someone in 1977 would understand why it's supposed to be funny. Though it would be even better trying to explain it to someone in 1957.
posted by everichon at 2:34 PM on July 20, 2007

Hi Joe, I just traveled back in time from 2007, and I want to explain one of the quirks of the future to you: imagine the government outlawed TV commercials. Coke wants to find a way around this, so they spend hours piling bricks on this scaffolding over Rockefeller Center. They arrange the bricks so that if the scaffolding floor is pulled our from under them, they'll crash to the ground and the debris will spell out "Coke is it!" The they wait until the "Today Show" cameras are focused on Rockefeller Plaza, pull out the scaffolding and everyone watching the show sees the unofficial ad.

Now, in the future, ads are still allowed on TV, but there's another place where they aren't allowed. You see, in the future, there's this thing called the web. It's sort of like TV, in that it can display pictures and sounds, but it's two-way. You can talk back to it, and the stuff you say -- or type -- can be heard by other people who are watching and listening to the web. So it's sort of a combo tv and telephone.

One cool thing people do on the web is play games. Instead of really playing tennis, there are little pictures of tennis balls and rackets on the screen. You can move "your racket" by giving the web device commands. When you issue these commands, the little picture of the racket moves! So it's sort sort of like what would happen if while you were watching, say, "Star Trek," you could make Captain Kirk move around your TV screen, wherever you wanted him to go.

Anyway, you can control one racket and I can control another. And we can play tennis against each other, even though you're in your house and I'm in mine.

And we can play other games, too. More complex games. Even games set in elaborate, Tolkein-like fantasy worlds. You've heard of D&D, right? Well, imagine playing that with hundreds of people on your TV! You'd move little wizards and soldiers around, making them help each other and fight each other.

Now, some of the companies that run these games don't allow sponsors to advertise during them. But, of course, other companies still want to. So what they do is they make little images in the fantasy world -- maybe little bricks in a fantasy castle or whatever -- fall down and spell stuff out, just like the Coke bricks in Rockefeller Center. Except instead of real bricks, they manipulate little pictures of bricks on the web devices. Everyone playing the game can see these bricks fall and see what they spell out.
posted by grumblebee at 2:35 PM on July 20, 2007 [3 favorites]

But I don't think sci-fi writers should be confused with psychics.

That's only half of it. Even if you can imagine an event that emerges from so many layers of not-yet-existent technology, can you give your reader enough background to understand it all without putting them to sleep?
posted by straight at 2:37 PM on July 20, 2007

grumblebee ftw
posted by dersins at 2:39 PM on July 20, 2007

Second Life would be easier to explain. "You see, theres these things called 'talentless hack journalists', and these things called 'column inches needing to be filled' - oh, you have them too?"
posted by Artw at 2:39 PM on July 20, 2007 [8 favorites]

I was just reading the comments on the link to Charlie's journal, and got down to #84. All it lacked was center formatting.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 2:43 PM on July 20, 2007

at which step in this narrative would my 1977-era audience first say "you've got to be shitting me!"...?

Waywaywaywait... you say you have drugs for erectile disfunction?!?
posted by tss at 2:47 PM on July 20, 2007

Grumblebee: The thing that I think would be harder to explain (and this is mentioned in the comments on Antipope) are the cultural changes - that the gold farmers are in Chinese sweatshops.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 2:47 PM on July 20, 2007

posted by tss at 2:47 PM on July 20, 2007

"Hard" science fiction is traditionally the sort where the rules are fixed and unchangeable. Usually, these stories posit some universe in which everything works just as it does in real life, with the addition of a few changes, generally chalked up to technical advancements. Faster-than-light travel and communication are two of the most common. Whatever the changes are, they virtually always come with explanations somewhere in the book. If there's an FTL drive, somewhere along the way, someone will explain how an FTL drive is possible. Very frequently, the plot is based around the specific changes in question. If we had technologies X and Y, what would they mean for humanity? How would they change how we live, work, and play, and what conflicts would arise?

Hard SF also doesn't change the rules midstream without a very good reason. Once something is true, it stays true, and you tend not to get new things sprung on you out of nowhere.

Robert L. Forward's books are good examples of recent, super-hard SF; he posits things like life on a neutron star, derives a set of rules on how it might work, and then never deviates from those, while telling very good stories in the process. The rules stay the same, but he may explore some very non-obvious ramifications of his givens. (which is actually one of the real joys of hard SF in general: Mr. Forward handles this exceptionally well.)

Soft SF is more like fantasy, in that the rules can bend on a whim... things happen by magic. Most SF has gone in that direction. Star Wars is a classic example: Jedi are about as magical as you get. It's been argued, in fact, that Star Wars is fantasy-in-space and not SF at all... I tend to be somewhat in agreement. If the author writes himself into a corner, he can just invent some new Jedi power on the spot. Luke didn't have it before, and nobody knew it was possible, but lo and behold, he can shred ramen noodles using only the power of his mind.

Vernor Vinge is an interesting author, in that he's gone both ways... in the same universe! His first big hit, A Fire Upon The Deep, is quite soft SF. His fundamental rule change is that the speed of light gets faster the further from the galaxy center you get. With a faster speed of light, greater intelligences are possible; the entities on the edges of the galaxy are godlike in their power and knowledge. For all intents and purposes, they can do magic. The protagonists are of human-level intelligence, caught up in a huge war-of-the-galactic Powers. It's great fun, a high-velocity, modern space opera.... SF-lite, in a sense. (and well worth reading if you like the field at all.)

But in the very same universe, he wrote a prequel, The Deepness In The Sky. In that, he writes about one of humanity's adventures in the Slow Zone, where light is the speed we know it to be here and the universe works much as we expect. Many fantastic technologies, like AI, have been found to be outright impossible. Humanity has been stuck at more or less the same technological level for tens of thousands of years. The book is very rigorous; offhand, I can't think of a single real physical law he broke. Only at the very end are the humans given a glimmer of the fact that a much broader Universe awaits. This is also a great read, but it's slower-paced and quite dark.

Mr. Stross has elements of both soft and hard SF in his work. His universes have lots of handwavy semi-magic stuff with little explanation, I suspect because he himself has no idea how such things would work. They exist because he says they do, not because he has any real idea how such a thing could come about. But he's really good about sticking to his premises and exploring ramifications, which are classic hard-SF traits.

Overall, he's hard to pigeonhole. There are a few other writers doing similar things; Iain M. Banks and John C. Wright come to mind. The combo of very-far-future-handwavy-magic combined with rigor really needs a specific name, but I'm not current enough with the field to know if it has one.

Barring further input, I'll call it 'firm SF'.

(and hi there, cstross. :) )
posted by Malor at 3:07 PM on July 20, 2007 [6 favorites]

Wow, that ended up being WAY longer than I expected, and it's not terribly on topic. Sorry!
posted by Malor at 3:13 PM on July 20, 2007

Ok, this is going to take a bit... See this? It's fire. No, No, don't hit it with your club, all right, let's say you wanted to talk with someone a valley over, and you had a machine... Ok, right. imagine taking this stick and using it with this rock like a lever, yeah. That is a kind of machine, now imagine lots and lots of levers, some of them are up and some are down, no, nevermind... You know your paintings? They are representations of something else, imagine if they could move around and fight with each other... no, your not liking that either huh?

Do you know what a gnome is?
posted by quin at 3:17 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

...people who like to dress up as furry animals to keep tabs on us.
posted by anticlock at 3:22 PM on July 20, 2007

You know those phone party lines, where you're talking to like 30 other people? Yeah? And how the operator kicks you off for saying dirty words or trying to sell other people shit. And you get around it by like using acronyms and other clever stuff?

Yeah well, in the future, it'll be the same but with pictures.
posted by vacapinta at 3:24 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

grumblebee: WOW is not on the web. It's on the internet Which is a superset of the web.
posted by delmoi at 3:24 PM on July 20, 2007

Wow, thanks for that, Malor. You didn't actually tell me anything I didn't already pretty much know, but you did encourage me to go check out Robert L. Forward, and he sounds like he'd be right up my alley.
posted by infinitywaltz at 3:28 PM on July 20, 2007

I think that in Sci-Fi, the first and foremost priority has to be writing a story that's relevant to the audience of the present day, and from there you're just going to get lucky or not. I still love Hitchhikers' Guide, though, because it was written about thirty years ago in a way which pretty accurately predicted lap-tops as they're used today.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:29 PM on July 20, 2007

I'm trying to frame the image that the phrase "robot filters that destroy spam" would have placed in my head in 1977 (at the age of seven), and just not quite managing it. I think it involves R2-D2 and a pink coffee maker.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 3:46 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

This stuff might have been mindblowing for ordinary adults in the 1970s, but if you were a kid playing with the technology, it would have seemed obvious. Almost all the pieces were already there.

In 1977 I used to go with my friends after school to Bloomingdale's department store in New York, where we would play the latest Fairchild and Atari video games until the security guards politely but firmly asked us to leave. We already knew that you could get completely hooked on a video game.

In 1978 my high school had an IBM machine the size of a tabletop, with a 4-inch screen. It only ran APL, a mathematical programming language. I wrote an animated version of Conway's Life (although it took me 3 lines of code instead of Wikipedia's one-liner), and I made a halfhearted effort to write a version of Pong, but it was too slow. We already knew that you could get a personal computer to run games.

I also used to dial up on a 300-baud modem to the Hunter College mainframe, where I could play Adventure and Star Trek. We already had games where you wandered around artificial worlds and battled computer-controlled opponents that took several shots to kill.

Then my parents finally broke down and got me an Atari 2600, and I could play a graphic version of Adventure at home on my TV. I wasted loads of time finding ways to exploit bugs in the game to do things like tunnel through walls. I also wrote a Trojan Horse program for the mainframe that invisibly took over a user's workspace and printed out annoying messages at random times. We already understood that the first thing people do with a new technology is try to hack around the rules.

In 1979 I got to play with a Tektronix terminal that did 3D vector graphics (you could display wireframes made of green glowing lines). They were promising color for the following year. To do animations, we had to run the program for a half-hour to generate an image, take a picture of it with an animation camera, and then generate the next frame. But the idea of 3D computer animation already existed.

We had handheld devices, too. My Dad had a "pocket" 110 camera, a programmable calculator, and a Sony Walkman in 1979. We had walkie-talkies, too, and we were expecting Captain Kirk's communicator any minute.

Stross definitely nails it with the Dungeons and Dragons reference. If you had said to my kid self in 1977 that "in 30 years there'll be an animated, networked, multi-player version of D+D, and it'll be a big hit," I would have been surprised and annoyed that it would take so long.
posted by fuzz at 4:09 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

grumblebee: WOW is not on the web. It's on the internet Which is a superset of the web.
posted by delmoi at 3:24 PM on July 20

Years ago, I would have been right there with you, delmoi. But because of usage in TV, magazines etc. the two words have basically become synonymous. Maybe it's time to let this one go...
posted by vacapinta at 4:10 PM on July 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

"Say, Mitch, you remember that 'DARPA' thing you were reading about in some magazine? Yeah, the one about the military project being extended to universities...

"Well, I've got news for you. You were right. Parts of it turned to shit when it went commercial. And, yeah, I know, I know you told me! Walkie talkies the size of transistor radios, which are charged for usage just like a telephone would. Uh-huh. And they can do pocket calculator stuff and play TV shows too. Right. Man, it's like you're here in the 21st already.

But listen, listen...remember those ads in the comic books for '5,000 Plastic Army Soldiers', and 'Amazing Live Sea Monkeys'?

"Yes...yes...society's come to a point where some people actually do try to dress up like the Sea Monkeys...yeah, and sometimes even Winnie the Pooh, too. You were dead-on with that one, too. It's like you're a psychic or something, Mitch. Anyway, about those soldier ads in the comics. There's a game played on computers...uh-huh, the walkie-talkies I mentioned. And the fancier ones that allow extra parts to be fitted in are like Philco what'cha call...Predicta. Yeah, Mitch. UNIVACs are museum stuff, like you predicted, too. Will you let me finish, already?

"Okay, okay - back to the army guys. There's this game, see, that's kinda like D&D-

"WHAT MADE YOU SAY 'WORLD OF WARCRAFT'? Oh...oh...okay, it is kinda in that 'demons, damsels, and destruction' nomenclature. Another score for you, pal. Man, Mitch, will you just shut up and let me explain? What? Yes. The game is like an animated cartoon version of the '5,000 Army Soldier' ads, where a good number of the soldiers are people playing the game...yeah, which they pay money for. But the...y'know, cooler combattants actually pay folks in Third World regions to play the game for them-

"What? You could've guessed that? Oh...right. Your uncle subscribes to Fortune magazine and National Geographic.

"Like Rock Stars? Well, we do have a company-yeah. It actually is called 'Rockstar Games'. But that's not what I'm calling you about. I just wanted to say you were basically right. Basically. What? Yeah, there's no getting past you, Randy, is there?

"Oh, yeah? Really? I bet you think you're funny, Mitch. Well just for that, I'll let you figure out Star Wars for yourself!"

posted by Smart Dalek at 4:10 PM on July 20, 2007

Wow, I've been tinkering around for an hour or so trying to write something up like what cstross did. This is an extremely difficult problem. As he says, it would be very hard to put this many advances into just one book. I think the only way would be the 'don't explain anything' approach... just write a story, drop the occasional hint, and let the reader muddle through.
posted by Malor at 4:16 PM on July 20, 2007

I want to hear the chat that starts with 'but why do you call it 'spam'?' and ends with 'lolcats'....
posted by klaatu at 4:17 PM on July 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Why do you call it spam?

-- Because the people who named it were stupid. Not much you can do about popular culture, I guess.

What is the thing that has changed the least since 1977?

-- People still like to look at cheesy pictures of cats with dumb captions. They call it "lolcats."
posted by The World Famous at 4:47 PM on July 20, 2007

- People still like to look at cheesy pictures of cats with dumb captions. They call it "lolcats."

Hang in there, baby!
posted by vacapinta at 4:53 PM on July 20, 2007

Monty Python's spam sketch predates 1977; I guess explaining why it's called "spam" wouldn't be too hard then. What might be hard would be explaining that Monty Python remained a major media influence in 2007 ...
posted by cstross at 4:56 PM on July 20, 2007

We were already on the second generation of video games (whatever that means :P) in 1977, and Neuromancer came out in 1984. So..

I love SF, but I generally find the best stuff to be more about anthropology than physics and technology (or at least, technological determinism).
posted by Chuckles at 5:03 PM on July 20, 2007

...one of my favorite mental exercises is to escort historic figures around modern times. Taking Bach to the Cleveland Orchestra...

Weird, I do this too, except it's usually Isaac Newton and I'm explaining things like toilets and microwaves and airplanes. Good to know I'm not insane.
posted by good in a vacuum at 5:20 PM on July 20, 2007

I think the interesting point here is that it would probably wind up a lot harder explaining the social, political and economic changes that've made that story possible, than the technological ones.

I remember years ago reading in the old Ben Is Dead 'zine about some guy who used to make up pre-built up D&D characters and selling them to people in his high school in the late '70s or early '80s, so maybe goldfarming isn't that farfetched after all.
posted by arto at 5:30 PM on July 20, 2007

70s guy: "What is this 'erectile dysfunction' and why is everyone in the future so obsessed with it?"
Time-traveling me: "Um, it's a nice way of saying 'boner problems' and, um...did I already tell you about the portable telephones that take pictures?"
posted by thatswherebatslive at 5:46 PM on July 20, 2007

It's a fun writing excercise, actually.

Version 1:

In 2007, there's a game that people all over the world can play together.

One of the goals of the game is to earn imaginary money in the game. Like Monopoly.

The game goes on indefinitely, and is presumed to be more fun if you have made lots of imaginary money.

But making imaginary money is very time consuming.

So people in rich parts of the world pay people in poor parts of the world to play the game for them and earn imaginary money so that the rich people can play the game at a higher level without devoting time to advancing.

Version 2:

There's a game like Monopoly which, because of technological advances, can be played by millions of people simultaneously all over the world.

So rich people in America pay poor people in China to play for them until they earn a lot of Monopoly money.
posted by The World Famous at 5:51 PM on July 20, 2007

"Hi, Phil. Well, mister Dick, sure, yeah, but that sounds rude. I know it's your name and all, but thirty years from now, fart jokes are de rigueur for thirty year olds, so it's Phil, ok? Just to keep me from giggling while we talk.

Here's the thing. You know how you got all depress about your Ubik screenplay getting rejected couple three years ago? Yeah, totally crushed, I know. Well, there's good news, and there's bad news. See, in 1982, your cinematic legacy is going to be Set. In. Stone. Seriously. You'll have to hire a team of dwarves to haul off bags of money people will throw at these movies. The bad news? Well, lay off the goddamn fatty foods and pep pills, yeah? 'Nuff said."
posted by boo_radley at 8:13 PM on July 20, 2007

There are lots of things I laugh at or am amused by online that I can't even begin to explain to people like my mom who barely keep up with pop culture, let alone some hypothetical person from 1977.

Like, for example, almost any article on Something Awful.

I mean, WoW is one thing, we already had D&D in 1977. Try explaining this

Or the entire Bush presidency.
posted by empath at 8:57 PM on July 20, 2007

Fuck gold farming. Try Acrylia.

I made my first 10K farming spider silks playing whack-a-spider.
posted by Balisong at 8:58 PM on July 20, 2007

I think one thing sci-fi writers have been more wrong about than anything else, is that (with the exception of Warren Ellis and William Burroughs), they've underestimated the depths of depravity and perversity that American pop culture will tolerate.

I mean-- Real Dolls? Cyberporn? Furries? Goatse? Hardcore S&M? I don't think any sci fi writer came close.
posted by empath at 9:02 PM on July 20, 2007

I tried to really EXPLAIN 2007 to a 1970s person, but like cstross, I realized that there's just too much change to cover everything. I rewrote it, and managed to hold it to ten paragraphs and a two-sentence conclusion. I think a 1970s person would find this pretty readable:
Computers are going to get a lot faster over the next thirty years; overall, they'll about double in speed every 18 months. Start with even the very slow and small computers today, and double speed and storage enough times, and you have something serious to work with. The average $500 PC in the year 2007 can do many things that would be impossible for today's mainframes.

So what do people do with all that power? Among other things, play games. 2007 computers have amazing graphics. Games are usually rendered in 3D. Super expensive machines can actually fool your eye into thinking you're seeing something real, but home computers aren't quite that good yet.

Even though it's not quite real, it's still pretty darn realistic, and running around in 3D is fun, particularly when you're shooting things. It's so much fun, in fact, that it spawned a whole industry for this kind of game. We've been doing that for about the last 10 or 12 years.

People also connect their computers together; this is called networking. This has gone worldwide, so that any two computers plugged into the global Net can talk to each other almost instantly. This is used for all sorts of things, like instantaneous communication of video, sound, and text messages, but it's also used for games. People organize into medium to large groups and do things together, either against each other or against computerized enemies, usually in 3D. What you do on your computer is represented on everyone else's, and vice versa; it's like you're all exploring or fighting in the same virtual world.

The single most successful example of that kind of game is World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game; it supports hundreds of thousands of people at a time, and has millions of subscribers. You have a persistent character or characters that you play. When you stop playing each day, your character is stored. When you come back, you'll continue from the exact place you left off.

When you start, your character is very weak. Working your way up to the best and most interesting adventures takes hundreds of hours of play. You buy equipment for your character with in-game currency, which you take from monsters you kill and treasures you loot. Rare items sometimes drop, which give your character an extra advantage, and these items can command exorbitant prices. That currency can take a lot of time to generate; getting enough money for the really high-end items can cost your entire profit for a couple of months of gameplay.

People get bored and impatient with that, so a new breed of entrepeneur has arisen; Chinese people make very little in comparison with Americans, so it's quite easy to employ dozens or hundreds of them to all play the game at once and gather currency. (the Internet is in many countries worldwide; despite the low Chinese wages, they still have good Net access.) The bosses then sell the virtual currency for real money, pay their workers, and keep the profit.

People in this business are called 'gold farmers'. They are both loved and hated. The people who don't want to spend their time gathering gold, and would rather trade real money, love them. The developers and people who think you should have to put in the play time to get the gold... well, they're just not too fond of the farmers.

So, as you can imagine, there's some tension there. The maker of the company forbids all gold trading for real money, and has many automated tools to prevent the gold farmers from advertising in-system, including looking for specific keywords and disallowing them.

To get around this, the farmers have gotten very clever, and gotten themselves a bunch of gnome player characters, and killed them in a specific pattern. Corpses last a week or so if the player doesn't choose to resurrect them, so by using corpses to spell out a message, the farmers can advertise without the developers being able to detect or stop it.

Yet. Who knows what they'll come up with next week.
posted by Malor at 10:08 PM on July 20, 2007

I think I'd be more interested in explaining this to someone living in 1877.
posted by poweredbybeard at 10:19 PM on July 20, 2007

One problem with your otherwise quite well done essay, Malor: Someone in 1977 has a very definite idea what 3D means. And given the holograms in, say, Logan's Run and Star Wars, they'll get a very wrong picture indeed. Either they'll think it will appear floating above some sort of picture, or they'll think it's immersive, or they'll think it's on a TV and you need red/blue glasses.

I think the way to go would be "It's like a TV show, but you're controlling the main character."
posted by darksasami at 11:52 PM on July 20, 2007

Ooh, good point, darksasami.... they've seen Star Wars, and 3D means "let the Wookiee win!" So, yeah, I'd need to adjust that paragraph. Your explanation is excellent.
posted by Malor at 3:42 AM on July 21, 2007

I just remember in junior high, dreaming about hooking computers up so that you'd be on your computer, and I'd be on my computer, and we'd play some kind of Dungeons and Dragons style video game, but your computer would show things through your character's eyes, and mine would do the same. We could see each other's movements as we handled the controls.

Crazy talk, I know.
posted by dreamsign at 6:14 AM on July 21, 2007

but if you were a kid playing with the technology, it would have seemed obvious. Almost all the pieces were already there.

Right. Or if you would have told me any of this as a kid a few years later with an apple // with a modem, it would be simple to digest. "Like this but more BBSs and more pictures." Early online D&D games ran on C64s (or maybe apples) and I remember dialing in and playing one well before the age of MUDs. Heck, online games arent conceptually different than BBS door games. I remember playing a two-line BBS in Chicago with tradewars. Two people could play the same instance at the same time. I also remember C64 chat dial-ups with 5 or 6 lines that had a special channel for text-based online games. This is was all 80s technology.

I think the assumption here is that we're living in this impossibly complex future that no one but our hip net-enabled generation could ever figure out is pretty self-serving and pretty ignorant.
posted by damn dirty ape at 9:35 AM on July 21, 2007

When I was playing tabletop warhammer 40k in the late 80s, I had a very clear idea of playing it on a table with a video projection with either touch screen or voice commands, very much like the microsoft surface thing that's just come out.

Btw, here is my quick prediction of the future from here:

In the future, the way we live will change drastically as individuals start having problems with consciousness fragmentation -- like ADD times 100. People, because of mobile computing and ubiquitous network connectivity will no longer be able to keep the different roles they play in their lives separated chronologically. You will be forced to work and live and play simultaneously. Controlling your future-WoW avatar while in a company meeting, video conferencing with your kids while golfing, carrying on several IM conversations (or the future audio/video equivalent thereof) non-stop.

You won't make decisions on your own-- you'll consult your guild, or your buddy list/myspace friends, or the future-askMe before making any life decisions, possibly also assisted by something form of AI.

People will struggle with maintaining an integrated personal identity in the face of all this. People will begin referring to themselves as 'we' instead of 'I'-- whether that refers to their multiple avatars or themselves and their circle of friends.

This will probably start happening in Japan before the US, and those people where the technology is running a bit behind will see people who are dealing with these issues almost as alien and frightening. People born before the Nintendo-generation will find it particularly hard to adapt.
posted by empath at 11:02 AM on July 21, 2007

from there you're just going to get lucky or not

I also mentioned this in my comments on Stross's page, but I think at any particular time there's going to be *some* people who "get it" and you could have explained it to them. But this getting it is contingent on a huge range of social and technological developments, and at any time between then and now, different paths could have led to different things. For instance, today we might not be using the internet (reasonably decentralized) but instead cable/telco walled gardens and oligopolies like Marvel-MSN/AOL/Apple's hokey online town thing. In that world, spam would be much less possible, because *everything* would be like WoW, and these kinds of inventive social processes would have happened a lot earlier, and been a lot more developed by now. Or CB radio could have gone on getting huge, and developed packetisation, and we wouldn't still be waiting for Wimax-like rollouts of distributed wireless broadband meshes.

ANyway, so 99% of SF plots, like people in general, get it "wrong" relative to the actual future. But this is like mutual funds - you have confirmation bias and survivor bias producing a warped recall function. The best way to understand it is that the SF market acts as an iterative process constantly re-aligning itself to reality, producing mostly dead offshoots along the way. Like evolution - we just happen to have been born from one of the incredibly unlikely possibilities that exists, so we think it's just right. It's Goldilocks writ big.
posted by meehawl at 11:19 AM on July 21, 2007

This is an excellent exercise in writing science fiction and coming up with tomorrow's social problems vis a vis our technology.

Though I can't think of much in 1977 that would be this difficult to full explain to someone from 1947. Cable Television (though I always thought television recieved on a magic rod from the air itself is more amazing than cable), maybe, or video games.
posted by maus at 1:05 PM on July 22, 2007

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