Earlier this week, Twitter—the only news source on the planet whose “reporters” spend less time fact-checking than Fox News—lit up with discussion of Robert Zemeckis’ 1989 film Back to the Future II. The subject began trending after a UK-based film magazine and website called Total Film tweeted that July 5th, 2010, just so happened to be the once futuristic-sounding date that Marty and Doc Brown had punched into their DeLorean dashboard. This ‘fun fact’ proceeded to go viral, triggering a global Twitter dialogue about how our late 20th-century hopes for futuristic technology have panned out.
I don’t know a single guy my age who saw Back to the Future II as a kid that doesn’t feel cheated by the 21st century’s total apathy toward hoverboard R&D. In our childhood brains, the invention of the wheel seemed a far less compelling note in human history than its looming obsolescence.
Total Film’s “future day” tweet has since been revealed to be a good-natured hoax, but that doesn’t detract from the conversation it spawned. One of science fiction’s great virtues has always been its penchant for dreaming aloud about technology's future exploits. On some fundamental level I think our enjoyment of the exercise stems from a narcissistic impulse: human beings like you, like me, handcrafting the impossible. The most skilled of these sci-fi authors deserve to be considered inventors in their own right, the modern-day equivalent of Leonardo DaVinci sketching his prototypes of flying contraptions and eight-barrelled machine guns (yep, suck on that, Gears of War!).
I recently finished Daniel Suarez’s novel Freedom, the sequel to his bestselling techno-thriller Daemon about a computer virus that hijacks the reins of civilization. Freedom wasn’t quite as gripping page-for-page as its predecessor, but it was enjoyable as far as sequels go, further indulging its author's engrossing tech prognostications. His literary career is just beginning, but Suarez already strikes me as Michael Crichton’s spiritual heir, extrapolating technology’s evoutionary curve with similar page-turning mass appeal.
Gamers, especially, ought to sit up and take notice of Suarez’s fiction. The guy has developed software for the defense, finance and entertainment industries, so he knows his tech. In his two Daemon novels he maps out a future in which massively multiplayer online games, social networking and augmented-reality apps merge to form something he calls the “darknet.” By wearing special glasses or contacts, darknet members are able to spot each other out and about in the real world. Call-outs float above people’s heads in the network's virtual "D-space," revealing their usernames, complete with reputation ratings and even skill classes.
If another darknet member cuts you off in traffic, you can easily dock his reputation. With Minority Report-style gestures you can browse news stories that are trending in the darknet community. The darknet can even function like a real-world game master, sending you on quests in the real world that garner experience points and special items.
Even though Suarez’s darknet model sounds vaguely spooky and farfetched, the component technologies have already been developed. Lovers of 3-D movies—or hipster fashion trends, for that matter—are already accustomed to wearing chunky glasses. Your iPhone knows where you are at all times (Foursquare, anyone?) and can even overlay virtual information atop real-time camera images through augmented-reality apps such as WorkSnug and Le Bar Guide. Microsoft’s motion-control device Kinect will be available for purchase this coming November, allowing users to navigate virtual menus with basic swiping gestures.
This morning I stood at the bus stop with a handful of other commuters. We observed the customary silence that perfect strangers are expected to maintain, staring at our toes, fidgeting with our iPod earbuds. Imagine if I’d looked at those same people in D-space and realized that the unassuming bloke standing beside me wearing a suit and tie just so happened to sport the darknet username “GLaDOSKiller7413” and a sterling 5-star reputation. Who knows, I might've struck up a conversation and made a friend for life.
Imagine how much easier it would be to steer clear of people who enjoy being assholes. Anybody who cared about the member rating hovering above his or her head would take greater pains to be nice, knowing that other members could vote their rating down for antisocial behavior. Extra incentive to be a decent human being. Cue thunderous applause.
The more I think about it, screw hoverboards and time travel and shoelaces that tie themselves. I like Suarez’s videogame-inspired future better. Well, the darknet at least. I'm slightly more ambivalent when it comes to the accompanying torrent of apocalyptic bloodshed, civil war and further privacy-crippling techsploitation.
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a handful of outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonkill or drop him a line at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.
Watch Suarez discuss Daemon during a visit to Google (skip to 4:21):