I have participated in all things digital now for more than three quarters of a life time. It is not fanciful to say, in fact, that I remember events from certain games as things that actually happened. Gaming transformed my world from the moment a controller was placed in my hand. Due to luck more than material circumstance, a Commodore 64 was the first machine I could call my own. One of my best mates had one, and it was awesome – while the mums conversed over whatever blend of instant coffee was de rigueur at the time, we would be hunched over the keyboard in my friends cramped bedroom, wrestling with the syntax of an early text adventure, or severing draconic heads heads on lush alien forest worlds. The graphics were simple, but the worlds were not. Some of the 8bit games of the day, such as One Man and His Droid with its dizzying, block-colour graphics and masterfully composed sound track, seem now more akin to abstract art than what many people (even then) would have thought of as a game. When my grandfather won a Commodore 64 at a school fete, my not-insignificant dreams for such a thing were fulfilled – the machine itself cost the equivalent of a beastly laptop or high-end iPad in today’s terms – and I had started a journey that continues to this day, through an ever expanding and evolving jungle of tech.
I saved, spent, sold and saved and spent again for these machines over the years. It was a journey that few seemed to share at the time, but where fellow travelers were in fact legion – to the extent that video gaming has now become entirely part of the wallpaper of the modern media world, and the people who have driven the entire tech industry, from the engineers to the texture artists, were inspired by their own formative time spent in these rich imaginary worlds. These worlds have bled into the world at large, so diffuse now that the cultural effect has been more like spores in the ground than seeds on the wind. Now, you almost can’t move for seeing a computer ten thousand times more powerful than that onboard the moon lander in the palm of everyone’s hand, spinning a web of electromagnetic vision across every spectrum of the sky, eyes locked on a row of jewels or digital carrots sprouting. At a mere 50 years into the information age, in evolutionary terms, we find ourselves at the very beginning.
With the laws of physics ever putting the brakes on Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s observation of the dynamic curve at the heart of electrical engineering, we are putting the accelerator down ever more assertively. 3D high definition televisions, photorealistic levels of texture-mapping, and ultra-portable computing are but the fruits of work at the subatomic level now. I have in my home a Microsoft Kinect, a device that maps your body via cameras and acoustic mikes and allows you to interact with your home entertainment centre without a controller of any kind through physical gestures and voice. Yet despite this uncanny instrument bringing the future into the minds of families all over the Christmas period (imagine that – children born today are now likely to grow up in a home that allows them direct physical interaction with a virtual reality through the main screen of the home), engineers and tech-heads are already dismissive of such motion-control as being a gimmick. That might change if televisions all of a sudden come with such controls built in, and companies start piping games straight through the screen via cable, powered by remote hardware and connected to an army of one. Then they’ll have to accommodate in code and calculation, or die.
That hunger is good, the hunger for the new. But this ephemeral world moves faster than the material one – of course it does, it weighs nothing, it moves at the speed of light – and for those left in its wake, watching it speed towards the bend of the unknown, this is the picture giving many pause for concern – that we have built the Matrix ourselves, a world where everyone is psychically copulating with our own screens, our own vanities and prejudices, the light of summer day fading unfelt on the skin.
Last night I dreamt I was trapped in an endless social media maze, updating and cross-posting to the point of insanity. If that’s what Twitter can do, think of the psychoses possible when there is a camera in every tv that knows you in anatomical detail and is communicating to a server… somewhere. However, I think being open and adaptable to this new reality is not only the smart thing to do, its very probably an evolutionary imperative that some cannot deny in themselves. And it is iterative, establishing footholds, building change upon change, powered by innovation – like Life. Yet like any wild beast it may turn on us. The internet and the tools it provides have already unleashed social change unprecedented in scale and unpredictable in outcome. The Middle East may have been rocked by the non-local impact of the web as we know it now, but what starts with the phone in your hand may end in the terror of a panopticon as governments and corporations find ways to hold the the web as a snare. The vortex of this tech storm sees us all having to keep a little smarter a little quicker if we are to stay afloat the winds, rather than looking down to find no ground beneath our feet. Julian Assange was merely a product of the milieu that millions of others shared in furtively, curiously, as a game. Basements loaded with inhuman figurines charging into war, the strains of prog metal filling the space, shelves loaded down with SF. Gaming, coding, hacking, reverse-engineering, social engineering, in the deep guts of the unseen and the utter thrill of pure anarchy. They knew the whole time they had stepped through the looking glass, or that there was no wizard behind the curtain, only systems. Some of them couldn’t help but become wizards themselves in such a shocking vacuum of imagination. If they needed to build a world or two while they were at it, while forever changing ours, then so be it.