Thursday, November 12, 2009

Virtual Windows

Recently I bought a 24" iMac, instead of a MacBook Pro. I justified it to myself like this: in a few years, when it's out of date, a MacBook Pro becomes a doorstop, while an iMac becomes a wall-mountable TV.

Now the 27" iMacs are out, and I am definitely going to get one.

Now watch this video by Joi Ito. He talks about how Warcraft guilds leave TeamSpeak on all day, whether they're raiding or not, to keep in touch with their virtual tribe at all times.

Sound familiar?

Now let me tell you about my crazy parents. They were using Skype before I was. I don't get certain Internet cliches, like the perennial riddle of how to tell your mom what a web browser is. My mom's on Firefox. I don't get what the problem is there.

So: say for the sake of argument I go and get a 27" iMac any day now. I could mount the 24" on a wall in my apartment as planned. But what if I had two? I could take the other one to my parents' place, put it up on their wall, fire up Skype on both machines, open a call from one iMac to the other, set it on video, and leave it on video 24/7 for years. Throw away the keyboards and the mice and call it a wormhole in the fabric of spacetime, or a virtual window.

I'm not actually sure I'll do this. Those new 27" iMacs aren't cheap, I only have one 24", and of course 24/7 wouldn't really be 24/7. I don't need to see my parents gargle their mouthwash, for instance, and I'm sure you can think of plenty of times you might not want your parents peering in on your adult life.

But it doesn't have to be your parents, for that matter. This is just an example. The point is, as handy as Skype and a nice big screen are now, think how much handier they will become in a few years, when you've got them in such abundance that you're trying to figure out how to get rid of the extras. A technology really comes into its own when the street finds its own use for it.

Seriously, Skype has no clue what Skype actually is. Who wants to use the Internet to replicate the experience of a phone call? A virtual window's much more interesting. People have been telling stories about that for almost as long as people have been telling stories at all.

It's funny, though, because not even the cyberpunks wrote about this - not about the actual imminent reality of it. The time is very very near when we will be able to keep 24/7 virtual windows on each other. How tribal will that be? What will happen to the structure of our society? You can find a gazillion examples in the cyberpunk canon of lifecasters and reality stars, some of them dating before the advent of reality TV. Where do you find the group of friends who have been in the same room for thirty years together, despite travelling the world separately? That's a very near, very likely future. It's the inevitable result of a pair of very basic, well-entrenched technologies - IRC and the webcam.

One consequence: we're going to live longer. Researchers find strong family connections and community obligations as a basic characteristic in every community on Earth where people live an unusually long time. However, you can give "family connections" and "community obligations" a lot of different definitions, and that's what might transform society in unpredictable ways. Some of the definitions that will work are as yet undiscovered.