Child’s Play

by rthieme on April 3, 2001

lego_mars_rover Games Engineers Play was one of the first Islands-in-the-Clickstream columns I wrote. In it I observed that a society socializes its young through games, teaching them through play the attitudes and skills we want them to have. Those of us who have grown to middle age through the current technological revolution have learned to partner with the young. We know that they know intuitively things we have never learned. We listen to how they frame the world for clues to where new technologies will take us. Executives at Sony bring in children to test prototypes of the Playstation, watching them do things with the platform that its inventors never imagined. In exchange for their insight and perspective, we offer them our insight and perspective, knowing that all partnerships are quid’s-pro-quo in which something of value must be exchanged.

We need to go to the edges, I often tell audiences, to see what’s emerging outside of our conventional thinking. The edge is the new center. We must be dislodged from our comfortable niches, our snug little cubbies, in order to see what’s real.

The edges I encourage people to explore are the latest military technology, commercial sex sites, and children’s games. All three offer clues to what’s coming next.

This is not rocket science, really. The military needs the most current technologies. Five years ago, an Air Force report on war in space in 2025 referenced the use of holographic image projection, cloaking devices, multispectral camouflage, and the creation of synthetic environments which the attacker believes to be real as necessary for the defense of the battlespace. If we consider those technologies metaphors for what will be needed in all competitive environments, we can anticipate some of the directions from which new winds will blow, just as ten years ago the migration of intelligence agents from government to industry signaled the growing power of trans-national corporations and dissolving geopolitical boundaries. The manipulation of perception itself, not just the concepts which frame those perceptions, will increasingly inform the arts of government and commerce. The masters of illusion will be masters of the space.

Nor is it rocket science to know that human beings love sex and will pay for it, real or imagined. We buy what looks or feels like love. New technologies of communication – books, photographs, VCRs, the Net – are always used to sell sex. So consumers fund the R&D that will bring the next advances, knowing that what the sex trade develops will migrate into the daylight commercial space.

And I try to pay attention to the games children play and anticipate how they will evolve into the playspace of the next generation of adults.

Last weekend I waited in line for an IMAX movie next door to a museum shop. I noticed posters on the window inviting children inside. This is what they advertised:

offworld gear
weapons for the mind
cyber-pets
idea generators
cosmic debris
alien life forms
space armor
space junk
thought reactors

I flashed back to the Viking Lander settling down on Mars. When it began transmitting the first pictures from the red planet, I waited with a neighbor, a video ham, and watched as the first image of the Martian desert painted itself pixel by slow pixel across his monitor. I looked at that desert and yearned to be there, I burned to climb Olympus Mons, to hike across the plains of Mars with the red wind at my back.

When I heard that the third successor to the Survivor television series planned to take contestants to the cosmonaut training center at Star City where the Russians would eliminate one each week until the finalist went to Baikonur in Kazakhstan to be launched to Mir, I wrote my application in twenty minutes and emailed it to the network. They said I was one of the first to apply. I knew that if I were a contestant, I would do anything, anything to go into space.

When we tack back and forth on our clear intention like a shark on its prey, nothing can stop us.

Or almost nothing. Mir no longer exists, having flamed to an ignominious end after its glorious moment in the sun. Since I don’t have twenty million to pay the Russians for a ride, I had better find another route out of the gravity well of the earth.

Offworld gear … alien life forms … space armor …

I felt like I was looking through a shimmering window onto the future that is here now but just out of reach. I felt like Winnie the Pooh hanging under his balloon next to the honey tree. He could see the honey, he could smell the honey, but he couldn’t quite reach the honey.

So the military tells us that the practice of deception will be more and more important. A friend who taught cover and deception to intelligence experts says: “Deception consists of illusion, misdirection, and ridicule, these three.” Then he smiles. “But the greatest of these is ridicule.”

Ridicule is how we defend ourselves from the first images of the future as they crawl out of the darkness. Ridicule can be defeated, however, with the right tools, the tools that track down the truth, the real weapons of the mind. There is plenty of cosmic debris out there, plenty of illusion too. Talk about alien life forms and offworld colonies and the herd might think you’re odd. The herd loves illusions, after all, loves being a herd. But for us little cyber-pets frolicking in a greater cosmic glory, what we see on that monitor is Mars, what we see in that museum window is right here, right now … don’t you see? it’s within our reach.

It’s only a matter of going.

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