I took a header off my bike earlier this week, but luckily I was traveling at speed on blacktop and my face broke my fall.
This resulted in a couple of new developments in my life: some pleasantly-unflappable surgeons kindly sewed my lips back on me, and then they introduced me to Percoset (aka ocycodone). I cannot begin to tell you how much I love this drug. But that is for another day.
The combination of the drug-induced reverie, large amounts of time recuperating in bed wondering whether I will always speak like Sylvester Stallone, and the facial damage naturally got me thinking about what everyone thinks about in these situations: yes, instanced worlds and the films "Abre los Ojos" & "Vanilla Sky".
The films are essentially the same, except that Cameron Crowe's English-language version of Alejandro Amenábar's Spanish film is less successful, largely due to Crowe's overly-sycophantic reliance on Amenábar's original and of course the presence in the English version of the hideous Cameron Diaz. (But I digress: Perkies do that do you...but while I'm digressing can I urge you immediately to rent Amenábar's "Mar Adentro"/"The Sea Inside". The range and ability demonstrated by Amenábar and his screenwriter, Mateo Gil, makes me feel ill with jealousy. Amenábar also directed "The Others" in between these two films, which I found less interesting, though still beautiful, smart, and inspired: together these three films represent an unbelievable batting streak that makes A-list Hollywood directors look like they're playing in the bush leagues. Ok, end of digressions. "Honey, could you take these pills away for a bit? Um, just take them out of the room for, maybe 20 minutes or so, then bring them straight back. Ok, 15 minutes, I'll type as fast as the grazes will allow.")
So the films [Spoiler Alert] are about a rich guy who can't deal with his hideous facial injuries, enrols himself in life extension program, then offs himself, and has his head/body preserved in the life extension facility until modern medicine can cure him; all the while partaking of a simulated reality/dream that takes up just prior to the point where he kills himself. We see the story through the chronology that he experiences, and we have to work out how/why various things that can't be true are happening to him. How can it be that we have to experience the grotesque Cameron Diaz again? Didn't she die in the accident? Is he mad? Are his wicked partners behind the illusion? Etc etc.
His waking-dream is, of course, not far from the topic of this blog, virtual worlds. But it's a specific example of virtual world design, one that is fairly recent: I'm talking about instanced worlds. As anyone who plays newer-style MMOGs has experienced, there is a trend away from wholly persistent worlds, where the content is available to all, to instanced environments where players are locked away from the rest of the world. You find this all over the place: in City of Heroes, where I've been playing recently, most of the tasty, high-xp villains are found in missions that happen within buildings, and are available only to those in your team. At higher levels, "taskforces" are where the instances occur, and teams can expect to be locked away incommunicado from the rest of the world for hours. In the endgame of World of Warcraft it's pretty much all instances (or so teh ueb3r Tim Burke tells me). There are lots of game design reasons for instancing, including appropriate balancing protagonist/antagonist levels, easier continuity and content control, and so on.
My Percoset-induced rambling is to wonder whether instancing of the kind seen in "Abre los Ojos"--ie a virtual world built just for you, with everything revolving around your needs, and interests--is the sort of environment that we will inevitably see emerging. I suspect that it will be. One only has to look around at the desire of the affluent to have every whim catered to--gated communities, high-end shopping malls, hand-stitched leather seats in SUVs--that an obvious endpoint is to have the entire world revolve around you. Which is to say that instancing is a likely wave/world of the future.
The social issues that emerge from this will obviously be challenging. We've seen various commentators decry the collapse of communities in real life, for example and most obviously Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone". Cass Sunstein took up the issue in "Republic.com" and suggested that perfect filtering and the availability of just-what-I-want on the Internet would prove socially corrosive. I thought this was nonsense, but my argument against Sunstein was that he didn't understand filters or the social/cognitive psychology that he relied on. I didn't suggest that there won't be effects from specialization of information. I think that instancing, if it becomes ubiquitous and if large swathes of the population choose this over living with others, could easily generate unexpected social effects of the kind that Putnam and others suggest. It will have implications for democratic theory, especially those theories of democracy that find its political legitimacy in a well-informed demos (so-called "deliberative democracy"). It will also test whether people actually want to live together, or whether they'd just prefer to live alone (with the illusion of others around, but where everyone else is either an NPC to help them in their little instance, or a nicely-rendered texture-map to titillate or admire).
I don't have any idea how this will play out.
But I do know that I'm due another pill.