Tad Williams’ Otherland series is a unique combination of science fiction, mythology and fantasy. It sounds like a hodgepodge of genres and yet, it is one of the finest collection of books that I’ve read. Williams presents us with a dystopia, south africa still licking it’s wounds from overthrowing apartheid. A lot of the focus is on the virtual reality-online service that is offered in almost every home. Allowing people to browse, research, play with an interface who’s sophistication is only limited by money. The virtual reality is able to provide audio, tactile, scent and video input directly to the user. The most basic equipment limiting user to video and audio input.
I’d like to explain why I find these books frightening.
The virtual reality service, designed to offer a place where each person can subvert and ignore the rules that govern our every day lives. A world of your own that you can design to ignore the laws of physics, or social rules, even morality. A free for all, neither bad nor good, defined by it’s creators that would be offered free or charge to all and sundry.
This of course offers a variety of applications for telecommunications, online businesses and research. The service becomes little more than a world wide strip mall, offering the virtual experience of shopping for items. The entertainment applications of course are also present offering clubs, cafes and of course MMORP’S. It all paints a pretty on the nose parallel to the internet, with the exception of the internet’s military origins. The virtual reality service is monitored by a government agency to insure that people are not harmed, but it mostly seems to limit itself to monitoring hacking and theft. However the larger companies in this world are not so limited. They track down every iota of information in a way that would put the most ambitious of social networking sites to shame. Similarly we are sent emails about items we browsed months ago, or that Amazon knows our likes before we do. The applications of this technology are almost exclusively used for one goal, money.
The technology also begins to send children into coma’s. It is something that should be impossible, without the use of technology that would constitute brainwashing. At the same time it brought to mind subliminal advertising. Messages etc. that would be hidden just under the surface of what we are observing. Our brains are designed to view and organize information, regardless of what it is. So it’s not terribly far fetched to think of an environment being seeded with information that we “read” but don’t see. To take it a step further to seed an environment with information that could tell the human brain “you smell fresh bread baking” or “It’s bed time”. It then forces me to think about the amount of audio and video stimuli that we are all subject to day to day. Take a walk through Times Square and count the number of video based advertisements. Even the music played in most stores is geared towards relaxing us enough to make spurious purchases. If you start thinking about it even the MTA PSA’s seem almost like a creepy form of conditioning you to retain information.
Aside from being an amazing read in it’s own right, Otherland makes me plain paranoid.