The INTERNETZ is NOT destroying society

Telling the world that the internet is not destroying society is probably not going to get me a ton of hits, because who wants to read an article that is stating the obvious? So I thought I’d draw attention by misspelling internet.  If I really wanted to get hits, I’d lead with some bald face lie like “‘The Demise of Guys’: How video games and porn are ruining a generation” whose main thesis is that young men growing up with video games and easy access to porn is distracting them from normal social activities, or “We expect more from technology and less from each other” whose main thesis is that the growth of texting and social media is making us too social, and we are losing our ability to be alone.  I love it when sensationalist headlines contradict each other.

Then there are the rash of Facebook doom and gloom articles: Facebook is destroying Google, Facebook is destroying Twitter, Facebook is destroying Virtual Worlds.  How long before we see an article claiming that Facebook is a threat to the human race itself? It came out yesterday, actually.

Games and Porn destroying society?

So where to start?  Lets start with the new book The Demise of Guys:

The premise of the book is that a generation of boys addicted to video games and online porn is leading to the decline of the male half of the population. The CNN article cites a lot of anecdotal info without much actual scientific citations.

There is a lot of stuff to talk about here and it is worthy of a discussion.

The book seems to focus on video game and porn addiction in boys, and blames the usual suspects: parents. Then it apparently tries to discuss the problems this is causing to society, and DAMMIT WE SHOULD DO SOMETHING!

Lets be realistic here. Yes, virtually all boys, young men, and even older men are playing video games these days, they are also watching porn. A slightly lesser percentage of girls, young women and even older women are also playing video games and watching porn. This is no doubt having an affect on society, but lets put that to the side for now.

Now what percentage of the people playing video games and/or watching porn are actually addicted to it? Research shows the percentage is actually pretty small, like 3% tops and probably closer to 1%. This is of course varies depending on what you would call an addict, but I’d say the usual definition involves engage in an activity to such an extent that it threatens our health. I’d say that is a very small percentage. Because it is a small percentage, the affect of video game/porn addiction is likely negligible, and therefore it cannot be ruining a generation of guys.

So lets stop beating around the bush and get to the heart of the issue:

Is the prevalence of video games affecting our society, our culture, our relationships, and changing the psychology of young growing minds? Absolutely!

Is the easy availability of porn affecting our society, our culture, our relationships, and changing the psychology of young growing minds? Absolutely!

And now for the REAL debate question: Is this a bad thing?

Considering that every society where video games have become popular has seen a reduction in violent crime; Considering that every society in which internet porn is widespread has seen a reduction in sex crimes; Considering that video games have been designed to make players happy, and that positive psychologists have shown that artificially generated happiness is just as good as genuine happiness. I’d say, the answer is no.

But, but, but, video game playing has been demonstrated to reduce the ability to learn in traditional school settings. Then maybe it is about time to dump the traditional school definition of learning. Learning by playing games, works extremely well.

But, widespread porn is changing young people’s ability to have “healthy” relationships that lead to marriage and family and more children. Time to dump the old fashioned definitions of “healthy” relationships then. Kids today are smarter about sex and relationships than any previous generation. A lot more of them are choosing not to get married, and not have kids, and the ones that are are doing it later in life, and choosing smaller families. Young people are going to have relationships, because that is what young people do, but they have a lot more freedom today. There is no bad here.

Video games and the internet is changing society, that is a given. Some change will be good, and inevitably some change will be bad. But the only real threats are to those that do not want society to change. To hell with them!

(Note, the above was originally posted by me at SL Universe forums where it got over 250 responses do far.)

Texting and social media destroying society?

The second sensationalist headline comes from Professor Sherry Turkle who is someone who is very thorough with her research. Again, she is pushing a book: Alone Together

As I was watching her TED talk on the topic of texting and social media’s affect on society I was making some live notes:

“The illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship” … And this is bad because?

“We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control” … You say it like its a bad thing.

“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved” … Actually no, I’m fine with alone. It is other people that need stuff that feels like a problem that needs to be solved.

“Constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves” … Yep that’s the way it has always been. I bet there was someone like her when the telephone was invented, and when the radio was invented, and when the TV was invented. The world is changing, and I am cool with it.

And then she ends the talk, talking about learning to be alone with ourselves. Hmm, as someone who rarely texts, never bring a cellphone anywhere, only talks to people at work because that is what I am paid to do, and does not even have a twitter account, I guess she wasn’t talking to me.

Ultimately this is the same issue with video games and porn above. Getting addicted can be very bad, but what percentage really are addicted?  Probably an even smaller percentage.  But let’s ask the second question: Is texting and social media a bad thing?

Oddly this is a far more complicated issue than video games and porn issues. Social media has sparked revolutions and organized protests that have succeeded in changing the world, so it can’t be all bad.

On the other hand, I remember being able to go to the break room at lunch and actually talked to my fellow co-workers.  Now everyone goes to the break room and jumps on their cell phone.  It is too noisy for a conversation, so I go outside to the smoking area.  Not because I smoke (I don’t), but people actually talk to each other out there.

So yes, social media is changing society.  Some change will be good, and inevitably some change will be bad.

Facebook destroying society?

Once again the author of the sensationalist article is selling a book: Digital Vertigo.

Once again, the author is saying change is bad.  I’ll say change is not all bad, etc.  No need to belabor the points for a third time.

The internet first went online in 1969.  The first author to predict that “information overload” would radically change our society was in 1970.  Toffler was right, society did change, and overall those changes have been positive.

12 Great Events in the History of Arizona

A little bit of departure from my usual stuff.  This month marks the 100th anniversary of Arizona as a state, and being someone who lived here most of my life, I’d thought I’d share a little bit of history of the place. Basically, I’m hitting the top 12 highlights, with links to wiki articles for the full story.

So where to start.  I could start with the Grand Canyon whose rocks at the bottom are 4.5 billion years old, as old as the earth itself, but that is a bit too far.  Or I could start with the archeological finds south of Chandler, AZ that show humans have lived here for at least 16,000 years.  But instead, I will start with an event that actually had an effect on modern Arizona.  It starts with a Volcano.

1024 – Sunset Crater becomes a Crater

The last time a volcano exploded in Arizona was almost 1000 years ago.  We know the exact date thanks to tree ring studies.  The Sunset crater explosion spewed ash for miles.

Now the cool thing about volcanic ash is that it retains water, making it easy to plant in and grow food.  Combine good soil with a fairly consistent river (known today as the Little Colorado River) and you end up with a good place to live.  The Wupatki ruins are one of the oldest and largest pueblo ruins in Arizona.  What we know about the place is that tribes from all over came to the region to live.  You can find a Kiva, a round ceremonial circle used extensively by tribes to the north, and a ball court, a sport imported from Mexican tribes to the south.  The gathering of many groups to Wupatki meant a sharing of technology, and improved lifestyles.  Pre-Wupatki housing consisted mostly of sticks and mud.  Post-Wupatki housing consisted of rock and mortar.

Eventually, water and resources got scarce and Wupatki was abandoned.  Tribal groups went their separate ways.  The Anasazis moved east and built an even bigger city, known today as the Aztec ruins in New Mexico.  Another post Wupatki settlement was Old Oraibi, Arizona, considered to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in North America.

14th Century – Invasion of the Dine

At some point around the 14th century, the tribes on the Colorado Plateau stopped building cities on the ground, and started building them in well protected places like the sides of cliffs.  The most likely reason seems to be an invasion from the north of nomadic tribes who called themselves the Dine (pronounced Din-Eh).  Their Athabascan language was very foreign, and genetically they are related to natives of Mongolia.  Today we call them the Navajo and the Apaches, and their affect on regional history is still having an impact today.  There is a 600 year feud between the Navajos and the Hopis, that is no longer fought with weapons, now it is fought with lawyers, and still has an impact on politics today.

It is amazing how many people don’t realize that Native Americans are not all the same race.  There are at least 3, with 3 different groups crossing from Asia (the Inuits are the third). Intermixing over the centuries has mostly erased the genetic differences, but linguistically and culturally they all continue to maintain separate identities.

Though generations removed by the time they reached Arizona, one could call the Dine invasion an Asian invasion. If you think about it that way, the Asians beat the Europeans by a couple of centuries.

1539 – An African comes to Arizona

When it comes to who got to Arizona first, Europeans came in last place.  The first non-native to set foot in what is today Arizona, was an African slave named Estevanico.  He was one of only four survivors of a shipwreck on the coast of Florida in 1529.  Led by Cabeza de Vaca, the four men made their way across America, surviving only by “going native” with the tribes they encountered.  When they finally reached New Spain, it was 8 years later.

A Franciscan Friar named Marcos De Niza was planning an expedition north, and wanted the help of Cabeza de Vaca as a guide.  DeVaca turned down the offer, wanting to return to Spain, but as a slave Estevanico didn’t have a say in the matter and was basically drafted.  Marcos De Niza was not a fan of slavery, nor was he a fan of the big savage beast Estevanico had become after 8 years wandering in the wilderness, nor of his harem of native wives.  So De Niza basically let Estevanico go ahead of him, telling him to build a cross when he finds something important.  That is how an African crossed into Arizona before the Europeans did.  Estevanico did not get very far, he was brutally killed by the Zunis, just a few months into the expedition.  Finding out about the death De Niza, a man of peace, was forced to turn around.

He was followed a year later by an invading army led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, looking for the legendary cities of Gold, which did not really exist.  The “golden cities” was an illusion caused by the sun reflecting off the mica flakes common in the adobe mud.  Coronado made it all the way to Kansas before returning in disgrace.  His only major discovery was a giant hole in the ground known today as the Grand Canyon.

1540 – 1810  The Pimeria Alta Colony of New Spain

For 250 years, Arizona was ruled by Spain.  Most of that time, Spain considered it worthless desert land and left the natives alone.  But, eventually gold and silver was discovered, so they felt the need to expand their influence, and started moving in.  Arizona actually gets its name from a successful silver mine operated by Spaniards. The most famous of the Europeans to come here was Father Eusebio Kino, a Jesuit priest, and Italian by birth.  He had a mission to bring Christianity to the tribes of Southern Arizona, but he used a carrot instead of a stick.  He brought education and new farming techniques to the natives.  He was also opposed to slave labor and other bad stuff the Spanish brought to the region.  The natives were big fans of Father Kino.

During his time in Pimeria Alta, Kino established 24 missions and towns, including what is today Tucson, Arizona.

1847 – The Mormon Batallion

In 1810, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and Arizona became part of Mexico.  Some “Mountain Men” from America occasionally came into the territory, but except for a few mining operations, nobody bothered the area since the natives in the region were considered rather vicious.  One of those Mountain Men was famed explorer Kit Carson, who was the first American to traverse Arizona from east to west and back again.

America’s first war of aggression was to move against Mexico in 1846 in hopes of seizing the land from Texas to the Pacific Ocean.  America had already established interest in California before the war started, and were anxious to take over.  What they did not have was a land route to California, the only way to get there was boat trips around South America.  The closest they got to California was a road to Santa Fe.  Meanwhile, the Mormons were recently chased out of Nauvoo Illinois, and were now holed up in Council Bluffs, Iowa.  They wanted permission to establish a colony in the “promised land” of Utah, and made a deal with the US government to supply men to build a road from Santa Fe, New Mexico to San Diego, California.  The 2000 mile march of the Mormon Batallion was one of the longest in military history.  They basically blazed a path following routes established by the previously mentioned Kit Carson and others.  During the entire march, they never actually saw a battle, but they came close to hunger and dehydration a couple of times.

The truth is, they got very lucky.  The best path across Southern Arizona is the one that follows present day I-10 to I-8.  After heading south from Santa Fe, they completely missed an important right turn at Dos Cabezas, and ended up going around the Chiricahua Mountains.  That pass was called the Apache Stronghold, and would become a dangerous and deadly pass to travelers during the Apache Wars.  Had they gone that way, they would have no doubt been attacked by the Apaches.

1853 – The Gadsden Purchase, or Congress proves that they are a bunch of stupid morons.

Every history class in America has a map of America carved up into what year the US acquired the land, and there is this little sliver of land in the southern New Mexico territory called The Gadsden Purchase.  I doubt anyone ever asks why we bought the land from Mexico, or why it was necessary to do so, and even if some kid in class asks the question, I doubt the teacher can provide the answer.

So I will tell you the answer: Congress is filled with a bunch of stupid morons.

We won the Mexican War and proved our “Manifest Destiny” from sea to shining sea.  The question before the people negotiating the Treaty of Hidalgo is, “Where do we draw the Southern border?”  Well the dominant northern state oriented congress wanted to draw the line as north as possible, because Southern Arizona and New Mexico is south of the Mason-Dixon line and therefore could become a slave friendly territory.  So they drew the border to follow the Gila River because “We could just boat down the Gila River to get to California.”  and so that is what Congress decided.

Stupid thing #1: The Gila River is dry 9 months out of the year.  When it is not dry it is either in the form of dangerous rapids through narrow canyons, or shallow washes not deep enough for a boat.

Stupid thing #2: The US just spent a ton of money and the hard work of the Mormon Battalion building a road south of the Gila River to San Diego which we just gave away back to Mexico.

Stupid thing #3: Slavery was already outlawed in the New Mexico territory in 1810 when Mexico was still in charge.

After the idiotic mistakes made by Congress, Ambassador James Gadsden went to Mexico to negotiate a purchase.  Mexico needed the money and actually offered  most of northern Mexico and all of Baja California for a decent price, but instead Congress again only authorized the bare minimum to get the road built by the Mormon Battalion back into US hands, again because they were afraid of adding more slave state territory.  (sigh!)

1871 – The Camp Grant Massacre

Under Mexican law, land claims by native peoples were recognized.  Under the Treaty of Hidalgo, the US was obligated to recognize those claims.  They didn’t.  Under US law, if you don’t have a deed you don’t own the land, and the Native Americans rights to the land in newly acquired territories were treated the same as the Native Americans in the rest of the US.  They didn’t have any land rights.  Were the natives angry about this? You Bet!

It was the Apaches who put up the biggest fight.  The period from 1848 to the 1886 surrender of Geronimo became known as the Apache Wars.  It was the reason the southern half of the New Mexico territory (calling itself Arizona a popular name for the region when Mexico was in charge) joined the Confederate States of America.  After the US recalled their troops to fight the Civil War, Texas sent troops to Tucson in exchange for CSA territory.  The arrangement only lasted a few months, the US sent in volunteers from California to chase out the Texans, resulting in the Battle of Picacho Peak, the western most battle of the Civil War.  In 1862, President Lincoln would split the New Mexico Territory in half vertically, the western half would retain the name Arizona.

By 1871, a lot of the fighting with the Apaches had subsided enough that the US was withdrawing troops.  This did not sit well with merchants who depended on the troops for income.  A peaceful band of Apaches took up residence outside Camp Grant,  then on April 30, 1871, a group from Tucson attacked the peaceful band slaughtering up to 144 mostly women and children (the men of the tribe were in the mountains hunting).  The people that were responsible were caught and tried, and found innocent.  Arizonans did not consider killing “Indians” to be that big of a crime.

Back east, news of the event made headlines, and got a sympathetic ear from President Grant.  The Camp Grant Massacre was not the first mass act of genocide against Native peoples, nor was it the last, nor was it even close to the biggest, but it did change US policy towards Native Americans leading to the autonomous reservation system we have today.

1881 – The Gunfight at the OK Corral

What can I say about an event that has been discussed in dozens of books, and portrayed in dozens of movies, even in an episode of Star Trek.  What I can tell you is that the legend is far more glorious than the reality.  Tombstone was never a really violent town.  It was mostly a mining town famous for drinking, gambling, and prostitution, and in its heyday did not have a reputation for murder.  Most of the big entertainers of the day (on their way to California) made a stop to perform at the Bird Cage Theater.  The upper decks of the theater had brass beds where the prostitutes plied their trade.  Big windows allowed you to watch the show below, and people below had an obscured view of what was going on above.  The song “I’m just a Bird in a Guilded Cage” was written about the prostitutes at the Bird Cage theater, before being adopted by Tweety and Sylvester cartoons.  As for gambling, below the stage was a poker table that housed a card game that went on continuously, night and day, for 12 years.  Dozens of famous people at the time played in that game including Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson.

This is the kind of stuff Tombstone should be famous for, but the thing everyone talks about is the Gunfight, a battle that lasted about 30 seconds leaving 3 dead, 3 injured, and 3 unharmed.  Few people bother to mention that at least two of the Clanton-McLaury side were unarmed, making it somewhat of an unfair fight.  The legend is much bigger than the reality.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral has become a symbol of the lawless west. As Cracked.com pointed out recently, it is a reputation not deserved.

1885 – The Thieving Thirteenth Legislature

Arizona politics is notorious. The recent furor over SB 1070 is the latest in a very long line of political controversy in Arizona.  Politics here is contradictory to most of the rest of America.  Conservatives tend to be more Libertarian rather than of the social conservative variety.  This leads to many contradictions.  Arizona was one of the first to allow women to vote and was the first to allow the recall of judges, and one of the first to allow public petitions to override the legislature, and even the state constitution.  Recent reforms include public funding of state races and a citizens commission to draw new lines for congressional and legislative districts, stuff a lot more states should be doing.  Arizona has had four female Governors, can any other state say that? And yet, these “progressive” reforms are coming from one of the most conservative states in the country.

The strange politics of this state can be traced to 1885 and the 13th Territorial Legislature.  Up until 1885, Arizona had relied on troops fighting the Apache wars to provide for their economy.  With only a small band of Chiricahua’s left to fight, Arizona needed new sources of revenue, and new institutions to modernize the state.  The Territorial Legislature spent money like crazy, creating a prison in Yuma, an asylum in Phoenix, a teacher training school in Tempe (eventually to become Arizona State University), and a college in Tucson (eventually to become University of Arizona).  They also created bonds for roads, bridges, and trains to transport goods and connect to the rest of the US.

The good that the “Thieving 13th” did to the state is still recognized today.  And yet at the time, the massive deficit spending was considered criminal, and in the next election, all but 1 of the members of the legislature were voted out of office.

1911 – Roosevelt Dam and the Salt River Project

OK, we got ourselves some much needed institutions, now all we need is basic necessities like water and power.  The Phoenix metro area wasn’t very big yet, but they had already outgrown the irrigation system built by the Hohokam some 500 years earlier.  It was time to upgrade.  In 1902, federal funding was granted to build Arizona’s first hydroelectric dam.  Roosevelt dam was constructed out of brick, between 1903 and 1911. Until it was enlarged and covered over by concrete in 1996, Roosevelt Dam was one of the worlds largest masonry constructions.  Three other dams were eventually built along the Salt River, then more along the neighboring Verde and Gila Rivers supply much of the water and power to the Phoenix Metro area.

1912 – Arizona becomes the 48th State

Its 1912, election year, and President Taft is looking to be remembered for being more than America’s fattest President.  So he proposes filling in the blanks and making New Mexico and Arizona into full fledged states.  Arizona actually got its paperwork and new constitution submitted first, but President Taft was not happy with the provision allowing for the recall of judges and told them to change it.  New Mexico came in and became the 47th state on January 6, 1912.

Arizona came back with a revised constitution without the recall of judges.  Originally Arizona was to be made a state on February 12th, but that coincided with Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, and it was thought improper (this despite it being Lincoln who created the territory in the first place).  It was finally made a state on February 14th, 1912, resulting in the nickname the “Valentine State” for a while.  Because of the large number of copper mines, they tried to be the “Copper State”, which was lame since California already claimed to be the “Golden State”, and Nevada the “Silver State”.  In an effort to bolster tourism, we now call ourselves the “Grand Canyon State”.

Once we achieved statehood, the first thing we did was amend the state constitution to allow the recall of judges.

1928 – The Invention of Freon

Before 1950, the only attraction Arizona had was a few fringe industries known as the “Five C’s”: Citrus, Copper, Climate, Cotton, and Cattle.  If you weren’t part of these industries, the only reason to come to Arizona was for health reasons, like Frank Lloyd Wright did in the 1930’s.  It was miserably hot here most of the year.  Still is, except today we have Air Conditioning.

Before modern AC, houses were built with a screen porch.  Wet sheets were hung over the screens, and the evaporation would cool the porch.  The entire family would sleep on the porch during the summer.  With electricity came swamp coolers, consisting of a water pump continuously moistening a canvas mesh and a fan sucking air through the mesh and blowing it through the house.  Swamp coolers are still extensively used today, but during the humid months generally between mid july and mid September, the cooling effect of swamp coolers completely fails.

It was the invention of modern air conditioning, that led to rapid growth.  Between 1950 and 1960, Phoenix tripled in size, and doubled again every decade until 2000.  Phoenix is now the 5th largest city in America, and air conditioning is the #1 reason.

There you have it 12 great historical events that shaped modern Arizona.  Happy 100th Birthday, Arizona.

SOPA will be the Death of the Internet

I have spent the last 15 years employed in the internet industry.  Not with one particular company, but with multiple companies, supporting pretty much every aspect of the web.  I did modem support, wireless support, search engine support, DNS support, domain name support, web server configuration, and I have run half a dozen websites, including forum administration, design practices, and kept 3 separate blogs on average 5 years each.  I have played every type of online game from the MMORPG to the ARG.  I think I know enough about the internet to be considered an expert.  So when I speak against the massive amounts of propaganda in favor of the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA), and say “SOPA will kill the Internet”, I know what I am talking about.

If you don’t know what SOPA is, start at Wikipedia, then check out the writing of Declan McCullough at C-Net.

If SOPA passes without a massive major rewrite, the collapse of the internet will start with the literal or pragmatical shutdown of some of the most popular websites like Wikipedia, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr.  I say pragmatical shutdown, because some of these popular sites will likely continue, but as gimped shadows of their former selves.  You Tube for example will likely only accept content from proven and advertising promoted sources.  No more video blogs, no more you tube stars, no more viral videos, You Tube will primarily become corporate content tube.

After the big name sites are effectively killed, the more underground sites like 4chan and something awful forums will be targeted by complaints.  Pretty much all private forums will be targeted, leaving only “official” forums as the only place for people to gather, and they will be heavily monitored for possible copyright infringing content. Second Life, IMVU and other virtual worlds that allow for user created content, will likely be forced to shutdown too.

What will the internet be like after SOPA?  Imagine a library filled with nothing but fliers, catalogues, and calling cards.  That will be the internet in a nutshell.  If content holders go crazy with copyright complaints, the only websites left will be sites belonging to companies with teams of lawyers, or advertising sites, or personal or organizational sites made by people who know how to build non-copyright infringing sites, none of which will have comment sections.  In other words, it will be boring.

There will be efforts to get around SOPA restrictions.  People in the know (like me) will change our DNS server pointers to foreign DNS hosts, and use foreign proxy servers.  Web sites will move to foreign web hosts, all in an effort to get around the “Great American Firewall“.  If the DOJ decides to start blocking these loopholes, it would break the internet completely, the IP protocol system would break down, and the reliability of the internet would be seriously harmed.

People not in the know, would simply lose interest in the internet, and will stop using it.  Internet providers, would lose billions in subscriptions, hardware builders would lose billions in sales.  One of the most recession proof industries, would go into a recession, at the cost of millions of jobs, including mine.  If that happens, I’ll surely pack my bags and get the hell out of the US, looking for a country that does not insist on up to five years in jail just for posting a video backed by a song you like.

What is the intent of this industry killing draconian monstrosity?  All they want to do is shut down American access to thepiratebay.org, and whatever sites try to impersonate it.  If that was all this bill did, I’d support it myself.  So why not just pass a law outlawing access to specifically that site and sites like it that ignore DMCA copyright complaints?  The DMCA take down process is a proven winner of a program for handling copyright complaints, and has led to the innovative internet we have today.  Why mess with perfection?

The problem is that the DMCA process is too much work for content owners like RIAA and the MPAA. They would rather force the job onto the websites themselves, or have the Department of Justice do it at taxpayer expense. That is the real issue with this bill, and that is why the internet community is so uniformly against it.  It is strange these days for a bill to get both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition at the same time, but SOPA is generating that kind of divide.

The latest is that the pro SOPA people have made amendments to the bill in hopes of narrowing the scope, but the same critics are coming out saying the “improvements” are so vaguely worded that they basically do the same damage when broadly interpreted.

I’m watching SOPA as if my livelihood depended on it, because it does.

UPDATE:  Latest word is that the House has scrubbed a vote on SOPA, killing it for now.  Meanwhile, the Senate version known as PIPA is still alive and kicking.  On Jan 18, I’m joining a very large list of websites who are shutting down for 12 hours to protest in hopes of killing PIPA too.

Reality Is Broken: A Book Review

I have never actually done a book review before on this blog, but my previous two blogs I did them all the time.  After reading Reality is Broken, I felt compelled to write a full formal review, as its contents are perfect fodder for this blog.  In fact there is enough here to fill a good half a dozen blog posts, but then why would you need to read the book?  So for now here is a brief introduction to the themes and ideas contained.

Reality is Broken is a new book by first time author Jane McGonigal, a professional game designer.   She starts off quoting economist Edward Castronova, who said “We’re witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments.”, then goes on to quote some amazing stats like, the total amount time spent in World of Warcraft by all players adds up to 5.8 million years, and 500 million people spend at least an hour a day in online games for a total of 3 billion hours a week, and the average child will spend over 10,000 hours playing video games before the age of 21, the same amount of time they spend in school from 5th grade to 12th grade.

While many people react negatively to such huge numbers, considering it a waste of time.  McGonigal insists that it is not enough, that we should have more people playing online gaming.  She believes the world is better off with more gamers.  Being a fan of ideas that defy conventional wisdom (as my last two essays demonstrate), I had to find out more.  I have a hard time figuring out if Reality is Broken is a book about games disguised as a book about social issues, or a book about social issues disguised as a book about games.  I guess if you are librarian trying to figure out where to put the book, this would matter, but for us average readers it does not.

There are basically three themes to this book.  The first is the one that resonates the most for me:  Games make us happy.

The emotional impact of games is something game designers are very interested in, and spend a lot of money researching, so it is no surprise that many modern video games are designed with making players happy.  Consider what I wrote about last week in regards to “finding a purpose” to our lives. The four types of purposes that bring us meaning and lasting happiness:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success.  We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others.  We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves.  We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

Now consider these four categories of “purpose” in the context of playing video games.  Almost all games can hit 2 or 3 of those, and the MMORPG can hit all four categories.  From a positive psychologists stand point, gamers are some of the happiest people on the planet.

I know what some of you are thinking.  Is the happiness you get playing in virtual worlds just virtual happiness? frivolous, fleeting and temporary?  No, not according positive psychologists.  Dan Gilbert himself (see Happiness 101) says there is no discernible difference between synthesized happiness and real happiness.

Which leads to the second theme of the book: Gamers are escaping from a broken reality.  McGonigal list 14 ways that gaming worlds are superior to real worlds.  She is not talking specifically about online video games at this point, but many different kinds of games that help us deal with reality.  The majority of the book is about these 14 “Reality Fixes”, and as she goes through each one she discusses two or three different games or gaming systems that encourage these reality fixes.  She discusses dozens of different games, some I am familiar with, some I’d love to play, and some I do not.

Anyone looking into game design should read the book if nothing else than for the various ideas that are likely to come to mind while reading.  I came up with an idea myself while reading, and have gone as far as researching some special programming I would need to do to get it to work.  More on that later, maybe.

And finally the third theme: Games can save the world, and gamers are our best resource to do just that.

Games can, and have been designed to help us focus on real world issues.  McGonigal is a game designer who works primarily on a category of games know as Alternate Reality Games, or ARGs, which are designed to form communities and tackle problems, primarily problems created by the game authors, but they can also tackle real world problems like “peak oil” which I discussed 2 posts ago.   In 2007, McGonigal was part of a design team for an experimental ARG called World Without Oil.  The original 1,900 players from all walks of life did not find any solutions, but came away mostly optimistic that people can come together in a crisis and adjust their lifestyles to fit new realities.  Since then McGonigal has been part of other socially conscious ARGs, and is confident that games like this can one day change the world.  But in order to make these world changing games to work, we need gifted people to play them.  Enter the “gamers”.

She discusses the fact that more than half of the students today spend 10,000 hours playing games before they turn 21.  That by definition, that makes them “virtuosos” at gaming.  The biggest question is what are all these “virtuosos” capable of?  She breaks down 4 qualities that long time gamers possess: 1. Blissful productivity — the understanding that happiness comes from hard work and not from passive activities like watching TV.  2. Urgent optimism — the desire to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that there is a reasonable hope of success, or desiring the “epic win”.  3. Social fabric — the ability to form tight communities built on trust, like guilds.   4. Epic meaning — the desire to be part of something bigger than themselves, even if that bigger thing may just be fictional.  Notice that these four qualities correspond to the four “categories of purpose” listed above.

McGongal’s goal is to find a way to focus the talents inherent in gamers to tackle the problems the world face today and “fix reality”.

If you are interested in these ideas, but not up to spending $14 on the e-book, you can get a 20 minute summary from her speech at ted.com, or there is also a website realityisbroken.org you can read, or sign up to find out about the latest world changing ARG games.

Is it true?

I have not decided how true the thesis is.   Being a gamer, an amateur game designer, and a participant in ARGs, I at least understand the thesis.  I want to believe the thesis is true, but understanding the worlds problems and finding solutions is unfortunately a fraction of the problem.  Experience is that all new ideas that diverge from the “business as usual” tends to face overwhelming political opposition no matter how good or true they are.  The corporate powers that be seem to think that video games are a form of soma to pacify the masses into complacency, and I am not sure that they are wrong.

At the very least I accept the first theme: Games do make us happy, and I mostly accept the second theme: Games are an escape from reality.  I constantly hear complaints from politicians that video games are too violent and inspire more violence.  The evidence is not there to back that up.  As games have gotten more popular, violent crime has gone down, not up.  Places where sex games are common, like Japan, have actually seen a reduction of sex related crimes.  Maybe sex games should be more popular everywhere.  In these respects games have already changed the world for the better.

But there is another way that games can change the world and it is outlined in my last three blog posts.  From The Energy Situation, I pointed out that we are quickly running out of resources needed to grow the economy.  From Happiness 102 I pointed out that materialism, the driving force behind the running out of resources, does not really bring us happiness anyways.  And finally with Reality is Broken we learn one activity, gaming, can be a real source of happiness.  While gaming is not always a carbon neutral activity, it can be.  Thus gaming is a way to reduce our need for diminishing resources while still making life livable. Oddly, I previously posted this idea before.

But it is important to keep all of this in balance.  McGonigal concludes her book:

Reality is too easy. Reality is depressing. It is unproductive, and hopeless. It is disconnected, and trivial. It’s hard to get into. It’s pointless, unrewarding, lonely, and isolating. It’s hard to swallow. It’s unsustainable. it’s disorganized and divided. It’s stuck in the present.

Reality is all of these things. But in  at least one crucially important way, reality is also better. Reality is our destiny. This is why our single most urgent mission in life is to engage with reality, as fully and as deeply as we can.

That does not mean we can’t play games. It simply means that we have to stop thinking of games as only escapist entertainment.

Good games can play an important role in improving our real quality of life. They support social cooperation and civic participation at very big scales. And they help us lead more sustainable lives and become a more resilient species.

Games don’t distract us from our real lives. they fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They are leading us to its reinvention.

Happiness 102

Believe it or not, people actually expect to be happy in life, and they even expect this happiness to endure.  Who would ever think that?

🙂 🙂 🙂

Actually, real lasting happiness is achievable.  It is just a matter of learning where real happiness comes from, and pursuing it.  Conventional wisdom says it comes from money, and owning lots of stuff, and being a big shot at work, and the whole “American Dream” package.   Scientists and researchers in the field of Positive Psychology, will tell you that the conventional wisdom definition of happiness is in fact, full of crap.

About a year ago, I wrote an essay called Happiness 101, which you might want to read and watch the video links if you haven’t already.  I thought I’d follow up on that essay, delving deeper.

In the last essay on happiness, my focus was on what does not make us happy.  Freedom of choice is not a source of happiness, nor is outside acceptance.  Working hard towards achieving something you want will always fail if you don’t actually enjoy the hard work.  Because even if you succeed, it will feel like it wasn’t worth it.

Let me give you another happiness misnomer that I failed to mention last time.  There is no “Secret“, there is no “Law of Attraction“, and there is no “power in positive thinking“, except the power to depress you when you completely fail to “think and grow rich“.  My own attitude on this crap pretty much mirrors Barbara Ehrenreich’s attitude in this RSAnimate video.  All it is is wishful thinking, and most of the people that engage in it, are wishing for the “American Dream” package that is more likely to make them miserable if it happens by some miracle to work.  The secret about “The Secret” is that if it fails you will make yourself miserable, and if it succeeds you will make yourself miserable.

So lets step away from the myth, and take a look at the real science of happiness.

My goal with this essay is to focus on what does make us happy.  I want to start off here where I left off last time: Happiness and hard work.  There are three reasons why people enjoy their work:  1.) They do something fun, 2.) they work in a fun environment, or 3.) they have a miserable home life and work is a temporary escape.  OK, I’m being factitious with that last one, … or am I?

“Meaningful” hard work

Doing something fun for a living does not mean strictly “enjoyable”, it could instead be “meaningful”. In fact it is better if it does, according to researchers:

The relentless pursuit of happiness may be doing us more harm than good.

Some researchers say happiness as people usually think of it—the experience of pleasure or positive feelings—is far less important to physical health than the type of well-being that comes from engaging in meaningful activity. Researchers refer to this latter state as “eudaimonic well-being.”

Happiness research, a field known as “positive psychology,” is exploding. Some of the newest evidence suggests that people who focus on living with a sense of purpose as they age are more likely to remain cognitively intact, have better mental health and even live longer than people who focus on achieving feelings of happiness.

In fact, in some cases, too much focus on feeling happy can actually lead to feeling less happy, researchers say.  The pleasure that comes with, say, a good meal, an entertaining movie or an important win for one’s sports team—a feeling called “hedonic well-being”—tends to be short-term and fleeting.   Raising children, volunteering or going to medical school may be less pleasurable day to day.  But these pursuits give a sense of fulfillment, of being the best one can be, particularly in the long run.  (Is Happiness Overrated?, By Shirley S. Wang, Wall Street Journal March 15, 2011 Link).

Moments of pleasure are temporary, fleeting.  Our constant focus on these moments can actually make us miserable.

Symptoms of depression, paranoia and psychopathology have increased among generations of American college students from 1938 to 2007, according to a statistical review published in 2010 in Clinical Psychology Review. Researchers at San Diego State University who conducted the analysis pointed to increasing cultural emphasis in the U.S. on materialism and status, which emphasize hedonic happiness, and decreasing attention to community and meaning in life, as possible explanations. (ibid.)

Long term happiness, or as the article calls it eudaimonic well-being, requires a pursuit of purpose to focus our lives around something.  Isn’t this what the philosophers and religious figures say?  Losing yourself in the service of others, you will find yourselves.

But does it necessarily have to be service to others?  In order for that service to be of any value, others must accept it.  And yet, as we learned from Happiness 101, seeking the approval of others ultimately leads to misery.  Therefore, the meaningful activity we pursue must ultimately be meaningful to ourselves, whether we get appreciation for it or not.  So maybe the philosophers and religious figures had it backwards.  We cannot lose ourselves, until we find ourselves, until we find our purpose.

Yet, the most meaningful purposes do involve other people.  Humans are social creatures,  doing meaningful work with others who are doing the same meaningful work is the fastest and easiest way to get close to others.  It is not service to others that brings about happiness, it is service with others.

Finding a Purpose

We have been taught all our lives that happiness comes from external stimuli:  money, praise, status, material goods, etc.  The reality is that it does not.  We get temporary joy from obtaining “stuff” but it is always fleeting.  In the long run, we are harming our ability for long term happiness in the pursuit of all of these short term thrills.

What will make true long term happiness is the pursuit of “intrinsic rewards”, happiness that we create ourselves:

  • We crave “satisfying work” or being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.
  • We crave the “hope of success”, which is more powerful than the actual success.  We want to be optimistic about our chances for success in our endeavors, and even if we fail, we at least want to improve over time.
  • We crave social connections, share experiences and build bonds with others.  We most often accomplish this by doing things that matter together.
  • We crave meaning, or the chance to be part of something larger than ourselves.  We want to feel curious, awe, and wonder about things that unfold on epic scales.

The actual details will vary from person to person, but this is what we need to live a happy life, not external material rewards.

Motivating Hard Work

Going back to the reasons people enjoy their work. Lets move on to working in a fun environment.  Once again by “fun” I do not necessarily mean just “enjoyable”, I mean work where you really feel motivated to work.  There are many misgivings about motivation.  The common conception is that money is the driving factor, but as stated above, money is a temporary thrill, but does not make us happy.  In fact, if the work is meaningful in other ways, money does not even motivate us at all.  Let me just point to a video on this topic based on the work by Dan Pink:

The key point in the video is that there are three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. It is not “more money”, and in fact, contrary to the political right ideology, as long as people are making enough so they do not have to worry about money, monetary rewards do not help motivate at all.

Now we have another conflict between this essay on happiness and the last essay.  In the last essay the  idea of “freedom of choice” can actually have a negative affect on happiness, and yet in this essay we have “autonomy” as being necessary for personal satisfaction.  Aren’t “freedom” and “autonomy” one in the same thing?  Not if you understand how they relate to happiness.  Autonomy is the desire to be self directed, to pursue a goal creatively rather than by a mindless process.  Freedom disrupts our happiness either by not giving us goals to pursue, or giving us too many.

Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff, because it gives us a sense of accomplishment.

We have approached happiness from two different directions and and arrived at the same point.  The first lesson taught us that happiness comes from being comfortable with our place in life, the second lesson teaches us that happiness comes from pursuit of intrinsic rewards, giving ourselves a  purpose,  and pursuing this purpose our own way.

Are these two ideas contradictory?  From an abstract point of view, yes they are.  How can we be comfortable where we are if we have a purposes to pursue?  And yet from a practical point of view, it is very easy to imagine being comfortable with where we are while also pursuing meaningful goals: “comfort” is the foundation for happiness, “purpose” is the destination.

Any questions?  Yeah, you in the front row…

“Um, yeah, I got one, …(ahem)… um, your blog is about gaming and virtual worlds? …so, why all this positive psychology stuff?  What does it have to do with gaming?”

Actually, it has everything to do with gaming, but you will just have to wait for my next lecture to find out why.

The Energy Situation

I generally don’t like to talk much about the real world on this blog, but I have had an interest in the energy sector for almost as long as my interest in virtual worlds.  I wouldn’t bother, but between the nuclear crisis in Japan, the revolutions happening in oil exporting nations like Libya and Bahrain, and the recent sudden rise (again) of fuel prices, it seems like it is important to say something.

The energy crisis popularly known as “peak oil” has been talked about for decades, but only recently has the International Energy Administration (IEA) come right out and said it is already a reality.  “Crude oil” peaked in 2005, and all liquid fuels (85% of which is oil) will peak in 2012 if it hasn’t already done so in 2008.  Because liquid fuel is necessary for transportation, it means transportation is going to get harder and/or more expensive.

Many will dismiss “peak oil” by saying that there is still plenty of fuel available to go around, which is true.  The problem is not a function of “amount”, it is a problem of “growth”.  Every year there will be less and less fuel available for our economy to use, and because of this the economy is more likely to shrink (enter a recession or worse a new Great Depression) in the near future, and there is nothing anyone from any political party can do about it.

This is probably the most important story the mainstream media is completely failing to talk about.

My simple explanation is in the chart above.  This chart is unscientific (notice the lack of actual values on the x and y axis), it is merely an illustration of what I believe to be our current energy situation.

On the X axis we have cost, and on the Y we have energy production. It seems logical that the best source of energy is in the top left corner of the chart. This is energy of the “and then one day shooting at some food, and up from the ground comes a bubbling crude (oil that is, black gold, texas tea).  Once upon a time oil gushed from the ground, thus requiring no work to obtain it.

Well that oil is gone now, decades ago. So we start moving down, the cheap less productive stuff, and/or to the right, the more expensive but productive stuff, until that is exhausted.  The lighter and lighter colored semi-circles show the progression of our use of energy.  As time goes, we continue to move further and further down and to the right.

The thing is there are limits to how far down and how far to the right we can move.

The hardest limit is the red line at the bottom: EROEI = 1. If it takes more energy to produce the energy it is a waste of time. Lately some conservatives have been passing a stat that America has 10 times the oil that Saudi Arabia has in the form of shale oil. What they do not bother to mention is that to get a barrel of oil out of shale, it would require 2 or 3 barrels of oil worth of energy. That’s an EROEI of 0.3, way below minimum. Another popular “alternative” is Hydrogen. The problem there is that the primary source of hydrogen is water, and as every basic chemistry student knows, the energy needed to unlock hydrogen from water exceeds the amount you can get from the actual hydrogen.  We can create a car that runs on hydrogen, but it will always be more efficient to just get an electric car.

Other limits are it has to be profitable (green line). This line may change as energy prices vary. Sometimes when prices go up, once unprofitable energy sources suddenly become profitable. That is why solar and wind projects are suddenly picking up. They weren’t profitable enough in the cheap oil days.

Then there are capitalization costs (blue line) which represents the  limit lenders and investors are willing to spend on a project. This is the #1 problem with nuclear power. It is not the safety concerns, it is the fact that it takes 30 years to become profitable, when you consider both construction costs and takedown costs, and nuclear plants average around a 40 year life span. To find someone to invest 15 billion dollars with that little amount of profit is extremely difficult, which is why all nuclear plants are government subsidized.

Then there is the last line: costs exceed economic limits (purple line). People are mentioning the possibility of oil reaching $200 a barrel. Oil at that price is economically unsustainable. The share of energy costs in our economy is around 8%. When energy costs exceed that, it cuts into growth. Energy costs kill economic growth. Want proof? 3 out of the last 4 major recessions in the last 40 years were preceded by record energy costs. The exception to the rule was the dotcom bust of 2000.

The worrisome aspect is that our primary sources of new oil, like Canadian oil sand, and deep water drilling, require prices to be around $80 a gallon just to be profitable, which is pushing us over the 8% limit.  The airline industry, which is highly dependent on liquid fuel, loses money when the price goes above $85.

On the chart I point out all the popular answers to our current energy crisis and their approximate position on the production vs cost scale.  As you can see all of these new energy technologies push against at least one of these four limits. We have pretty much exhausted all of the cheap and productive sources of energy.

Our only choice now is renewables. One renewable source, hydroelectric, accounts for almost 20% of our electricity, but unfortunately all the hydroelectric dams that can be built, have already been built.   Geothermal is another renewable source, but it has not been fully exploited yet, accounting for only about 1% of our electricity.  It also runs into the same problem as hydroelectric in that there are limited places where a geothermal plant can succeed. The other renewables: Photovoltaic solar, solar thermal, wave power and wind power, amount to around 1% combined, but growing. We had better start investing quickly, or soon we will have to get by with only 22% of the energy we currently have.

Then there is the transportation problem, 95% of which is done with oil and oil products. Food production requires oil too, a lot of it. When oil prices go up so do food prices. We can find ways to cut back on travel, we can’t cut back on eating.  Transportation is going to have to go electric, and for long distance that means trains on electrified rails, in which the US has none, and which the GOP is opposed to building.  Planes cannot reliably  run on electricity, at least not big passenger jets, so until the solar powered blimp can be scaled up to hold 200 passengers, the airline travel era may soon end.

What I see happening is energy and energy costs driving the US and all other OECD countries into a new Great Depression, this one without any chance for recovery due to lack of resources. The US is the country least prepared to deal with this as we have put all our chips on oil for energy and cars for transport, and suburbs for housing so people have to drive to work.  The $100 a barrel oil will cause another major recession, not that we have even recovered from the last one.

Videos on Peak oil can be found here.   The best website for all energy topics (and the source for most of the above info) http://www.theoildrum.com/

Happiness 101

I learned the secret to life from my cat.  Find a comfortable spot, and enjoy. I think most everyone can agree with this, the problem is that there is often a misunderstanding of what a “comfortable spot” happens to be.  Most people think it is a function of money, and stuff.  They are wrong, and that is why most people are miserable.

I tend to stay away from real life topics in this blog, but I ran across a bunch of related links on the topic of happiness, and thought I’d share. So here are some thoughts on happiness, and why the things we think will make us happy often totally fail to do so. I will back up these thoughts with random entertaining links.

Wax on, wax off, wax on, wax off…

An essay at Cracked.com called How Karate Kid Ruined The Modern World has recently generated some interest.  The theme of Karate Kid, is that anyone can achieve their goals just by wanting it more and working harder than the rest, a theme that fails to resonate in real life.

Without getting into all the reasons why working harder does not get you more,  let me point out one reason: Economic reality.

According to Professor Richard Wolff in his short documentary Capitalism Hits the Fan, the United States ended its 200 year long employment shortage in the 1980s, and inflation adjusted earnings of the middle class has stayed stagnant.  Working harder adds additional costs which lowers net earnings.  Since the 1980s, the American worker has been supplementing income with debt and paying interest.  The result is we are working harder for less, which begs the question:   Why bother?

Socrates says, the greatest knowledge is to “know yourself”.  In defiance of Karate Kid, I think what Socrates meant was: Don’t pretend to be something that you are not.  A corollary would be Don’t give a damn what others think of you.  Had the Karate Kid taken that advice, it would have saved him a hell of a lot of trouble.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd

Another random posting that brought all this to mind was an old Roger Miller song which has the opposite philosophy as Karate Kid

You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
but you can be happy if you’ve a mind to

In other words, you cant always do everything you want to do, but you can’t let obstacles stand in the way of your happiness.

One person that would agree with that would be Dan Gilbert.  This TED video has a lot to say about what really makes us happy.  Our brains are bad at predicting what will make us happy, and as a result we tend to make lousy choices. Things that we think will make us happy, turn out not to be so great.  Similarly, things that we dread, turn out not to be so bad.

Happiness is a state of mind that can be achieved independently of our circumstances. So regardless of how bad things get, we can choose to be happy if we put our mind to it.  Knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it.

Freedom is not a source of happiness

I took a psychology class where I learned about “cognitive dissonance”.  It is a state of trying to hold two conflicting ideas in your head.  One example is choosing between two good things, we will tend to regret our choice regardless of which way we choose.  Inevitably our choice won’t work out completely as expected, and we will want to go back and choose the other good choice.

Knowing that it is natural to regret our choices makes it easier to accept our choice and avoid regret.  Professor Barry Schwartz takes this idea further to conclude that choice itself can make us miserable.

So when life doesn’t go our way, and we find ourselves with limited opportunities, we are actually better off in the long run, even though it may not seem that way.

As the Rolling Stones say:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try, sometimes, you get what you need.

A final thought

I know what some of you are going to say, “What’s wrong with a little hard work to achieve a goal?”  The answer is: Nothing, if the hard work involved is something you actually enjoy doing.  Why the qualifying “if” statement? As we have learned above, getting what we want will not really make us happy.  Doing something you hate, to gain something you will eventually regret getting, is the exact opposite of happiness. Doing “hard work” you actually enjoy lessens the chances of regret, and gives you a much better sense of accomplishment, even if the rewards are not all that great.

That to me is the “comfort spot”: being true to yourself.

What Tech Will be Gone in the NEXT Decade

I saw an article last week on a list of things that have nearly disappeared over the last decade. The list consist of:  calling, newspaper classifieds, dial up internet, encyclopedias, CDs,  land line phones, film photography, yellow pages and address books, catalogs, fax machines, wires, hand written letters.  All of them are still around, they are just becoming archaic or obsolete.

I suspect that over the next decade, there will be other things that are common today that will become archaic and decline over time.

Broadcast Network Television – Rupert Murdoch who runs Fox is already trying to kill the Fox broadcast network and turn it into a cable/Satellite only network.  He also has plans to turn all of his news sites into subscription only, which is likely to fail miserably, but his plans for TV actually make financial sense.  If so, NBC, CBS, and ABC could follow suit, and Broadcast TV as a mainstream media outlet will be dead.  Now if AM Radio can survive for 100 years, so can Broadcast TV. It will just have a lot more infomercials and pointless talk shows (just like AM radio) to fill in the gap.

Satellite Television – You are probably wondering why I would predict the downfall of Satellite after predicting the end of broadcast.  It is quite easy: The future of TV is instant access.  This is doable on internet based TV services like Uverse and FiOS, and even possible with cable services via broadband internet if you have a receiver that can buffer the show as you download.  It is not doable on Satellite. This plus the huge overhead cost of Satellite TV services will spell doom for these services.  I’d even go as far as to predict that one of the two major satellite services (Direct TV or Dish Network) will  stop satellite operations and close, or jump to the IP TV market instead.

Multiplex Theaters – Multiplexes with their 24 small theater screens are likely to head to the scrap heap. Large theaters with big (or IMAX) screens capable of 3D and digital projection will replace them. The multiplex experience is too close to home theater, and with high costs of going out to the theater, it is likely to decline in popularity.

DVDs – Just as CDs started to disappear last decade, DVDs are likely to disappear this decade with widespread On Demand TV and game download services.  BluRay will never be more than a niche market as well. This will also include video games on DVD media. Not only will places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video start disappearing, but those Red Box dispensers will too eventually.

Printed Newspapers and Magazines – Between the Internet, and the Kindle, print is dead.  Online news papers will still exist, some may even thrive via online delivery options, but papers you read by spreading it out on the kitchen table will disappear.

Big Box Bookstores – Just as the giant chain record stores have disappeared with the demise of the CD, the giant chain bookstores will disappear with the demise of print.  Small specialty shops will still be around (rare book stores and comic book stores), as will book departments in department stores. But as more people convert to tablets, like Kindle and the Nook, and access to online libraries to go in them, the market for printed books will be dead.

Libraries – Between budget cuts and new technology, libraries will get rarer and rarer. All the major cities and universities will still keep them around, but with the primary use of the libraries being free internet sources these days, providing free “hot spots” around town is cheaper and can promote commerce in those designated areas.

Gas powered vehicles – Over the next decade, oil production is going to be level or in decline. We are going to be forced to find ways to use less oil, or live in a new Great Depression. Considering the sheer number of gas powered vehicles there are, it seems quite bold to predict their demise, but I foresee natural gas powered hybrids, plug in hybrids and pure electric vehicles (including electric bicycles) dominating the road within a decade… either that or $20 a gallon gas.

Incadescent bulbs – CFLs and LEDs for the win! This one’s a no brainer.

Hard Drives – The one weak point in computers today are the hard drives. They are physical devices with high RPM spin that are almost guaranteed to fail within 5 years. Average life span is around 3. The thing that has kept them around for so long is that solid state drives are still slower, hold less data, and more expensive.  I believe hard drives are at their peak right now.  There is little need for faster or bigger hard drives than what we have now.  If solid state drives can catch up to where hard drives are today, and that is a very likely scenario in the next decade, hard drives will become obsolete.

Desktop computers – You know those big boxes with 2 or 3 DVD burners and 2 or 3 big Sata drives powered by 500 watt power supplies sitting under your desk like the one I am using right now? Archaic dinosaurs by the end of the next decade! I think the 10s will see the end of Moore’s law of bigger and faster, replaced by smaller and more energy efficient. The big desktop computer under my desk is likely to be the size of my ipod touch in 10 years powered by a 30 watt power adapter — and just as powerful.  Its tempting to just predict everyone will use laptops, as that trend is already coming to pass, but the primary attraction of desktops is gaming, which is doable on laptops but it is awkward.  The primary components to the desktop is the full size monitor and the full size keyboard.  Monitors won’t be shrinking in size any, and LED backlighting, touch screens, and 3D capabilities will become more common place.  This pretty much guarantees there will be a place for non-mobile computing, it is the CPU part of the computer that will be getting smaller and more energy efficient.  It may even get small enough to carry around with you to move to different keyboard/monitor “terminals”.

The key to the next decade is energy efficiency.  All signs point to energy being a major concern in the next 10 years.  The more energy efficient our tech, the less impact energy shortages will have, and the cheaper it will be to live.

Virtual World Philosophy: Escape From Reality

Online gaming is not my only interest. In the real world I have been lately interested in the phenomenon of “Peak Oil” and the eventual deleterious affects it will have on society in the near future. I don’t talk about it much on this site/blog, because the focus here is on online entertainment in general and 3D virtual worlds in particular. If you want a good breakdown on peak oil, there is this site.

My interest in this essay though is speculation about what will happen to online virtual world gaming in the event of a global economic depression which a peak oil generated energy crisis is very likely to cause. I am making an assumption that an energy crisis will have little effect on server farm maintenance or internet infrastructure, since the energy crisis’s biggest effect will be on transportation and real world mobility, and virtual world infrastructure is largely stationary.

Lets start at the beginning with the popular speculative fiction novel that started the whole metaverse craze to begin with: Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. In this book, the United States has essentially collapsed and taken over by corporations. Most of the population is dirt poor and living in squalor, the main character (conveniently named Hiro Protagonist) lives in a storage locker. Parallel to this horrible real world is a virtual world paradise called The Metaverse, where Hiro has a modest mansion in an exclusive neighborhood of hackers near the busiest section of the grid.

Snow Crash is fiction of course, but it leads to an interesting question: How well can virtual getaways help us deal with real world stress? People have been using television, video games, etc. to relieve stress for years. Online gaming and virtual worlds are new to the equation, but those players involved find online gaming more immersive, and as a consequence more stress relieving than more passive entertainment.

We already know the consequences of too much TV or too much video games, so its important to keep all of this in proper balance. Online gaming worlds are still mostly just diversion entertainment and can be overused at the expense of ones real life.

But lets get back to the future real life bad times. A real world energy crisis will have a negative effect on everyone. Conservation will be the key: Smaller, more energy efficient housing, less long distance travel, living closer to work and shopping centers, mass transit, etc. The real world “lifestyle” will be on the decline for all, and if that does not cause a lot of real world stress, it will at the very least cause a lot of real world disappointment.

Can virtual success in online gaming relieve the real world disappointment enough to keep us sane? I’m not the only one who thinks about this sometimes. Here is a few choice quotes from the “Metaverse Roadmap Overview

The virtual worlds scenario imagines broad future participation in virtual space commons. Many new forms of association will emerge that are presently cost-prohibitive in physical space, and VWs may outcompete physical space for many traditional social, economic, and political functions. In the 20 year scenario, they may become primary tools (with video and text secondary) for learning many aspects of history, for acquiring new skills, for job assessment, and for many of our most cost-effective and productive forms of collaboration.

In the stronger version of this scenario, VWs capture most, if not all, current forms of digital interaction, from entertainment to work to education to shopping to dating, even email and operating systems, though the 3D aspects may remain minimally used in the latter contexts. Youth raised in such conditions might live increasingly Spartan lives in the physical world, and rich, exotic lives in virtual space—lives they perceive as more empowering, creative and “real” than their physical existence, in the ways that count most.

New identities, new social experiences.

Aided by VW interoperability, an individual may easily access a far broader set of experiences in digital settings than she or he could in the physical world, as well as a vastly larger social network. …

In a more limited version of the scenario, VWs become popular for a few social and professional interactions, and as an interface in certain social contexts, but end up filling a circumscribed role similar to that of present-day televisions, home game consoles, or personal computers. Much of what people do today in the physical world continues with little input from virtual worlds. This limited scenario came primarily from non-technologists, who thought cultural conservatism and economic barriers would be major roadblocks to the stronger vision.

Experience ha taught me that the “stronger” version is far more likely, especially when you expand the virtual world definition to include MMORPGs. Social virtual worlds are not for everybody, as witnessed by the 10% retention rate in Second Life, but “rich exotic lives in virtual space” applies just as much to a level 80 druid in WoW as it does to a mansion owner in Second Life.

One of my first blog entries on this board was about the advent of the “Virtual Third Place“. A small but growing crowd is substituting online destinations for social gatherings instead of traditional neighborhood pubs, clubs, and coffee houses. Business executives are going on WoW raids together rather than golfing together.

Not only are people seeing it as more enjoyable, they are recognizing it is also more economical, especially as gas prices rise.

As travel costs go up, virtual meetings, even whole virtual work places are going to be more and more common. All of this predicted in Snow Crash way before it became a reality.

Welcome to the new reality, with many parts virtual.

Virtual World Philosophy: The Uncanny Valley

Most popular online worlds

So lately I have been having fun with Windlight, and focusing on how real Second Life is looking lately, but have not bothered to ask, “Is this a good thing?”

Above is a montage of screenshots from some of the most popular online communities on the web. World of Warcraft = 10 million subscribers, IMVU = 20 million accounts, HabboHotel = 90 Million accounts, 8 million monthly active users, WeeWorld = 21 million accounts, Runescape = 5 million monthly active users, Club Penguin = 17 Million Accounts, 4 million monthly active users (sources GigaOM, KZero).

What do they all have in common? None are designed to look “real”. They all purposely have a cartoon look to them. According to a recent NWN blog, this is a significant fact:

There’s little evidence of mass demand for an intensely immersive 3D virtual world; instead, indications suggest the market shrinks in inverse proportion to increasing immersiveness.

There’s several worthwhile observations you can make. First, none of them feature next gen, top-of-the-line 3D graphics. (WoW is 3D, but developed with graphics that run fairly well on older computers; also, the visuals are not realistic.) Besides Warcraft, however, none of these top MMOs are 3D at all; rather, they’re 2.5D. And while one hopes that 2.5D-based MMOs will whet the market’s interest in a more immersive, graphically rich virtual world, the exact opposite seems to be the case. (The still-popular Habbo Hotel was launched in 2000, and the cartoonish graphics are basically the same.)

Only after you drop down several million users do you start to see MMOs and virtual worlds incorporating next gen graphics that require high-end 3D cards for optimal viewing– Lord of the Rings Online at about one million subscribers, Age of Conan at about 750,000 subscribers… and Second Life at some 550,000 monthly active users.

Why is this happening? Here we enter the realm of speculation, but it seems that most people experience sensory overload with too much immersion; instead of being drawn into the intensity of the simulation, they’re repelled by it.

Before going into some of my objections to this idea, let me point out some other evidence to support it. Take for example the world of 3D animated films which I have written about. The most realistic looking 3D animated films have been Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, The Polar Express, Advent Children, and Beowulf. Not one of these have managed any real success at the box office, at least compared to the more cartoonish fare such as The Incredibles, the Shrek films, or Ratatouille. The more realistic films have an unfortunate creepiness to them that makes them seem weird and turns people off.

There is a theory in robotics about this effect called “The Uncanny Valley“. From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that when robots and other facsimiles of humans look and act almost, but not entirely, like actual humans, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s lifelikeness.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

One then has to wonder if it is possible for there to be a natural detraction to video games whose graphics are too real looking, and is this why Second Life may never reach Habbo Hotel like numbers?

I believe it is possible for games to become too real, but I am definitely not convinced Second Life comes close to that mark. I am also not convinced it is the reason it is less popular than the above named games.

Maybe some Playstation 3 games are getting too real looking. Maybe that is why the Wii is more popular? No, lets face it the real reason Wii is more popular is the innovative controllers.

World of Warcraft is cartoonish compared to more realistic Guild Wars, but it is more popular due to better marketing, the Blizzard name, and WoW has more immersive gameplay. There is more cartoonish compared to Second Life, and yet Second Life is the bigger of the two, for similar reasons.

The most popular online games are not popular because they are less realistic, they are popular because they have been around longer, or are marketed to kids (a huge market for the 2D worlds), or they are free or very inexpensive to play.

Take a look at the best selling stuff in There, IMVU, and SL: the more realistic stuff consistently sells better, because it looks better. QED

The ultimate point is this: Realism is not an important goal in a sucessful virtual world, or any computer game for that matter. Players appreciate realism up to a point, but if the realism comes at the expense of some players with older or less powerful computers, its not worth it.