Technology addiction

I’ve seen a bunch of stories on Slashdot about addiction to video games, technology, gadgets, email, the web, and other electronic conveniences. Well, what is technology addiction exactly? When do you cross the line between user, enthusiast, and addict? Are you normal for looking up a number in the phone book instead of on Canada411? Are you an addict because you’d rather search Google than drive to the library? How long until adoption-in-progress transitions to full-fledged incorporation?

Video games are particularly easy for technology neophytes to identify with because they are an art form that mirrors reality. They are often the gateway to high-tech living because they help put a human face on the CPU. Is one an addict when they spend as much or more time in simulated worlds (“cyberspace”) as in the physical world (“meatspace”)? Does a Windows desktop have deeper roots in reality than a Pac Man maze?

Ever since playing Police Quest 1 in 4-colour CGA on my old 4.33mhz 8086 I’ve been fascinated with the concept of the simulation of reality. Whether it’s represented by a static series of screens as in Police Quest, a 3D city whose citizens displays dynamic behaviour as in Grand Theft Auto, or a world whose population and ecosystem are based on the actions of the player as in Civilization, computers have allowed us to represent our world in a variety of ways never before possible. Conversely, they have enabled us to perform real world tasks in unforeseen new dimensions.

There are distinct differences between the real world (“meatspace”) and simulated representations (“cyberspace”), of course. In video games we can choose not to save our progress. We can pause the game and come back with the virtual universe and its denizens none the wiser. We can even shut the thing right off, bringing about a sort of instantaneous virtual apocalypse. In the real world, however, we play for keeps. Principles such as entropy dictate that a broken glass is broken forever. For these reasons and more, the variability of cyberspace grants us unique advantages.

Despite their schism, the gap between cyberspace and meatspace is rapidly being bridged. Fax has enabled us to quickly send copies of documents over telephone wires. Graphical computer operating systems help us to multitask (multithread, technically) by making many projects instantly accessible in overlapping “windows”. Instant messages allow us to communicate person-to-person in one of these windows – we can hide the window and do something else quickly without the other participant even knowing. These new abilities could not be done without computers and technology, and our methodologies, and subsequently we ourselves, are evolving.

One of the biggest advancements in communications technology, and coincidentally (or not) one of the clearest examples of resulting human evolution, is the advancement from switched dedicated networks to packet-switched networks.

The public switched telephone network represents perhaps the most successful, most empowering, most reliable and simple-to-use revolutions of human interaction in the history of mankind. A person dials numbers on a telephone, a network is automatically arranged dedicating a solid link (part physical, part logical) with another telephone, and the remote device audibly signals the completion of the network. This link exists as long as both telephones are engaged, even if no one is speaking. This phenomenally powerful concept represents an old way of operating as a human being.

One might associate a switched network with the hunter – a reliable and direct means of ensuring one task is done by dedicating focus.

Packet-switched networks break data into chunks which are transmitted in any order, only to be rearranged at the other end. The link between ends is purely logical, as two consecutive packets may travel entirely different logical and geographical routes to deliver their payload. This concept is representative of multitasking, alt-tabbing, talking on cell phones while driving, telecommuting, picture-in-picture, and countless other ways of splitting our time as successful human beings rather than dedicating it.

One might equate the packet-switched network with the gatherer – a way of thinking where we set out to accomplish a specific goal by plucking useful tidbits from the world around us.

So whats’ the bottom line? We’re transitioning from “hunters” to “gatherers”? Our “male” civilization is “evolving” into a “female” one? “Whole” is becoming “broken”? “Reliability” is giving way to “multitasking”?

It’s interesting to see the rapid evolution of the Internet, like a culture in a Petri dish, contrasted with the slow evolution of the Earth. We live on a planet with legally defined territories that, unless by exception, are not crossed. Countries operate like cells that interoperate by swapping payloads via clouds through protective membranes. The Internet, however, is like a single city with a great mass transit system, a bus stop in every room of every house, and no fares. Goods are sometimes split and reassembled and are delivered in whatever way is most cost-effective.

The underlying principles and physics of these universes are so dissimilar that it seems impossible to meld them in any useful way. In some ways, it is indeed truly impossible. This presents a crux, a split, a fence, a choice. Do we straddle the fence or pick a side?

Entropy itself is challenged by cyberspace thanks to services like The Wayback Machine by In meatspace, something done is done in an instant and is forever condemned to the past. Not so in cyberspace. The Wayback Machine, for example, is an automatic archive service that takes snapshots of internet content and makes them available to the public for posterity. In cyberspace, a broken glass leaves behind not only shards, but an entire legacy of before and after, action, consequence, related occurrences, suggested causes, precedent, theories, instant replays, reverse angles, and more.

A moment in meatspace is over. A moment in cyberspace is catalogued.

An event in meatspace is unidirectional. An event in cyberspace is a temporal web.

Entropy in meatspace is the end. Entropy in cyberspace is a big bang.

Again I ask, where is the line drawn between dependence and acceptance? Embracing and abusing?

I suppose caterpillars look down (metaphorically) on butterflies. How can you possibly eat enough leaves when you spend so much time flying?

For more insight on these and other concepts, check out the World of Ends by Doc Searls and David Weinberger.


Free speech prevails

It appears that is slowly coming back online with all its content intact. It’s hinted that the site is no longer hosted in Malaysia. If the physical hosting of the content was the matter of legal contention, then it just goes to show the frivolty of governing the internet with geographical borders.

The very infrastructure of the internet as well as organizations like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers proves (in principle if not in practise) that unified governance is the way to go. On the internet, when laws are undermined by the laws of another country it is a simple task of relocating digital content to a new server. That’s why there’s a global epidemic of spam, phishing, and fraud.

On the flip side, should people be forced to abide by internet laws or restrictions that are in conflict with local laws? MP3 trading is legal in many countries. Blogging is illegal in others.

Water flows into the area with the lowest pressure. The only way to balance the flow is to equalize both sides. Every year the internet presents individual people with opportunities for unprecedented powers and freedoms. Will the future bring a united government serving the entire human race? A series of isolated federal intranets? Or will we retain our disjointed one?

Video Games

Mini reviews of 5 stylish games

Spectre VR by Velocity
Riding on the waves of the mid-90’s “Virtual Reality” craze, Spectre VR is a Battlezone clone on steroids and acid, allegedly, and in that order. Originally created for the Mac, that most stylish of platforms, this game maintained the polygonal simplicity of its predecessor (Spectre) while introducing graphical embellishments such as odd texture mapped obstacles and a gradient horizon.

Not only did Spectre VR introduce new concepts in interactive graphic design, but also in multiplayer gameplay. Expanding on the deathmatch and arena scenarios of the original game, Spectre VR made multiplay fashionable with innovative new game modes like collect the flags and guard the fort.

A crisp presentation and moody cyberpunk tone make Spectre VR a game to play with a glass of fine port, rather than a Jolt, in hand.


Tron 2.0 by Monolith Productions
The developers and designers at Monolith certainly had big shoes to fill when they took on the monumental task of creating a sequel to Disney’s Tron, the first movie ever to use 3D computer animation and arguably the most stylish movie of all time. They succeed with flying colours, however – no pun intended. The strategically hand-picked palettes and subtle bloom effect give credence that you are truly immersed in a world that subsists on electricity behind the code.

The inclusion of network permissions, a creative throwback to Doom’s maligned find-the-key errands, tactfully implements a stagnant cliche of game design in a way that truly makes sense in context. The suggestion of computer programs possessing human-like personalities is scrumptiously ironic when presented on a PC monitor. In fact, the whole “stuck in a computer” setting, though told so convincingly by cyberpunk authors like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, is afforded depth and dimension like never before on the PC platform.

Achingly beautiful but unfortunately difficult, Tron 2.0 is well worth a peek into your local game store’s bargain bin.


Rez by United Game Artists
Like a breeze from an air conditioner streaming into a crammed, sticky subway car, here is a game that tears off the shackles of conventional game design. Rez is just as revolutionary in its visuals as it is in gameplay.

Rez spangles every inch of the screen with wireframes and day-glo panels, all awash in seeping soft lights. Your avatar, varying bodily in complexity and humanity depending on your performance, throbs with every bass kick as you careen through this miasmic ballet. Levels are split into incremental stages, each introducing a new movement in the accompanying techno soundtrack. The Playstation 2 version, which I’ve unfortunately never experienced, was optionally bundled with the so-called “Trance Vibrator” – a device that jiggles frenetically to the beats, further synergizing the senses in this multifaceted symphony.

Both the PS2 and Dreamcast versions are rare finds nowadays, but can be found on eBay for a somewhat substantial investment.


Psychonauts by Doublefine Productions
If you spliced the DNA of Tim Burton, Pablo Picasso, M C Escher, and Salvador Dali, you would engineer a stumbling hominid creature closely resembling Psychonauts. This opus is the culmination of a decade of wacky design by producer Tim Schafer (of Day of the Tentacle and Full Throttle fame).

Psychonauts is the very epitome of the hideously adorable, the chaotically serene. After an uncommonly long yet enjoyable opening cinematic (a low res video of the in-game engine – my pet peeve!) the player is treated to the zen of the simulated universe – the privilege of simply standing in a lush, deciduous summer camp with an unearthly skew, complimented by a haunting acoustic guitar score that plucks the strings tied between your eyes and your heart as you drink it all in. I could speak volumes about my first glances of this game, but there’s so much more to see: a life-sized strategy boardgame, a neon velvet Elvis urban cityscape, a scene from the mind’s eye of a paranoid schizophrenic, an insane asylum wrenched from your most twisted nightmares… to name only a few of the surreal cyberscapes fleshed out in Psychonauts.

While the game is available and most popular on Xbox, do yourself a favour and purchase the PC edition. Such a feast for the senses calls for no less than high resolution graphics with as much antialiasing as your machine can muster.


Leisure Suit Larry 5 by Sierra On Line
This 4th installment, despite the name, in the Larry series, is a graphical departure from its brethren. A hint of the avant garde presentation is suggested by a debonair rendition of the recognizable theme song.

Larry 5 is a two-touch design – a touch of perversion (of form) and a touch of class. A slightly deformed Larry travels a slightly deformed America in search of the television hostess with the best broadcasting assets. Lush locales such as a Las Vegas casino, a New York computer-themed restaurant, and even the back room where Larry performs his duties as a humble(d) videotape rewinder are hand painted and absolutely brimming with artistic flare. Close-ups of the game’s very lookable lookers are framed by borders of speckled paint and jagged lines. Animations are fluid and over-proportioned, caricaturizing the already larger than life Mr. Laffer and his partner in grime, Passionate Patty.

This game is long out of print, but Sierra Entertainment is soon re-releasing compilations of its various bestselling adventure series.