Hi Keith, thanks for taking a couple of moments to talk with us about your story, “War 3.01.” First off, how did this story come to be?
In my day job I’m closely involved with uses of social media at my local university, looking at how we can make use of it, how to avoid abuses and so on. “War 3.01” (and the earlier related story, “likeMe,” which appeared in the international science journal Nature in 2010) came from that work. I wanted to extrapolate current social media and try to create a convincing snapshot of how it might change how we live in the not-too-distant future. I’m planning to write more stories in this setting, all of them short pieces, with the ultimate goal of producing a kind of mosaic view of this future scenario. Such a fragmented approach to storytelling and worldbuilding seems appropriate to me for a project like this.
We’re living in a time when computers, apps and interconnected social networks have become increasing involved in our everyday lives; how pervasive do you believe augmented reality will be?
It’s very hard to say, of course, but to take a parallel: Even ten years ago, just how pervasive did we think the internet would be? And now it’s in everything. I was at a huge food exhibition at the weekend, wandering around the stalls, going to demonstrations, talking to the producers. Everyone was giving out Twitter and Facebook information, I was scanning QR codes at the stalls, or if they didn’t have that, simply taking photos on my phone so I could Google their websites on the journey home. The internet is everywhere. Now imagine that kind of exhibition where your reality is overlaid with virtual feeds, and then remember that everyone’s out to get something so those feeds won’t just be augmenting your reality with what you want to know, but also with legitimate adverts, spammed ads (looking at a meat stall and . . . “Want some Viagra with that?”), marketers trying to friend you and hook you by any means they can use.
You pose a scenario of a war that’s won in seconds, where the winner succeeds by convincing everyone that they’ve won, rather than by force: How do you see military and political forces taking advantage of a networked population?
I see the traditional military and political establishment struggling to keep up, sometimes playing leapfrog but more usually falling at least one step behind. Right now we invest vast sums in cyber-defence and combat and who are we up against? Small, unfunded groups . . . radical digital-natives with passion and commitment. It’s these militants who could have the biggest impact: Just as one terrorist splinter-group with a black-market nuke could cause devastation, so too could the same group if they can recruit a few angry young hackers and virus-writers. It always costs far more to defend against this kind of thing than to perpetrate it, particularly when it’s established thinking versus can-do radicals.
How do you think that the past decade of international conflict has affected the rise of social media and how we interpret the news and each other?
They go hand in hand, don’t they? Terrorism is as much a media war as a physical one, as we saw with all the Osama tapes as they were drip-fed into the news networks. War and politics is all about winning over the people, and social media offers a powerful way to do this: when a message goes viral it can be fast, a meme that suddenly everyone recognises. But it’s a hard beast to tame: For all the marketers who talk about getting their message to go viral, the vast majority of memes that take off in this way are spontaneous and unpredictable, not engineered by the ‘professionals’ at all. One positive impact is that social media offers a mass of different news channels: it’s clearly played a key role in what’s happened in the Middle East over the last year, and it’s provided a vital alternative view of the Occupy movement recently, too.
Do you see a difference in attitudes between the US and the UK (in reference to the above question)?
Being based in the UK, that’s a hard one for me to answer, really. My gut instinct would be to say ‘no’, though. The way the Occupy movement has used social media seems to have been similar in both countries, for instance: when the conventional news channels appear to offer a very filtered, establishment view of events, social media allowed people on the ground to report and post videos and photographs offering an alternative view, and that happened everywhere. The big challenge for us is to filter and understand all the different versions: while the conventional news channels offer their own blinkered view, so too do the protestors, caught up in their passion and constrained by their own very selective experience of events.
You touch on immigration issues in “War 3.01”: Do you think the controversy fueled by nationalism is going to change as we live in an increasingly networked world?
I think we’ll be pulled in lots of directions. The internet and social media have had a huge impact in establishing a global perspective; no matter how much a country might try to control these media, it’s never going to work—the people will tweet. But at the same time we’re in the early part of a century that will see massive resource issues as fossil fuels dwindle and population growth and climate change put pressure on food production, fresh water supplies, disease control and more. These pressures are bound to trigger a lot of knee-jerk nationalism and territorialism. It’s hard to see how we’re going to avoid a whole host of large-scale conflicts in the years to come . . .
How important are popup blockers and personal security going to be in a augmented reality world?
We’re going to need ways to control how we interact with an augmented world or it will be unusable. The internet has spawned all kinds of scams, traps and irritants and we’ve developed ways to block them, or to filter them so that we only see the ones that might be useful, and this will be true as the augmented view spreads beyond the purely online. I don’t want to walk down the high street and have every shop spamming me with ads and special offers, but it’ll be really cool to have tools that tell me there’s a restaurant two streets away that’s just like the one I love back in my home town, or that the bookshop has a special deal on my favourite author. So yes, we’ll develop tools that will offer us those kinds of filters so that augmented reality works. And the spammers will find ways to circumvent the filters (“Special offer Viagra!!!!”) and we’ll have to upgrade our filters, and then . . .
Spread the word!