|Peering through a glass darkly|
Raph Koster wrote a long and thoughtful post last February asking, Are Virtual Worlds Over? Although it was mostly an analysis of the current situation, the theme got me thinking about all of the year-end predictions about the future of virtual worlds. They come in two main genres: comedic parody and serious prognostication. I've written my share of both. Upon reflection, I've realized that the parodies are not only the most entertaining, but also the least fictional and most instructive.
Truth is, we have no freaking clue about what virtual worlds are going to morph into over the next year, little alone the next decade. One problem is that we tend lump them into a single, isolated analytical box as we try to imagine the future. But no one uses them in that way. For instance, even in a gated world like Second Life, the impact of social networks, extra-world instant messaging, media sharing, the blogosphere and pervasive networked connectivity is significant and indivisible.
Although it's possible to come up with definitions that isolate virtual worlds from other technologies, as Raph wrote, "A lot of the praxis around virtual worlds — and indeed, games in general — has been co-opted by social media." This convergence is only going to expand and accelerate as modalities such as augmented reality, mobile computing, new controllers (such as Kinect) and the 3D web bleed into each other. Although analysts and their critics will continue to slice and dice things into neat categories, it's more a reductionist intellectual exercise than a path to wisdom and holistic insight.
Another factor that makes serious prediction an oxymoron is that technology is moving so fast on so many converging fronts that viewing any particular instance in isolation is going to lead to bad conclusions. When we throw in all of the new technologies over the coming years that we can't anticipate, the probable accuracy of long-term predictions based upon our best analysis is in the ballpark of Psychic Network readings. At any time, maybe tomorrow, some new technology or business model might pop up and change the game.
On the other hand, parodies use the form of predictions to shed light on absurdities within the current situation. The best of them wake us up to aspects of the environment that go unnoticed within our fish-in-the-water mentality. They challenge our habitual way of looking at the virtual world, not by logical argument, but through satori.
The problem with serious prediction is mostly in the inherent pretense. Thinking about the future is great fun and can stimulate interesting conversation and lead to insights into our current situation. It can also spark ideas that move us to take action that actually shapes the future. Sometimes even for the better. But predictive pronouncements put blinders on our eyes rather than opening them to greater insight. Because they work to reify the mental models of the future into concrete beliefs.