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AnimFX15: Neal Stephenson

Noted author and futurist Neal Stephenson shared his thoughts on modern society, the near future and the potential of new media like virtual and augmented reality.  

Neal is an American author of science and historical fiction. He has authored or co-authored sixteen books including Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, The Baroque Cycle and, most recently, Seveneves.

He is also co-founder of Subutai Corporation, a company created by artists and tech entrepreneurs to produce coherent-world content spanning books and new media. He has worked as an inventor, advisor, and futurist for companies such as Blue Origin, Intellectual Ventures Laboratories, and currently Magic Leap, where he is employed as Chief Futurist. He lives in Seattle.

A futurist is someone who makes stuff up in a practical way. Science fiction people are also fantasy people. Games help extend the universe available beyond a story on rails going in the direction that an author chooses The gamer chooses the direction they want to go. The art and design of the game helps define the world in addition to the story.

Different platforms require different skillsets eg console games versus augmented reality. Gamers are early adopters and willing to take on new technologies which may not work properly yet. In future Neal sees gamers needing to increasingly use the skillsets of architects and interior designers.

It is weird to be a science writer these days because every day there are things happening that it would be impossible to make up. Who would have thought of 9/11? What if we are loaded up digitally in some sort of super computer in future? We would be a million times smarter than we are now. It could happen.

In entertainment, backers tend to put their money into safe propositions, such as superhero movies. It is hard to think futuristically or about new technologies – we get involved in what Neal referred to as “tractor lock”. There is, Stephenson reckons, a window for new technologies such as virtual reality and augmented reality in which to try things out, then everyone wants to make the same things.

Will augmented reality and virtual reality change the world? Looking at small screens is the signature theme of this decade. This will become dated within 10 years. It is anti-social to have someone else look at a screen while you are talking to them. Who knows what it will morph into. There will certainly be changes in etiquette but also changes in technology to work around this. It could be a new augmented reality system.

There are, Stephenson noted, always going to be unintended effects with technology. Who would have predicted the negativity and online abuse that occurs on social media platforms? Or gamergate.

Is this a natural extension of mob mentally that could become worse as we all get more connected?

Maybe, but Stephenson would rather be surprised (and hopefully delighted) by the future than predict it, which means exploring questions rather than prescribing answers.

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