Bruce Sterling Is Wrong About Augmented Reality

Bruce Sterling is wrong about Augmented Reality.

First off, I want to express that I have the utmost respect for Bruce Sterling as both a writer and a visionary.  As a longtime fan of cyberpunk and science fiction in general, Bruce has been a part of the pantheon of authors I regularly visit.  And as a writer, I study his stories so I can improve my practice of the craft.  Just last week I was reading his story “Our Neural Chernobyl” in the teaching anthology Paragons and was blown away by his ability to tell a thrilling story devoid of characters and plot and subsisting entirely of theme.  Bruce is a true master of the craft of writing.

But on the subject of augmented reality being a subject of literary endeavours, I believe, and will attempt to prove in this article, that Bruce Sterling is wrong.

Last week, in an always entertaining interview from Tish Shute and Ori Inbar on UgoTrade, Bruce Sterling stated that: “I’m not sure it makes a lot of sense to write fiction nowadays “about AR,” because it’s no longer a fictional topic. It’s become like writing fiction “about cinema.” You can write good fiction about someone who works in cinema, but not fiction about cinema itself. AR is not sci-fi “Augmented Reality” any more, it’s become a real-world phenomenon, a new industry of real augmentation..

As I understand it, his basic argument is that because augmented reality is a real technology now and not just a fictional – though probable – idea, that it is not a worthy subject for writing fiction about.  And when we say “about,” we can probably assume that Bruce doesn’t just mean that AR cannot be a part of a story.  More so that the story cannot be an exploration of the idea of augmented reality, because the idea already exists as a tangible product that one purchases and uses and therefore there is nothing to explore when anyone can visit.

Or said another way, science fiction is about exploring the possibilities presented by technology in relation to the human condition.  If that possibility has become an actuality, then what is left to explore?

So there’s where I will begin my counter-argument.  With the assertion that augmented reality has become, excuse the redundancy, a reality.  What we’re seeing currently in the marketplace and even in the research domains are nascent attempts at creating the experience of augmented reality.

Often when we’re speaking of the true potentials of augmented reality, we’re using words like immersive and ubiquitous.  The artifices are data shades and eye-screens in the form of contacts.  The data stream is superfluous and overwhelming.  We have none of these things currently.

What we are seeing in the marketplace and in the research labs are gimmicks and toys and games.  We have many examples of AR that stir the imagination.  I, for one, have been promoting these applications of AR for many years now.  But is AR a technology that has truly changed the way we work and play and live our lives?   Not at all.  The yellow line in an NFL game is the most common way that AR has touched the masses.

And once a technology becomes reality, why should science fiction cease to care about it?  I speak not about technology as a prop or the furniture of the story (to use a term by George RR Martin), but to write about the story as it revolves around the technology, changing people’s lives by their use of it and thus showing the technology through the lens of human behavior.

I also believe that AR is still a relevant focus for science fiction because AR is not a simple tool, it is a whole new medium for the transfer and dissemination of information.

The nearest and probably most obvious comparison is virtual reality.  VR at its best was a destination and a substituite for the real world.  VR has always been a difficult sell to the masses and a narrow niche best populated by the niche groups that could take advantage of its morphology with the best example being the furries in Second Life.

AR differs from VR in the same way that the national highway system differs from a late-night Denny’s.  AR, as a new medium of information transfer, will change our daily lives, while VR was a place to escape from reality.

I’m not suggesting here, that Bruce was arguing that AR and VR are the same.  But I think illustrating the differences helps explain why AR is a new medium rather than just a new technology that will change people’s lives in varied and profound ways, so it cannot be dismissed as a topic for fiction just because I can swat invisible mosquitoes on my iPhone.  We’ve barely scratched the surface (or multi-touched it.)

The magic of humanity’s rise through the evolutionary brackets has been from its superior ability to communicate information.  The greatest of game changing technologies have always been the ones related to medium: spoken language, written language, printing press, radio, television, the Internet and now augmented reality.

The wonder of AR is that we’re taking these high powered computers we carry in our pockets and the gargantuan mountains of information stored on clouds and hard drives and attaching them to the moments and locations we need them.

As a fifteen year employee of Toyota, I can assure you the key ingredient to the Toyota Production System that has changed industries worldwide, is the ability to get the right information to the right people at the right time.  It all comes down to that.

And that’s a major reason why I believe that AR is still ripe as a topic for science fiction.  As a medium for information, it can be used as more than just a travelling on-the-spot wikipedia.  Augmented reality invites both the viewing, but the creation and collecting of new information.

AR is also paradoxically about the efficiency of human action in relation to usable data and the avoidance of reality in the form of pictures and graphics.  AR is more than just data to find the best routes to the local Starbucks.  It’s also seeing your local street corner as a property in a city wide game of Monopoly.

The best mediums, like television and the Internet, both instruct and destroy.  Information can be additive and in the same breath addictive.  If only Philip K. Dick were alive, he would have a lot to say about AR (and in some ways, he already has.)

Lastly, I say that AR can be a topic of science fiction as a writer–though I am no where near the stature of Bruce Sterling, nor have even the slightest twinkle of his legacy.  Instead, I offer my own experiences as proof and that I am interested in AR so much that I’ve written three books, have another three in the planning, and am producing an anthology this summer–all about AR.  I’m putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak.

And Bruce might respond that the ability to do something is not the same as that it should be done.

Which is a valid point.  How can one decide if AR is still worthy to be written about?  Is it based on awards?  Vernor Vinge won the Hugo for Rainbows End, the only book about AR that I’m aware of besides my own.  But that was four years ago in 2007.  Have any other books about AR even been written in that time?

A couple of years ago, I collected with Bruce’s help, the totality of writings about AR at the time.  I’m sure we missed some stories and books, but most of them used AR in only a tangential way–more of a neat toy or a furniture, rather than exploring how AR changed people’s lives.

Then should sales be the deciding factor on if AR should be written about?  If readers aren’t interested in purchasing it, then its time has come and gone.  But once again, we’re presented with too little data.  Even myself, at this time, have only one indie published book about the subject and too little sales data to mean anything.

And maybe that’s why it cannot be said that AR as a topic for science fiction has already played out.  We don’t know yet as there isn’t enough data.  As a logical thinker and a visionary, I think Bruce would respect that.  In fact, Bruce states in this article that: “any good futurist is a historian.”  We have so little history on AR as an impact to human life.

I also suggest that we shouldn’t be in a practice of talking about things that shouldn’t done (minus the obvious ethical and moral cases.)  Who’s to say that every nook and cranny of any science-fiction topic has been thoroughly explored? Even well-known cave systems have uncovered new sections long after the “experts” have marked it off the list.

So I say that augmented reality should be a topic for science fiction writing for years to come, and not just as an about, but also as a backdrop for other stories.  The medium is just too rich and varied to be ignored.

Last Note – I considered whether or not I should post this for a few days, deciding if I had written it for conflict’s sake, or if I truly had a constructive argument.  My conclusion, as you can obviously see, was to post.  Conflict for the sake of conflict is pointless and serves only the look-at-me type of blog poster sometimes found on the Internet today.  Constructive conflict that instructs the arguer and hopefully the reader, and maybe even convinces the counter-arguer to reconsider their point, is worth the conflict.  And since I felt I learned from writing this piece, in the end I should share it.  And besides, writing posts that no one reads, even if they are a constructive argument, is like arguing alone and in the dark.  Sure, you’re arguing, but in the end, you’re still alone and in the dark.

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