Road to Dystopia

VR is already here. Not in the way we thought it would. It has not suddenly taken over the world at once, creating a fully-featured Ready Player One reality. However, its rollout shares the playbook with other technologies such as AI — and there is a ton we can learn from them.

William Gibson is credited with pioneering the science fiction subgenera, known as cyberpunk. He is also who coined one of the most descriptive quotes about our modern social dynamics.

The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.

—— William Gibson

It only takes a curious mind and paying enough attention to the right spots to see where the arrow of time is pointing at.

Last week, I am convinced, I got a first-row seat to experience where our society is heading to.

As Jimmy and I discussed in both the fourteenth, but especially, fifteenth episodes of Radio Lanza — I got the chance to try, for a few days, a Tacx trainer hooked up with Zwift, the online riding community platform.

I won’t go into much detail here about the trainer experience — check out the episodes for a “fully-featured” review. This post focuses on the steady deployment of VR environments across society. Yet I would say that if you haven’t seen Zwift’s user interface, and you care about digital products, you won’t remain indifferent. Download the app and check it out for yourself. It is worth it. The “cartoonish” approach to its components makes it feel strangely unique. Out of touch (in a good way) from the rather stark, humorless design patterns that nowadays prevail in the software industry.

A few minutes in riding the bike, I had this insight into how VR would be rolled out across society. When I ask colleagues about how they believe VR will come along, we often depict this scenario where, out of the blue, we are suddenly hooked in a virtual world ala Ready Player One. I don’t think that would be the case. Once more, our impulse to respond with a simplistic cause and effect answer to a complex, multivariate problem.

If you still want simple, though, let me rephrase it for you: it would look more like, as Hemingway would put it…

Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.

—— Ernest Hemingway

In other words, our way into VR would make one think of how Craigslist went “out of business relevance”. Smaller ventures took on it by peeling off single verticals out of its core. One by one: finding an apartment, renting a car, second-hand marketplaces. Delivering a way better experience in each of them.

VR might evolve in a similar fashion. How far are we from replicating an entire society inside a VR world? I’d say far enough. But how far are we from creating a riding experience for cycling nerds that could be even feature-richer (more comfortable, and safer) than reality itself? I’d say it is pretty much here.

I’m not suggesting that riding with Zwift is a better approach than hitting the road — this is up to personal taste. This topic transcends “the good or the bad”. What I’m saying is that we are becoming remarkable at creating superb software environments.

As of today, we are already erecting entire software worlds with its limits bound on human imagination. This is a powerful idea. We are not only able to mimic, but to “enhance” reality through this amazing sauce we call software.

Technologically, we are not yet at the point where we can take on the entire reality at once. However, we are certainly capable of trimming parts of this reality and deliver our interpretation of it. The same pattern we’ve already seen with AI. We all believed that AI would come to take all jobs, destroy humanity. Maybe it does in the long run. But as of today, it is being deployed industry by industry. One single task at a time.

Along these lines, this is not a dystopian AI, VR, future I’m making up. This reality is already here and people are going there. Entire events that used to take place in our reality are happening in collateral worlds because our attention and time are moving there.

Going back to Zwift, we’ve created a fully-featured virtual world for cyclists to join and ride along with their friends. An immersive experience that looks nothing like a road. Other verticals will inevitably start to follow.

We are on the verge of turning this worrisome point where setting up entire new realities is becoming cheaper than “fixing” the one we already have.

This is not a judgment call. It is just a plain, objective view of our current technological landscape. What it is indeed suggesting is that as technology allows for it, more and better experiences will be delivered. It is sure to happen. Not just for cycling, but for any singular activity where we can summon a community around it.

Gradually, but next thing we’ll know, suddenly.

First published on November 30, 2019