Web3 – learning from science fiction

You cannot call yourself a futurist if you aren’t also a student of other great futurists. The best of them, in my opinion, are science fiction writers.

credistick1

A credstick is a small pen-like device which can be inserted into various machines to transfer funds, much like a credit card. In 2070, credsticks are a primary method of transferring funds with no paper trail.

Shadowrun Wiki

Shadowrun is a video game franchise that dates back to 1989. An original science fiction IP set in 2050 and beyond.

Credisticks are used as the primary economic tool in the game, storing and tranferring digital currency. There are certified (tradeable) and non-certified (personal use) credsticks. There are grades which reflect the maximum credit level. There is detail about how they are used in a spectrum of cases and transaction types.2

The way these devices fit into the world, the purpose the serve economically, and the manner in which they influence behaviour, is fascinating. It’s a fleshed-out, believable and practical vision for what money might look like in the future.

myopia

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to people in the financial technology industry (former bankers, consultants, cryptocurrency enthusiasts) talk about their vision for the future of money. It’s not usually quite as thought-provoking, or perhaps even as realistic, as the alternatives presented in fictional worlds like Shadowrun.

Their vision tends to be constrained by the idea that today’s conditions (financial regulation, technical limitations, human preferences) will persist. Or that today’s agendas (promoting blockchain, disintermediation, globalism) will be tomorrow’s.

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.

Bill Gates

Sometimes you need to wipe the board clean and reimagine these systems and structures from scratch, to see what the future may hold. Change your context entirely.

Start from somewhere else, with a different perspective.

This is where science fiction comes in.

metaverse

It isn’t obvious if you look around at the moment, but the important conceptual work on what a metaverse might be, and how it may function, has been quietly going on for more than fifty years.

If you read Tad William’s Otherland series, first published in 1996, you are likely to find the ideas profound, if not prophetic. Particularly on the cultural, social and personal influence of virtual worlds.

The technology involved in Tad’s vision may seem a bit far-fetched, but ultimately that doesn’t really matter.

In the end, if [science fiction] is any good, it’s never about the machine. It’s always about the human relationship with it.

Simon Ings

What matters is the people. What does their life look like? What’s the cost of this future to them personally, and to society, in contrast with our here-and-now?

That focus on the human consequence over the specifics of the technology is precisely why there is so much we can learn from science fiction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blockchain or a computer powered by ants3, what matters is the impact on people.

Good science fiction is an incredibly powerful tool for making bets on what the future could look like4, by allowing you to step into the mind of a person whose day-job is to focus their creative energies on exactly that question. Free of agendas and preconceptions.

perspective

It was of great interest to me when the Web3 and metaverse enthusiasm started to spin up. It’s a topic with mind-bending potential, and likely represents the next great technological leap we will take. Fertile ground for science fiction.

Looking around at how people in adjacent industries were conceiving this new virtual world potential, two things became clear:

  1. There is very little familiarity with the history of the games industry. MUDs, MMOs, virtual worlds, etc. People are taking fairly routine ideas and presenting them as ‘the next big thing’.
  2. There is even less familiarity with what has been written about these ideas before. Virtual worlds, “metaverses”, have starred in science fiction IPs since around 1964.

Both of these points are frustrating.

The first represents the reality of the technology behind virtual worlds today, and our capability in the near future.5 It also covers the history, and the most sophsticated examples of online communities. Most of the great case-studies, and much of the learning about human behaviour online.

The second represents the potential, and the consequences. The fully thought-through visions for what a virtual world might look like, how people might interact with it, the dangers, the opportunities, the broader consequences for society… everything. How people are likely to respond, long term, to the emergence of a genuine metaverse.

conclusion

In my previous entry I talked about the need for Web3 to find product-market fit. 90% of that work is understanding the human component. The needs and the priorities.

The disregard of science fiction and the games industry feels like another example of Web3 enthusiasm bypassing the crucial human factors in the fervor for technological advance.

What better way to design the internet of the future, and everything it entails, than to use great works of science fiction to look back on the present?

Don’t forget that humans are at the centre of it. Not technology.

  1. If you’ve been wondering about the name of this blog, this is the connection – at the intersection of fintech, web3 and science fiction. []
  2. There is even a comical difference, in this fictional world, between US credisticks and the European implementation, the Europäisches Bargeldloses Zahlungsmittel. []
  3. I’ll give Sir Terry a nod wherever I can []
  4. I have a long-term investment thesis which is basically ‘which of these companies would thrive in Otherland‘s vision of the 2080s’, which boils down to Starbucks, Apple, Nike and Disney. []
  5. Whether or not it exists on a blockchain is irrelevant, and any immersive, 3D virtual world certainly wont. []

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