Hazel Bradshaw, part of Te Papa digital’s team, looks at how science fiction master Neal Stephenson’s work is informing ideas at Te Papa.
Last week American author, Chief Futurist of Magic Leap, and game designer Neal Stephenson made a flying visit to Te Papa as part of Techweek.
Some of you will know immediately know who he is and react as I did, with awe. I was lucky enough, as a member of the Te Papa digital team, to briefly meet Neal and show him some of the new technology we are developing for our visitors.
In this instance it was tangible touch-table technology, linking physical objects with digital content through large touch screens.
Blurring the line between reality and ‘reality’
So why is his writing relevant to what we do at Te Papa?
Stephenson’s work falls into a category known as cyberpunk. It explores the impact that technology and digital may have on shaping our future societies. His work is neither light nor fluffy, but it carries an ironic humour and is comparable to the dystopian world views of Aldous Huxley.
Stephenson’s breakthrough novel Snow Crash (1992) described a world of the metaverse where humans roam an infinite digital space. This work explored the novel idea of computer viruses and whether they could leap the digital divide to crash our conscious minds.
This concept had a huge impact in 1992 as the internet was becoming more commonplace. However, it was Snow Crash’s use of the term ‘avatar’ that popularised the word into general use. We now use ‘avatar’ to describe any representation of our human-self in a virtual world, and it’s a term no gamer or game designer can live without.
Not just the stuff of science fiction
Similarly, later works such as The Diamond Age (1995) explored how the integration of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and centralised versus peer-to-peer digital-distribution channels could impact on society – all seen through the eyes of female protagonist Nell.
As a woman as well as a technologist, it was refreshing to read about new technological concepts from a female perspective for a change, making me feel that technology was a world that I could inhabit.
Cryptonomicon (1999) introduced me to the concepts of crypto-currencies and cyber-security by connecting the historical work of WWII code breakers with present day issues of how we stay secure when online, while keeping the data flowing.
For me, both these novels provided an introduction to the brilliance of Alan Turing and his contributions to the field of computer science.
However, it is one of Stephenson’s more recent works, Reamde (2011), which addresses the very hot topic of a ransomware virus infecting online multi-player game worlds and how impactful this can be for the both the prepared and the unprepared.
It’s a fiction that has now played out in real life, with this weekend’s outbreak of the WannaCry virus, which has been exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft’s Windows security, encrypting the data of corporations and holding it to ransom for payment through the crypto-currency bitcoin.
How Stephenson’s ideas inspire Te Papa
There are many, many more of Stephenson’s books that have explored and predicted the shape of technology to come in our lives. Stephenson is an influencer, impacting the real world through engaging works of fiction that interpret challenging technological concepts using the power of story.
As someone who works in the digital space within Te Papa, the perspectives of Neal Stephenson are present in my work and the digital strategies I apply.
Stephenson’s tech-informed fiction has allowed me to visualise the wonders and vulnerabilities of the connected digital space.
The works Snow Crash and Reamde influence my game design thinking as I try to create avatar-driven digital worlds that allow our visitors to explore the array of cultural and scientific data we have stored at Te Papa.
Fortunately, I have Neal Stephenson’s fictional signposts to guide my design frameworks so that I can create interconnected digital experiences that inspire wonder while keeping both Te Papa’s data and our visitors’ data secure.
So, if in the future you are visit us at Te Papa and try out our new tangible touch-table experiences, think about how a niche sci-fi author has helped us model fun and safe interactions for you.