Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
I had to explain the internet to someone once, not in terms of how it worked, but in terms of what it does when you start your browser. Which is, of course, nothing. You can’t even really browse it – there’s no grand index, no logical categories and no overview. It’s a derranged oracle that refuses to answer some of your most basic questions and overwhelms you with depth and insight on the most trivial ones, and the only way to tell between the two types is- actually, I haven’t found it yet. I thought at the time that this person’s expectations of the net were funny – to just start it up and have it come to them – but in fact that’s almost exactly how it works now.
I tend to jump on bandwagons as soon as Google starts driving them – search never made much sense to me with Alta Vista, Hotmail was – still is – a mockery of real e-mail, chat feels clunky and irritating in a separate application, and it wasn’t until I tried Google Reader that it clicked, and I suddenly saw the point of RSS feeds. And every one of these is now poured down my brain-gullet (eyes, I guess?) when I start my browser: they’re all part of Gmail. Communication – both realtime and turn-based – takes place entirely on that single page, the things I want to read are delivered to my pigeonhole, and anything else I need can be typed into that little white box.
The feed-reader integration is actually a hack, but it’s one made by a Google engineer who works on Reader, so it’s a fair functional facsimile of something they evidently want to do soon. Soon too, I’m sure, there’ll be a box underneath Labels there that tells me what I’ve got going on today and tomorrow according to Google Calendar, my next most-used site. And the Compose link won’t be restricted to writing e-mails, I’ll be using the full in-browser word processor Google Docs already provides, with revision histories, collaboration options and exporting to other formats. In other words, the dense, juicy Google particles of the internet universe have given it just enough total mass to suck it all back together into one time-dilating Big Crunch, rather than expanding endlessly and hopelessly from its explosive beginning. For people like me, at least.
The other big change since I was asked that question is piracy going mainstream. When a popular movie/TV/game pirating site Iso Hunt went down for a few weeks recently, the diverted traffic to the other main sites – the ones that sprung up from Suprnova’s grave – pushed three of them into Alexa’s hallowed list of the 200 most-visited sites on the planet. Publishing companies were disastrously, fatally slow to grab hold of these new thicker cables and plug them into their content-factories, and now a handful of geeks have beaten them to it just out of boredom, just for fun, just because it’s that easy.
With piracy as popular as it is, it’s starting to sound naive to claim that publishers could have prevented this by selling their stuff digitally sooner. And it’s probably true that a big chunk of pirates will just keep on piratin’ long after the stuff they’re downloading is available through legitimate channels for a small fee. But the step up from getting something for free to paying for it is far, far harder to take than the next step along the expensive high-road you’re already on, even once you spot a free one below. Put more simply, morals are easier to stick to than develop. If legitimate channels had been available before illegal but free ones became well known, the critical mass of the consumer populace would have stuck with the safe, successful method they’d already had so many positive experiences through. Virtually no-one goes from working for a living to mugging people by choice, but if mugging was the only way anyone had ever acquired money, you’d have a hell of a time persuading anyone to work. What’s the term for this? An asymmetrically resistant semi-permeable social barrier? Okay, well, it should be.
The point, which I’m only just now discovering I had, is that the pirates have won so hard that this age in which every non-physical thing is free to anyone with broadband and weak moral fibre might be here for a long, long time to come. And the end to it might not come in the form of a poorly-engineered official equivalent that costs infinitely more.
We’ve been in the Information Age for thirty years now, and I’m starting to feel like it has more in common with the Iron Age than the Industrial one. We think we’ve intentionally developed a more advanced kind of machine, and we have, but the really significant thing is that through it, we’ve discovered a new raw material. What we do with that will determine what the next age gets called. Metals were originally used for weapons – killing things – then eventually we turned them into machines that produced stuff; industry. Data has so far been primarily used for communication – shouting louder to each other – but I’m sure we’re going to find something far less primitve, far more complex and far more powerful to do with it in my lifetime.
The_B: As off topic as it is... should I mention Christmas logo is still up for the comment pages?
Actually in honesty, this was a post which was interesting and made me feel compelled to respond, the only problem is I couldn't think what to actually respond with. So err.. yeah - I agree with your points.
Graham: I think communication is pretty complex and powerful as it is, and I think communication tends to lead to powerful, world-changing consequences. But that wasn't really your point.
What are the bets those HTML tags didn't work? Or this.
What else might we do with data? The future is definitely about finding new ways to use the information available to us. We once had a paucity of it, and it was hard to find. Now we have an abundance and it seems like jobs of the future will mostly involve interpreting it. The future of journalism, for example, is apparently not discovering information, but rather putting the information we already have together in interesting ways. Things like SETI, which devote spare processor cycles to crunching data, also seem like the tip of the iceberg. We need vast, sentient supercomputers that can take all the data we have and use it to shape the future. I'm sure if you had something sufficiently advanced at recognising patterns and connections, you could cure cancer. Or at least build a really great repository for porn.
Is communication primitive?
Graham: I thought I was going to sound rambling and stupid, but you take away the linke breaks and, damn, I'm so totally rambling and stupid.
Jason L: As a cynic it pains me to admit it, but I've gone through that barrier. Piracy's been available to me since my early teens - I downloaded 600MB AVIs on a 28.8 connection, yes. I assumed that I would continue so forever and humanity was doomed...and then I got a little disposable income, and darned if most of it doesn't go to content providers - CDs, DVDs (most secondhand, but not all), videogames. It's quite literally not worth my time anymore to hunt/filter/queue something I can buy cheaply and I actively like paying creators. The funny thing is that it's not just little guys like Introversion, JoCo, Sluggy or Joss Whedon - I surprised myself a couple of weeks ago by picking up Battlefield 2142 after a three-month PC drought, when the community modders unlocked its basic functionality. My new embarrassing theory is that our demographic, to whom free digital content has always been ubiquitous, are *more* aware of and responsive to its worth than any previous group.
Rob: I'm not sure entirely what side you come down on, though with all your references to shows like Dexter and Heroes and Lost and so on, you're clearly in the digital majority who *do* download stuff. Are you about to castigate yourself and everyone else in the same (pirate) boat?
The point that often gets lost is that you *should* be able to download films and music for free - legally (and/or if you want, you can see them in the cinema/hear it in concert or buy them on DVD/buy a CD).
But because the word 'industry' so easily seems to suffix both of those media, this will never ever happen in the mainstream, since the internet is apparently not meant to be used a social tool to share art. Which is bollocks.
Tom Francis: I was hoping that by offhandedly referring to communication as primitive and crude without justifying it, I could set the reader's mind a-buzzin' with the idea of something so powerful and complex that it would be, by comparison. That may have been ambitious.
I don't know what more we might do with data, which is perhaps not surprising - if I did, I'd do it and usher in a new era of human civilization, and I don't like to do that on a Wednesday. But I'd like to think we're being closed-minded in patting ourselves on the back about our worldwide communications network. Metal made weapons much more elegant and powerful when people were mostly warriors, and they probably assumed that was all it would ever be good for. The revolution it facilitated was in a completely different direction, and involved an application far more complex than they could have envisioned.
These days I think we're mostly chatterers, rather than warriors, and we're understandably impressed with the elegant and powerful new ways in which we can chatter. That certainly accelerates progress, as did making better weapons, but my feeling is that it's not the most world-changing or interesting thing we'll ever do with our newfound ability to manipulate huge quantities of data quickly. In fact, maybe better weapons will be.
What HTML tags did you use? I only saw linebreaks in the source, so I added br tags. It may be that my Text Control plugin has started behaving differently since I upgraded WordPress recently.
Jason: that's an interesting attitude. Was the main drawback of piracy for you the idea that money wasn't getting to the creators? My theory assumes that for most people the main negative side is the perceived risk of legal repercussions, or more generally an unwillingness to get involved in anything illegal. More people would claim moral objections, of course, but you do find a lot of people refer to fundamentally practical concerns as moral ones when the behaviour they encourage is the same.
The reason my theory hinges on that is that if they're already doing it, and getting away with it, fear of repercussions diminishes. Whereas if they're already doing it, but are morally uneasy about it, the impetus to switch to legitimate methods wouldn't fade so quickly, and more people might be ready to switch to them when they become available.
Is Joss Whedon little?
Rob: Do you say you *should* be able to because you like the idea, or because it'd be good for the people who create it? Artists who are willing to do it can already put their stuff out for free online via loads of channels, and many do, so what's wrong with the current system? Obviously that most of the best guys have chosen to demand money in exchange for their work, but should they not even be allowed that option?
I have no morals, and I'm not going to castigate anyone. I'm only interested in the uniqueness of the current art-exchange climate, how it happened and how long it might last. It'll either go down in history as the digital equivalent of the sixties, a brief window during which everything seemed free, or the beginning of a new world order that defines the future of art and culture from here on out. Either way, exciting!
Jason L: I'm technologically knowledgeable enough to use safe or safeish networks, so getting caught isn't a big concern. There were two pretty equal drawbacks - first, the money thing, which only applies to stuff I've tried and like or know that I'll like. I often buy stuff which I've downloaded and on a few occasions I've literally purchased a cheap used copy of a piece, then watched it and bought it "for real" so my dollars would vote for me. Second, convenience, which applies to everything. Downloading takes time and attention - on P2P you have to download some fraction and check it to make sure it's not a renamed Michael Bay movie, on torrents there's always the chance that it'll die out at 97%...and you get to restart your five different interfaces every time you want to do something else on your machine or someone else on the network plays an online game. There's nothing insurmountable, but the alternative source is to take a nice little swing through my local GameStops on my weekly trip into town and pick up a few classics or a recent release for ten bucks or less apiece. I've got ten bucks. PS2 games are the most extreme case - I spent money on getting this modchip, but it turns out I can't even be bothered to download or rent/rip when I can just buy most games from a rental joint or the used bin for under ten dollars, or pick up the likes of SotC or Okami for forty with a Warm Fuzzy on release day.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still ripping off content all the time and you may well be right about "most people". All I'm saying is that I personally have moved through that membrane, and if you'd told the penniless teenage me that I'd someday pay money for content you'd have gotten nothing but laughter.
Joss Whedon's a really big little guy :) Know that I never got into Buffy so for me, Joss Whedon=Firefly, which only moved forward because of fan effort impressing the studio execs.
Jason L: Yeah, at minimum TextControl's now ignoring [p] tags. Ugh, what a mess.
Jason L: Ooh, it's as readable as what I wrote again! Thanks.
Rob: I like the idea because I think the internet can allow a free exchange of art and ideas like no period of history before it, and because clearly the internet fosters and rewards creativity far more than damaging it (eg, most recently YouTube, and anyone who has become famous by putting something online, or something like DeviantArt for getting art out there, discussing it and even turning a profit on prints if that's your thing). This is beneficial to those who make art (by which I mean 'art', music, film, tv, games, anything) and those who consume it. I know if I was seriously making any of these things, I would absolutely welcome people downloading my music or films, even if it was illegal. Many indepedant record labels like Constellation or Neurot turn a blind eye to P2P simply because in the end they are more concerned with getting their music out there, and with people enjoying music, than by profiteering. This is because art is not designed to make money, but the current system is broken because big business gets in the way of the artistic process and says that in order for it to be enjoyed it HAS to be paid for beforehand.
P2P gets a bad press, but it actually enables further purchasing. A friend recommended me Battlestar Galactica way back when, and I watched the entire miniseries that night, and then ordered the first season from America the next day. Without it being available illegally for download I wouldn't have ever seen it, and I wouldn't now be watching it some 50 episodes later (and having bought the second season too). And we all know how series like Firefly were assisted by internet support, saving them from complete death. P2P got the episodes out there and Fox actually MADE MONEY because of it.
Artists absolutely have a right to support themselves via their work, but there's no reason why they have to make millions. I'm not an anti-capatalist but I think it's always had a mixed relationship with art in modern times. Films for example wouldn't be where they are now without it, but then again, films are also worse off for much of its influence. The same with TV, but then TV studios current obsession with viewing figures and advertising revenue is causing them to drop amazing series which deserve an audience, and few TV studios are motivated towards making good TV at the risk of a loss (I guess HBO and BBC being two that are).
Anyway, I'm struggling to remember things that I've talked through a lot recently in the real world, so I'll leave it there!
Rob: Sorry I ruined that post by typing the wrong kind of brackets!
Tom Francis: I am the Fixinator! For reference [br] tags work (with pointy brackets), so I prescribe two of those per paragraph. I will try to fix this, but I will probably take a long time about it and ultimately fail. That's just the kind of guy the Fixinator is.
Graham: I usually use [br], and that hasn't been working for me.
Let's see if it is now.
Graham: Okay, [br] tags totally aren't working.
Tom Francis: Whoa.
Tom Francis: Okay, well I just fixed the problem forever really easily, so that now no tags are needed at all, it just parses new lines correctly.
The only problem is, it still parses [br]s, so now everything that was correctly formatted is now ultra-spacious. Because this comment thread wasn't long enough.
Jason L: Does it still parse [i]s and such?
I keep meaning to figure out getting the default Wordpress parser to put a linebreak at the beginning, but I'm not quite there yet. It seems to be making a call to a function that doesn't exist at the transition point.