the alternate universe algorithm 05.07.2007, 8:52 AM
posted by eddie a. tejeda
"What if you could travel to parallel worlds: the same year, the same earth, only different dimensions...?"
That's the opening line to one of my favorite science fiction shows in the 90s called "Sliders." The premise of the show was simple: a group of lost travelers traverse through different dimensions where history has played itself out differently, and need to navigate through unfamiliar cultural norms, values and beliefs. What if the United States lost the American Revolutionary War? Penicillin was never discovered? or gender roles reversed?
An aspect of the show that I found interesting was in how our protagonists quickly adapted to subtly different worlds and developed a method for exploration: after their initial reconnaissance, they'd reconvene in a hotel room (when it existed) and assess their - often dire - situation.
The way they "browsed" these alternate worlds stuck with me when reading Mary's recent posts on new forms of fiction on the web:
Web reading tends towards entropy. You go looking for statistics on the Bornean rainforest and find yourself reading the blog of someone who collects orang utan coffee mugs. Anyone doing sustained research on the Web needs a well-developed ability to navigate countless digressions, and derive coherence from the sea of chatter.
Browsing takes us to unexpected places, but what about the starting point? Browsing does not begin arbitrarily. It usually begins in a trusted location, like a homepage or series of pages that you can easily refer back to or branch out from. But ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), like World Without Oil, which Ben wrote about recently, require you to go some obscure corner of the internet and engage with it as if it was trusted source. What if the alternate world existed everywhere you went, like in Sliders?
In college, a friend of mine mirrored whitehouse.gov and replaced key words and phrases with terms he thought were more fitting. For example, "congressmen" was replaced by "oil-men" and "dollars" with "petro-dollars." He had a clear idea of the world he wanted people to interact with (knowingly or not). The changes were subtle and website looked legitimate it and ultimately garnered lots of attention. Those who understood what was going on sent their praise and those who did not, sent confused and sometimes angry emails about their experience. A
(I believe he eventually he blocked the domain because he found it disconcerting that most traffic came from the military)
Although we'll need very sophisticated technology to apply more interesting filters across large portions of the internet, I think "Fiction Portals", engines that could alter the web slightly according to the "author" needs, could change the role of an author in an interesting way.
I want to play with the this idea of an author: Like a scientist, the author would need to understand how minor changes to society would manifest themselves across real content, tweaking words and ideas ever so slightly to produce a world that is that is vast, believable, and could be engaged from any direction, hopefully revealing some interesting truths about the real world.
So, after playing around with this idea for a bit, I threw together a very primitive prototype that alters the internet in a subtle way (maybe too subtle?) but I think hints at a form that could eventually allow us to Slide.
sebastian mary on May 8, 2007 6:51 AM:
Reminds me of the Greasemonkey script that adds 'in bed' to the end of CNN.com headlines... :)
Caroline on May 8, 2007 10:06 AM:
Have you looked at ShiftSpace? It doesn't seem like it's built to be as immersive as what you're describing, but it's headed in a similar direction.
future fragments on May 8, 2007 10:57 AM:
Reminds me of several applications that have been around ... there's the pornalizer, which converts your site into a porn page, and there's also the Ali G version of the same type of plugin.
The technology itself need not be too complicated though, depending on how far you want to take it. If you're going to do subtle changes to words (like in your example, changing "congressmen" to "oil-men"), a "Fiction Portal" could be similar in function to something like an "anonymizer" site that lets you surf the web with their site acting as a middle man, only in this instance the "anonymizer" is a "fictionalizer" and serves up the edited pages to the user.
(While writing this, I followed your example, and see you've done something very similar to this, so ignore me LOL).
Mushon on December 3, 2007 7:03 PM:
Just seeing this now...
My name is Mushon, I'm a part of the ShiftSpace team. ShiftSpace is perfect for that and upon consent of users can become totally integrated with your everyday browsing experience. We (the ShiftSpacers) have launched a new API so apps and experiences like you have in mind can be developed easily and enjoyed by a large group of users.
Concerning the immersion issue, the new API will allow users to choose to see modified (shifted) content automatically upon entering a site, so as long as the user wants it she can experience your alternate universe with continuous suspension of disbelief.
let me know what you think...