It’s 2019 And Humanity’s In Danger. Meet Me There.

13 10 2008

Here’s what I’ve been doing for the past week: When I’m not working my day job or obsessing about the 2008 election, I’ve been hanging out in the year 2019, trying to figure out how to save humanity. The bad news is that things don’t look good. The good news is you can help.

I’m one of the “guides” for Superstruct, an online multiplayer game that simulates the world as it might look in ten years. The game only lasts for six weeks, but with five more weeks to go there’s still a chance for you to experience and reshape one of our possible futures.

Superstruct was developed under the auspices of the Institute For the Future, a nonprofit research group in Palo Alto with 40 years of forecasting experience. In this particular future we face five grave threats, each of which would be serious enough on its own. But the cumulative effect of all five could actually result in humanity’s extinction (See the fictional “GEAS” report, read this short explanation, or watch the video above.) The five threats are:

  • Quarantine: A massive respiratory epidemic, ReDS, has rendered parts of the world (including sections of the US) virtual ‘sick zones.’ Nobody knows how much worse it will get.
  • Ravenous: Breakdowns in the food distribution chain have caused widespread hunger, with shortages in Mexico, China, and the Middle East.
  • Outlaw Planet: “Griefers” (Internet vandals), hackers, and criminals have devastated the networks upon which we rely, like the Internet and early warning sensor systems for natural disasters. The results include hacked Congressional elections which have paralyzed the political process in the U.S., and false tsunami alarms in Asia that threaten to create mass panic.
  • Generation Exile: Natural disasters and other forces have led to massive human displacement, with waves of refugees flooding parts of the planet.
  • Power Struggle: As the world moves into the post-oil era, conflicts have broken out between differing alternative-energy sources as oil-producing countries descend into chaos..

This is, of course, just one of many possible futures. But if it sounds far-fetched, ask yourself: How implausible would today’s challenges have looked ten years ago? Count ’em up: Terrorists blowing up the World Trade Center. US-led torture programs and detention centers. A trillion-dollar war in the Middle East. Global warming. Tsunamis. The devastation of New Orleans. Super-hurricanes. A worldwide global financial crisis.

Shall I continue?

One of its two principal architects is Jamais Cascio, a futurist who co-founded, writes and speaks about long-range trends, and advises science-fiction shows – among other things. The other is Jane McGonigal, a pioneer in the use of gaming to address real-world and business issues. (She’s listed as Director of Game Research and Development, which has to be one of the most envied job titles ever.)

When I read about Superstruct in Jamais’ blog I put in for a guide position right away, for a couple of reasons: First, it sounded like fun. Secondly , I agree with thinkers like Jamais and Jane who believe that multiplayer games represent a new way to draw upon the intellectual and emotional (one could even say spiritual , in the non-religious sense) resources of large numbers of people. If humanity is to have a future, it will have to be one in which technology and sociology intersect to create new human networks. These new associations will need to respond quickly and creatively to crisis and change.

That’s where the “Superstruct” name come in. It’s short for “superstructures,” new and impromptu social alliances that players are encouraged to form in order to address the five threats. A superstructure is an informal alliance of groups that might not typically associate with one another.

What do “superstructures” look like? One player created “Terraformers” to convert abandoned human habitations (check the South Bronx for examples) into food production areas, presumably by employing people like farmers, squatters, community organizers. Another created “Nomadic Markup Language,” where artists, doctors, and civic leaders can join to develop a new graffiti language – a combination of warchalking and hobo signs – to give people vital information about the health and safety of neighborhoods and communities in the absence of reliable online information.

If collaboration is a key tool for success, then – to use a very 21st Century prefix – superstructures represent meta-collaboration.

I’m a guide for “Quarantine,” which fit with my own background in healthcare. But I find it impossible to resist participating in all the threats. And I’m not alone. After one week we already have more than 2,500 players, and the group creativity is coming fast and furious. One player predicts people will hack household devices to create things like homemade cardiac defibrillators. Another asks provocatively if he’ll “need to bring a gun” to this future, prompting heated debate about the use of defensive violence during a crisis. Still another envisions a crisis in eldercare, as older people live in virtual “lockdown.”

One technically advanced player has already created a Google Earth map showing the location of “ReDS Relief sites” throughout the world. Another forecasts a Detroit riven by ethnic violence as oil-based jobs end in the Middle East and displaced workers in-migrate to the inner city. Still another chronicles life in self-sustaining “Edgeville.”

Players have created their own wikis, including a “Whole Superstruct Catalog” based on Stewart Brand’s 60’s-era publication. They’re created “Superstruct Classified” ad pages and a “ReDSNet” distributed computer processing system. There are even mock web pages selling products like “RedS-Prot3ct,” a pressurized filtration system to keep airborne pathogens out of your home (although other players argue that won’t work.)

In the end, though, the game is all about the superstructures. In addition to “Terraformers” and “Nomadic Markup Language,” superstructures have been built around the Catholic Church, distributed computing to replace hacker-violated data systems, and an “ATM” for getting seeds to grow your own food. “ARK” is a global arts collective. Another superstructure is (virtually) building “agricologies,” self-sustaining buildings you never have to leave (based on current architectural thinking). There are urban food cooperatives and groups of scientists collaborating online in “open source” forums.

And we’v’e only been going for a week. That’s the power of groupthink and collective collaboration. And the more people that play, the better it gets. You can go here to join, and I hope you do. Who can play? Doctors. Performance artists. Classrooms. Engineers. Gamers. Politicians. Bloggers.

Writers. Students. Teachers. And so on, and so on, and so on … The next time you need a break from the campaign, why not join us in working on the challenges of the future? As one player wrote, “(it’s) my favorite vision of the future ever. Because I feel like I can actually be useful in this future.”

In the words of Jane McGonigal, “that’s the idea.”