Over the past few years we’ve seen the rapid release of innovative consumer technologies that are all loosely related by their ability to scan 3D spaces, interact with 3D spaces or synthesize 3D spaces. These include the Kinect sensor, Leap Motion, Intel Perceptual Computing, Oculus Rift, Google Glass, Magic Leap and HoloLens. Additional related general technologies include projection mapping and 3D printing. Additional related tools include Unity 3D and the Unreal Engine.
Despite a clear family resemblance between all of these technologies, it has been difficult to clearly define what that relationship is. There has been a tendency to categorize all of them as simply being “bleeding edge”, “emerging” or “future”. The problem with these descriptors is that they are ultimately relative to the time at which a technology is released and are not particularly helpful in defining what holds these technologies together in a common gravitational pull.
I basically want to address this problem by engaging in a bit of word magic. Word magic is a sub-category of magical thinking and is based on a form of psychological manipulation. If you have ever gone out to Martin Fowler’s Bliki then you’ve seen the practice at work. One of the great difficulties of software development is anticipating the unknown: the unknown involved in requirements, the unknown related to timelines, and the unknown concerned with the correct tactics to accomplish tasks. In a field with a limited history and a tendency not to learn from other related fields, the fear of the unknown can utterly cripple projects.
Martin Fowler’s endless enumeration of “patterns” on his bliki takes this on directly by giving names to the unknown. If one reads his blog carefully, however, it quickly becomes clear that most, though not all, of these patterns are illusory: they are written at such an abstract level that they fail to provide any prescriptive advice on how to solve the problems they are intended to address. What they do provide, however, is a sense of relief that there is a “name” that can be used to plug up the hole opened up in time by the fear of the unknown. Solutions architects can return to their teams (or their managers) and pronounce proudly that they have found a pattern to solve the outstanding problem that is hanging over everyone – all that remains is to determine what each “name” actually means.
In this sense, the whole world of software architecture – which Glassdoor ranked as the 11th best job of 2015 -- is a modern priesthood devoted to prophetic interpretations of “design patterns”.
I similarly want to use word magic to define the sort of person that works with the sorts of technology I listed at the top of this article. I think I can even do it quite simply with familar imagery.
A holocoder is someone who works with technologies that are inspired by and/or anticipate the Star Trek Holodeck.
The part of the definition that states “inspired by and/or anticipate” may seem strange but it is actually quite essential. It is based on a specific temporal-cybernetic theory concerning the dissemination of ideas which I will attempt to describe but which is purely optional with respect to the definition.
But first: how can a theory be both essential and optional? This is an issue that Niels Bohr, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, tackled frequently. In the early 30’s Bohr was travelling through eastern Europe on a lecture tour. During part of the tour, a former student met him at his inn and noticed him nailing a horse shoe over the door of his room. “Professor Bohr”, he asked, “what are you doing?” Niels Bohr replied, “The Inn Keeper informed me that a horse shoe over the door will bring me luck.” The student was scandalized by this. “But Herr Professor,” the student objected, “surely as a physicist and intellectual such as yourself does not believe in these silly superstitions.” “Of course not,” Bohr answered. “But the Inn Keeper reassured me that the horse shoe will bring me luck whether I believe in it or not.”
Here is the optional theory of the Holodeck. Certain technologies, it seems to me, can have such an influence that they shape the way we think about the world. We have seen many examples of this in our past such as the printing press, the automobile, the personal computer and the cell phone. Furthermore we anticipate the advent of similar major technologies in our future. These technologies have what is called a “psychic resonance” and change the very metaphors we use to describe our world. To give a simple example, whereas we originally used mental metaphors to explain computers in terms of “memory”, “processing” and even “computing”, today we use computer metaphors to help explain how the brain works. The arrival of the personal computer caused a shift and a reversal in what semioticians call the relationship between the explanans and the explanandum.
Psychic impact is transmitted over carriers called “memes”. Memes are basically theoretical constructs that are phenomenally identical to what we call “ideas” but behave like viruses. Memes travel through air as speech and along light waves as images in order to spread themselves from host to host. Traditionally the psychic impact of a meme is measured by the meme’s density over a given space. Besides density, the psychic impact can also be measured based on the total volume of space it is able to infect. Finally, the effectiveness of a meme can also be measured based on its ability to spread into the future. For instance, works of literature and cultural artifacts such as religions and even famous sayings are examples of memes that have effectively infected the future despite a distance of thousands of years between the point of origin of the infection and the temporal location of the target.
While the natural habitat of bacteria like e coli is in the gastrointestinal tract, the natural habitat of memes is in the brain and this leads to a fascinating third form of mimetic transmission. At the level of microtubules in the brain where memes happen to live, we enter the Planck scale in which classical physics do not apply in the way that they do at the macro level. At this scale, effects like quantum entanglement create spooky behaviors such as quantum communication. While theoretically people still cannot communicate with each other in time since that level of semiotics is still governed by classical physics, there is an opening for mimetic viruses to actually be transmitted backwards in time as if they were entering a transporter in one brain and rematerialized in another brain in the past. This allows for a third manner of mimetic spread: in space, forward in time, and finally backwards in time.
As an aside, and as I said above, this is an _optional_ theory of psychic impact through time. A common and totally valid criticism is that it appeals to quantum mystery which tends to be misused to justify anything from ghosts to religious cults. The problem with appeals to “quantum mystery” is that this simply provides a name for a problem rather than prescribing actual ways to make predictions or anticipate behavior. In other words, like Martin Fowler’s bliki, it is word magic that provides interpretations of things but not actual solutions. Against such criticisms, however, it should be pointed out that I am explicitly engaged in an exercise in word magic, in which case using certain techniques of word magic – such as quantum mystery – is perfectly legitimate and even natural.
Through quantum entanglement acting on memes at the microtubule level, a technology from our possible future which resembles the Star Trek holodeck has such a large psychic impact that it resonates backwards in time until it reaches and inhabits the brains of the writers of a futuristic science fiction show in the late 80’s and is introduced into the show as the Holodeck. Through television transmissions, the holodeck meme is then broadcast to millions of teenagers who eventually enter the tech industry, become leaders in the tech industry, and eventually decide to implement various aspects of the holodeck by creating better and better 3D sensors, 3D simulation tools and 3D visualization technologies – both augmented and virtual. In other words, the Holodeck reaches backwards in time to inspire others in order to effectively give birth to itself, ex nihilo. Those that have been touched by the transmission are what I am calling holocoders.
Alternatively, this theory of where holocoders come from can be taken as a metaphor only. In this case, holocoders are not people being pulled toward a common future but instead people being pushed forward from a common past. Holocoders are people inspired directly or indirectly by a television show from the late 80’s that involved a large room filled with holograms that could be used for entertainment as well as research. Holocoders work on any or all of the wide variety of technologies that could potentially be combined to recreate that imagined experience.
Anyways, that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it. More importantly, these technologies are deeply entangled and deserve a good name, whether you want to go with holocoding or something else (though the holodeck people from the future highly encourage you to use the terms “holocoder”, “holocoding” and “holodeck”).
There are two other important instances of environment simulators which for whatever reason do not have the same impact as the Star Trek holodeck but are nevertheless worth mentioning.
The first is the X-Men Danger Room which is an elaborate obstacle course involving holograms as well as robots used to train the X-Men. While the Danger Room goes back to the 60’s, the inclusion of holograms actually didn’t happen until the early 90’s, and so actually comes after the Star Trek environment simulator.
Clifford D. Simak published Way Station in 1963 (and won a Hugo award for it). It actually anticipates two Star Trek technologies – transporters as well as an environment simulator. Enoch Wallace, the hero of the story, works the earth relay station for intergalactic aliens who transport travelers over vast distances by sending them over shorter hops between the way stations of the title. Because he is so isolated in his job, the aliens support him by allowing him to pursue a hobby. Because Wallace enjoys hunting, the aliens build for him an environment simulator that lets him do big game hunting for dinosaurs.