I’m nearly done with Liu Cixin’s novel The Dark Forest (2008), which I’m enjoying immensely. It’s a science fiction epic and the sequel to The Three Body Problem (2006). The book is crammed with ideas about technology, science, and society. Here I’d like to share one of those ideas, because it’s a fascinating glimpse of one way forward for our digital environment.
The Dark Forest is the kind of novel that’s almost impossible to talk about without spoilers, so let me just set the barest possible stage for this bit. The setting is… sometime in the future, and our point of view characters are not from there. Certain things have changed since our present day world – again, spoilers.
The tech that caught me eye: ubiquitous, flexible digital displays. That might sound overwhelming, but watch how Cixin takes the idea further along, connecting it to other technologies.
Screens exist everywhere, including on walls and ceilings. Wall screens can turn “transparent” – i.e., by displaying on one side what’s visible on the other. They are very durable, as screens also appear on floors, which people readily stomp over.
[P]eople [were] walking down the hallway. He noticed that both the soles of their feet and the [hospital] bed’s wheels made luminous, watery waves of pressure where they contacted the ground, like what used to happen when you pressed a finger onto an LCD in his own time. (311)
Displays are also very flexible, as we see screens on clothing and even cigarette packs.
These screens display most of the information and content we see today on phones, laptops, tablets, etc: news, stories, spreadsheets, photos, advertising, surveillance. Displays occur both in 2d and 3d formats. They are also networked sufficiently to allow high quality, on demand videoconferencing. The text doesn’t precisely depict their size, so, based on character interaction, I’m going to assume they are at least as large as full screen windows on today’s desktop monitors.
Wireless power is what keeps the screens going. There’s a fun scene when one person asks about battery life, and the locals don’t know what the words “battery” or “recharge” even mean. So far in my reading I can’t tell what part of the EM spectrum carries this power, although one character suspects microwaves.
These displays tie into personalized computing in several ways. Some characters’ clothing displays images to visualize the wearer’s mood. When a person speaks of happy subjects, their shirt or dress depicts sunrises and happy animals: “When she spoke, her nurse’s uniform shone a fast-rising sun, and under its glowing light, the dry yellow earth turned green, and flowers bloomed in wild abandon…” In contrast, when one mentions a massive disaster, we see this:
As he turned to leave, his white coat displayed billowing dark clouds, and the nurse’s uniform displayed lots of pairs of eyes, some of them frightened, some brimming with tears. (316-7)
The environment can respond to a person’s individual needs, too:
[T]he hallway had no lamps. The walls themselves emitted light, and although it was soft, Luo Ji still had to squint. But as he did so, the walls in the section of corridor he was in dimmed, and the dimmed segment followed him as his bed moved. Once his eyes grew accustomed to the light, he opened them again, at which point the hallway brightened again, remaining in his comfort zone. Evidently the hallway’s brightness adjustment system was able to monitor changes in his pupils. (310)
This presumably involves a mix of cameras, algorithms or AI, and feedback loops.
A person can also directly adjust some aspects of objects by interacting with their screen surfaces. In one scene a character learns that they can “heat up [a drink] simply by moving a slider near the bottom of the cup to the desired temperature.” (315)
Now, wearable computing and flexible displays aren’t brand new concepts. You can buy clothes today with digital components. The Digital Bodies crew have been talking about them for a long time. The Horizon Report’s been pinging flexible screens and wireless power for years. There are fictional antecedents, notably the film Minority Report (2002), although that movie managed to not feature wireless connections between devices.
What I like about the vision here is, in part, the willingness to develop it further. There are digital clothes *and* furniture, personalization and screens on product wrappers. The many uses remind me of the ways we customized rigid computer screens: multiple sizes, personalized desktops, quirky screen savers. This leads to a broader vision than depicting a single device. Instead, we end up with a reshaped environment or ecosystem.
And questions! How would wireless power safely work? What about oils and other accretions on screens – are they cleaned by robots, themselves doubtless covered in screens? What about competing standards and company walled gardens? How is it all shaped by copyright?
There’s a lot more going on in The Dark Forest. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to write up a review soon. For now I wanted to leave this imagined technology for your reflections.