What would a virtual reality future look like? Our guest, author Rhett Evans, gives us his take below! Don’t forget to check out his new book, The Echo Chamber, where a Silicon Valley heist sets off a dystopian chain reaction!
Good science fiction has to take readers to dazzling places, but there’s a trick. The setting also has to feel authentic. It’s not enough to describe your lightspeed engine with extraordinary details taken straight from a science journal. Readers innately want to connect with the humanity of your characters through a sense of familiar themes and struggles.
That’s something that Ready Player One got right. Readers of Ernest Cline’s book were dropped into a future where the economy is in shambles and humanity seeks escapism in the virtual world of the Oasis. That future wasn’t particularly well built out or explained in rich detail, but it certainly felt plausible enough.
I’ve worked in Silicon Valley for several years at a big tech company, and I always wanted to push this idea of virtual escapism a bit further. The Oasis in Cline’s novel is certainly a wonderland. It’s full of beautiful landscapes and varied creatures and games. But today--right now---humanity has technology to escape into and disappear for hours. Social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapcat. Wouldn’t the future virtual world presumably look more like them?
Every minute you spend on a platform like Facebook is tracked, aggregated and evaluated by machine learning. Elaborate software is designed to examine your click and use it to look for opportunities to enhance your experience. You liked a video featuring cute cats today? Great. Now we’ll serve you three more of them tomorrow.
The aim of these platforms is addiction. These companies’ entire business models are built around getting you to visit more often and for longer periods of time.
So with my book, The Echo Chamber, I wanted to craft a dystopian world that felt more familiar. The virtual world that everyone escapes to in this book isn’t necessarily full of 80s spacecraft and sweeping fantasy worlds. Instead, it’s a places where users can choose to live surrounded by all the news and immersive videos that reinforce their existing worldviews. They can lose themselves in whatever interests that suit them: video game streams, political punditry, even just three-dimensional cat videos, all reinforced by an AI designed to keep them content and clicking.
Because that’s the kind of tech and social media Silicon Valley is best at building. They build tools that supposedly connect their users but actually end up de-socializing them. They sit in separate rooms and stare at feeds on their phones that are tuned perfectly to their personal preferences, hopes and biases.
These apps don’t challenge us. They don’t make us think bigger—at least, not much bigger. If these platforms did, they would lose those clicks they covet and we’d all go outside more.
Facebook and other social media platforms have given us the ability to un-diversify ourselves. They create digital realities where it’s easier to connect with people from across the country who share our worldview than the people sitting next to us. And in my novel, I wanted to explore a future where social media is virtual—where Silicon Valley could create a perfect echo chamber that tickled all our senses.
It would be addicting. It would be wondrous. It would be destructive.
The best science fiction authors always root their dystopias in familiar contexts. The backdrops often feel they were ripped from today’s headlines. Sure, an author can wipe out half of humanity with some horrible virus to set up the world building in their story. But where’s the fun in that?
I tried to do the same with the virtual news and social media worlds of The Echo Chamber. Along the way, I also got to research the structure of the brain for this book and the location of the world’s most powerful satellites. I even relied on my coding chops to build a 16-bit retro video game that ties into the book at https://theechochambergame.com. It’s all been a lot of fun to write and code, and if you’re looking for a new sci-fi this summer with a bit of real-world inspiration behind it, check it out.
Rhett Evans is a proud millennial and former U.S. Army infantry officer. He now works in the tech industry but divides his time shoveling dirt and taking care of animals at a half acre homestead in northern California where he lives with his wife and three kids. You can check out this new book, The Echo Chamber, on Amazon or follow him on Twitter.