This month Mark Zuckerberg demoed Facebook's initial foray into social VR. The video showed cartoon-like avatars in a virtual space, interacting with one another. Zuckerberg said that "virtual reality puts people first" and "it's all about who you're with." That's exactly what I explored in my new science fiction novel, Presence. In the future, I think it'll be as common to go "invirt" as it is to go "online" today. To explain what this will mean for the future of social networking, I want to talk more about the universe of Presence and what the key themes in the novel are.
Presence is a technothriller about the future of Virtual Reality. It's set in the year 2051 and the protagonist is a young woman called Gats, who is a VR designer. Gats works for a massive VR social network called Doppel, the Facebook of its era. Hundreds of millions of people go “invirt”* every day, to work and play inside Doppel.
* invirt: to be in virtual reality. Think of invirt as the VR equivalent of online.
The catch: in order to achieve true presence (meaning that your brain believes it’s in a real world), a user's avatar must match what they look like in real life. Anonymous and fantasy avatars simply don’t work inside Doppel. I'm deliberately riffing here on Facebook’s real names policy, which decrees that people must "use their authentic identities." I’ve just extrapolated that policy thirty-five years into the future. Plus of course, in my novel I assume that VR avatars are extremely lifelike - they're not cartoon avatars, like in Zuckerberg's video.
The plot kicks off with the murder of Gats’s best friend, Adrian. While investigating Adrian’s death, Gats begins to see the dark side of Doppel’s world. She must also deal with a global terrorist organization, insidious government drones, and a black-hat hacking collective. So there’s lots of action, but I won't divulge any spoilers here. You'll have to read the book to find out what happens.
Themes: Identity, Privacy & More
The key theme of the novel is identity - specifically, what happens to your sense of self when you can easily jump between the physical world and the virtual world? Even though you look and feel the same in both worlds, you can do different things inside of virtual reality. So the book explores how that changes the way people act, including how much empathy they have for their fellow humans inside Doppel.
Further on the identity theme, the book features virtual clones. What would happen if you can replicate yourself invirt? Imagine sending your virtual clones to learn a variety of martial arts, or date lots of people at once. Sounds like fun, but (of course) there are downsides...
Privacy is another big theme. In my book, there’s a US government spy agency called the Drone Defence Network (the DDN). Its main tool is a tiny drone the size of a housefly, called a drone fly. There are millions of these little machines and ostensibly they are used to monitor US cities for any sign of terror or criminal activity. But they’re enormously unpopular with citizens, because they literally get in their faces all the time. And that’s just the spying that happens in the physical world - there’s also the surveillance that happens invirt, inside Doppel.
Finally, my book explores what life will be like when we can live in two places at once - the physical world, as we do currently, and a fully operational virtual world. If we think it’s worrisome that our kids wander round in 2016 with their necks bent, looking down at their cellphones, what will society be like when our kids spend too much time inside a virtual world? That's what I imagine might happen in 2051.
I hope this post gives you a feel for what Presence is all about. Not to mention what Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook might be like in thirty-five years time! If you're intrigued, I invite you to buy the book on Amazon. I look forward to any feedback you have.