Synthetic serendipity at SXSW

We've been told more than once that technological creativity flourishes in downturns, with Google's birth during the last web bust as the cardinal example. This time around, one gets the sense that the next technology boom will be driven by a phenomenon Vernor Vinge anticipated in a 2004 short story called "Synthetic Serendipity" -- the marriage of gaming and real life.

But first, I'll give you a sense of where I've been. At this year's SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, turnout exceeded expectations. Because of the economic turmoil, many expected that technology companies large and small would steer clear. But starting about a month ago, announcements for product launches and parties mushroomed. For whatever reason, money and enthusiasm seemed to flow. One plausible theory is that as investment landscape darkens, venture capital actually looks like a better bet relative to the other options. Southby began as a music festival, yet the interactive component -- a broad rubric that encompasses all manner of technological and multimedia doings -- has increasingly taken pride of place.

There is a certain logic to this. Indie rock and the interactive economy are both bourgeois bohemian fixtures, and it's no surprise that there are synergies between them. Austin prides itself on being America's "live music capital," which is to say the city prides itself on packaging and selling experience. That happens to be the exact same goal as our most celebrated technologists.

One of the more notable product launches at this year's festival was for Loudcrowd, a somewhat baffling service that Leena Rao of TechCrunch described as follows:

Loudcrowd wants to create the feel of an online concert or dance club for users. The site will feature social games that will be played simultaneously with music tracks as well as daily playlists from guest DJs. Loudcrowd's feature Dance game is similar to the popular game Dance, Dance Revolution and is pretty innovative. Loudcrowd says that the dance game has been played more than one million times since they entered private beta, with over 25 percent of users visiting the site more than 100 times a month. The games are all built on Flash and the animation is disarmingly good.

Overall, the impression I get is of a hipster Second Life that involves dancing alone, or rather dancing by touchpad. One is reminded of the anomic dystopia vividly described in Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind. Yet I'm pretty sure I will, despite my better judgment, soon become an enthusiastic user of Loudcrowd, and perhaps you will too. As the unemployment rate spikes and as non-virtual live music becomes prohibitively expensive, it is easy to imagine impecunious youths eschewing going out to buy overpriced alcopops in favor of long Loudcrowd sessions at home or while wandering the streets. To some extent, Loudcrowd is reminiscent of the mobile MMOGs that have taken South Korea and other Asian markets by storm. That said, this does seem like more of a niche play than Twitter, which debuted at SXSWi in 2007. Of course, I'm not much of a seer: when I saw my friends Tweeting at that year's festival, I was dismissive and I later signed up for a rival service called Jaiku. Suffice to say, Jaiku is now dead and I am Tweeting with all of the other bozos.

This leads me to a more promising product launch, and to Vinge's vision of the future. Foursquare, the brainchild of Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai, is an ingenious service that turns finding your friends into a Zelda-like quest. Crowley is best known for having created Dodgeball, a rather more primitive location-aware(ish) mobile social network that was ahead of its time -- so far ahead of its time that it wasn't all that useful. Acquired by Google, Dodgeball was left to die on the vine. And as the technology landscape has grown crowded with location-aware services, Foursquare has taken a highly distinctive, and highly entertaining, spin on the concept. Jenna Wortham of the New York Times summed it up.

Foursquare players "check in" via iPhone application, text message or the Web. That alerts their network of friends to their current location, in case they feel like dropping by to say hello or have a drink. (If you're flying solo, or on a date, Foursquare allows you to check in without posting your location.) Players rack up points for checking in at unusual places, early hours of the morning or in the same location as other users in their network.

The Foursquareverse is designed to grow denser over time as users layer recommendations and other content over the physical map. In "Synthetic Serendipity," Vinge imagines a world in which millions play games that layer new virtual realities over the mundane everyday world. Like Foursquare, daily tasks are assigned new meaning and value. For example, taking a particular bus route could represent slaying a dragon in some elaborate medieval scenario, or delivering a package could win you hundreds of gold doubloons in an alternate-reality pirate quest.

Over time, these games could become an instrument of subtle and not-so-subtle social engineering. Economist Roland Fryer has experimented with cash incentives to encourage literacy and good study habits for schoolchildren. What if schoolchildren were enrolled in a series of overlapping virtual MMOGs that incentivized, say, showing up to class on time or acing pop quizzes? This might sound absurd, yet it lends an interestingly subversive edge to success in school -- kids would literally be "gaming the system."

If this all sounds a little eccentric, well, who knew that you'd be Tweeting or joining Facebook or doing any number of other things that once struck you as flatly absurd? In a way, this concept of layering games over real life is an extension of something we all do: apply our own standards and expectations to the social world. As Will Wilkinson has argued, the harms associated with economic inequality are to some degree mitigated by the fact that an open society generates countless status hierarchies that cut against conventional hierarchies based on wealth. Wrestling fans care about things that don't really matter to NASCAR fans, and Persian dentists in Beverly Hills don't generally compare themselves to Bengali skateboarders in Brooklyn. As new cultural forms emerge, so do new hierarchies, e.g., among Deadheads and goths and neoprimitivists. Virtual game layers simply introduce new hierarchies designed to make life more fulfilling and fun at a faster rate than we've seen in the past.

For a vivid look at Alternate Reality Games as they are likely to take shape, I strongly recommend Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which you can read for free. I'm guessing that Doctorow would have incorporated a Foursquare-like product had it existed when he was writing the book.