The Pre-emptive Machine-Vision Horror Trope Needs A Better Name

That’s a game called StarForge, a kind of minecrafty (but Notch-approved!) farm/build/survive game that looks pretty promising. Trading off the eight-bit charm of Minecraft for a lot of FPS aggro, it looks like a boots-on-the-ground, shovels-in-the-dirt revisiting of classics like Dune II or Command And Conquer.

There’s a moment in there at about the thirty second mark, though, that gave me a surprising amount to think about; it would have been interesting to see a longer buildup to this, maybe with an explanation of the world and some more examination of what the player’s built up, leading up to the alone-in-the-dark moment where the turrets suddenly spin up and start grinding through ammo before the player can even see what’s coming. From a gameplay perspective this is a great demo; you can tell by the way the entire internet is trying to turn his poor server into one of the smoking craters you see in the video. But from a human-experience perspective, there’s a new thing on display here.

We have tools now that can see a lot further into the dark than we can, make decisions about what they find and then act on them immediately, deploying an staggering amount of force with remarkable precision. It’s sudden, and there’s a good argument to me made that it has to be as sudden as possible – the delay of a warning, a supervising authority or even just a human interaction might be an unacceptable delay, a burden the selection pressure of a technological arms race will quickly discard. Often, in fact, the best-case scenario there is that these tools leave enough of an audit trail that a complex situation might be understandable in long hindsight. But more often you’ll have a few thousand spent casings, a few dozen empty rocket tubes, the burned out shells of a few smoking buildings, the charred husks of their residents and no way to reconcile that with justice or conscience.

So now there’s this moment, that a human can be alone with their anticipation in the crowding dark, when machines we’ve built whose judgement we don’t really trust suddenly act with incredible violence on things we can’t see for reasons we don’t understand.

It’s really a perfect moment – the visceral panic of survival horror, that existential sense irrelevance that lives at the periphery of monstrously outsized forces, the deep-seated, voodoo suspicion of incomprehensible tech… “Your support tools or personal network suddenly goes insane” is going to be the spring-loaded-cat of the 21st century, I think, and for good reason.

I really need an “overthinking” tag.

2 Comments

  1. Alex Rootham
    Posted May 31, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Singularity is scary

  2. Zeynep
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know that you need an “overthinking” tag. You may need a “overnoticing things” tag, though that shouldn’t be what it’s called and I don’t know what it _should_ be called.