Science Fiction Deja Vu
Science fiction can be extremely thought provoking, particularly to one who thinks about the future. There are novels that are fantastical and take place centuries in the future in galaxies ‘far far away’, populated by weird creatures and other worldly landscapes. Then there are the many novels that are more conceptual, set slightly in the future on planet Earth that posit interesting social views and visions of how humanity might live and be governed; far enough ahead to allow a disconnect from current reality, but close enough to current day that they seem possible. It is these novels that can provide fodder for thought about the future and what might be ahead for humanity.
All of this came to mind when I read an article last week in the New York Times about a new phenomenom in Japan. In the last seven years, 10 Gran Cyber Cafes have opened in Tokyo. These facilities are open 24 hours and are full of cubicles that can be rented for any length of time. In the cubicles there are DVD players, VCRs, high speed Internet connections, sound systems, regular and satellite TV, video game consoles and computers loaded with software. Nearby there are libraries with thousands of DVDs, VHS tapes, comic books, magazines and novels. A customer can come in for an hour or can spend the night. Couples can share open cubicles to watch together. There is an overnight rate from 11p – 8a which draws both those with no place to sleep and young people who want a night away from their parents. All of this seems to be acceptable, safe and a part of the urban Japanese culture.
This story reminded me of a couple of common themes from near-future science fiction read years ago. One theme is that of an overpoulated, gritty, densely urbanized Earth where the population, to find relief from the oppressive, work-a-day world, take short cyber or drug induced vacations or trips in special pods or socially created places for hours or days. This is provided for a populace that is readily desirous of truly escapist entertainment and cannot afford the cost of interplanetary travel for a true vacation as there are few or no remaining vacation spots left on Earth. The second and similar theme provides the same scenario but is more ominous because there is a ‘big brother’ planetary government that needs a productive economic structure populated by hard working masses to support it. This controlling government knows that to keep everyone happy there has to be deeply distracting and immersive experiences provided so that the populace can have a sense of fun and escape. Of course these escapes can’t last too long, so they must be intense and relatively brief. Sometimes there are even special 3-D or holographic channels programmed into the homes to be experienced with licensed mind-altering drugs so the escape is just a few hours.
So, life on Earth has caught up with science fiction. A new, ‘third place’ has emerged, at least in Japan. In the United States, and elsewhere, third places are coffee shops, gyms and cybercafes, but so far nothing like the Gran Cyber Cafes. It is quite conceivable that this might just be a Japanese phenomenon, particularly suited to a densely populated, highly rigid society where living quarters are tiny, young adults live with their parents and electronic, highly stylized pop culture is a tradition. Or, as has often been the case in recent decades, elements of electronic and economic culture start first in Japan and then migrate elsewhere. As a father of a nineteen year old young man with a highly developed sense of pop culture and trends, I think the latter is the better prediction. Since the age of 11 my son has embraced Japanese anime, manga(graphic novels and comics), and derivative video games and movies. It has been years since he has instructed me on how to read graphic novels from back to front, introduced me to stunningly beautiful and hip animation and helped me understand the unique aesthetic of such pop art, all of which is now commonplace in the United States.
In the years ahead then, get ready for a nearby location where you can drop from view, get lost for hours and perhaps take that escapist, much needed, stress reducing, cell phone free vacation – say next Tuesday night.