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The Playful World: How Technology Is Transforming Our Imagination

The Playful World: How Technology Is Transforming Our Imagination

by Mark Pesce

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As you read these words, the architects of the new virtual reality are inventing a world you never imagined: call it the playful world. It's a world of interactive, Web-based toys that instantly collapse the gulf between wish and existence, space and time, animate and inanimate. It's a world where the entire fabric of the material world becomes manipulable,


As you read these words, the architects of the new virtual reality are inventing a world you never imagined: call it the playful world. It's a world of interactive, Web-based toys that instantly collapse the gulf between wish and existence, space and time, animate and inanimate. It's a world where the entire fabric of the material world becomes manipulable, programmable, mutable. Situated at the crossroads of high technology and popular culture, the playful world is taking shape at the speed of electronic creativity.

In this spellbinding new book, Mark Pesce, one of the pioneers in the ongoing technological revolution, explores how a new kind of knowing and a new way of creating are transforming the culture of our time. It started, bizarrely enough, with Furbys, the first toys that had the "will" to grow and interact intelligently with their envirnoment. As Pesce argues, Furbys, for all their cloying cuteness, were a vital sign of a new human endeavor—the ability to copy part of our own intelligence into the physical world.

But engineers of the playful world have already gone much further into considerably stranger virtual realms. Pesce takes us insede the world's cutting-edge research facilities where the distinction between bits and atoms is rapidly dissolving. We mee the creators of LEGO Mindstorms, a snap-together plastic device that intelligently controls motors and processes data from sensors. We watch technological geniuses like Marvin Minsky and Eric Drexler turn the theoretical breakthroughs of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman into "nanites"—tiny ultra-high-speed computers that replicate intelligent life. We observe the alunch of the amazing and much-anticipated Sony Playstation 2, a platform that will allow us to bring synthetic worlds into the home—and create a gateway to the living planet.

Web-based toys are only the beginning—the first glimmer of a new reality that is transforming our entire culture with incredible speed and power. After all, thanks to the computer revolution and the Internet, we already command powers taht just a generation ago would have been described as magical. Magic is about to take on a whole new dimension. In this dazzling book, Mark Pesce offers a mind-bending preview of the incredible future that awaits us all in The Playful World.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Pesce, the creator of VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language), which distributes three-dimensional scenes on the web, here takes us on an extended romp through topics as diverse as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology, the World Wide Web, and Furbys. He uses examples of interactive toys such as the Furby, Sony Playstation, and LEGO Mindstorms to show how these toys express both our imagination and our technology. According to Pesce, 21st-century toys do not only reflect our imaginative world; as they become increasingly interactive, they will also help shape our conceptions (but especially our children's conceptions). Pesce posits that the imaginative, flexible, and playful nature that interactive toys encourage will help us avoid the dangers posed by misuse of the very technologies used to create them. His unique focus on understanding our technological future through play makes this book stand out in a crowded field. Pesce's ability to explain complex issues clearly only bolsters his case, as he brings in evidence from a variety of arenas to show how the unprecedented interactivity of future toys will change the way our children think about the world. Recommended for all libraries. [An accompanying web site, www.playfulworld.com, offers extensive links to news articles, videocassettes, and other research materials discussed in the book.--Ed.]--Rachel Singer Gordon, Franklin Park P.L., IL Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Peter Lunenfeld
Mark Pesce, like hypermedia's guru Ted Nelson, is one of those fascinating visionaries who contributes as much to the culture of imagination as to technology itself. With The Playful World, Pesce shows how today's digitized, networked smart toys serve as the precursor to tomorrow's mutable fast-forward realities.
Business 2.0
...the meat of the book lies in its short, engaging history lessons—some rare (the birth of VRML), some worn but fresh in the retelling (Feynman and the O-ring)—and its descriptions of some of this true believer's own Aha! moment. Consider this a quick primer on Al, nanotechnology, hypertext, MOO's, virtual reality, and digital interfaces.
Kirkus Reviews
A new technology maven predicts that robotics, nanomolecular devices, and virtual reality will transform the larger society into a utopia of boundless creativity, information, and play. Beginning with a lengthy meditation on Furbies (the stuffed-animal craze of 1998), Pesce (Interactive Media Program/Univ. of Southern California) foresees electronic"virtual friends" so interactive that they will teach their owners"virtues like loyalty, sensitivity and trust." Modules that teach users the rudiments of robotics design"will help children learn about the complex systems that make up real life." Nanotechnology, or extreme miniaturization, will revolutionize medicine through minuscule devices for diagnosing and repairing damaged cells. The infinite possibilities offered by virtual reality will stretch the millennial child's imagination, and"anything known to anyone anywhere . . . [will] become indistinguishable from what she knows for herself," through the World Wide Web. While the author's enthusiasm for computer toys is infectious, he offers almost no factual evidence to back up his hypothetical visions and never mentions the economic factors shaping new technologies. A child will not learn empathy from toys whose demands, unlike those of siblings or pets, can be silenced with the flick of a switch. The predictions for information technology seem equally naïve."As long as I have a computer and a phone jack, I can be nearly as well equipped as someone in the Library of Congress," Pesce gushes."And it will only get better." In fact, only a tiny percentage of library holdings are being put online, and this will only getbetterif there is massive investment in education and scholarship; moreover, millennial students will still need to identify, read, and evaluate information sources—whether those sources sit on library shelves or appear on screens. Nor does Pesce discuss populations whose lack of access to new technologies makes them increasingly vulnerable to exploitation by the connected minority. Appealing but not convincing.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
5.71(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

A child born on the first day of the new Millennium will live an entire
lifetime in a world undreamt of just a generation ago. As much as we
might have tried to speculate upon the shape of things to come, the
twenty-first century arrives just as unformed as a newborn.

When a child enters the world, it knows nearly nothing of the universe
beyond itself. With mouth, then eyes, and finally, hands, it reaches out
to discover the character of the surrounding world. Over the course of
time, that child will discover its Mother - the source of life - and,
sometime later, its Father. But in the first days after birth, the child
will be presented with rattles, mobiles, mirrors and noisy stuffed
animals that will become its constant companions. Our children, in
nearly every imaginable situation, are accompanied by toys.

It has been this way for a very long time. We can trace the prehistoric
sharpened stick - undoubtedly the first tool - to the sticks children
still love to play with today. Over the 5500 years of recorded history,
forward from Sumer and Egypt, toys have a presence both charming and
enlightening, for we have learned that toys not only help to form the
imaginations of our children, but also reflect the cultural imagination
back upon us. The ancient Maya, who thrived across Mesoamerica thirteen
centuries ago, never developed the wheel for transportation - already in
use for some seven thousand years in Mesopotamia - yet employed it in
toys. The Mayan world-view - based in circles and cycles of sky and
earth, brought them the wheel as a toy, a pocket universe which
reflected the structure of the wholecosmos.

All of our toys, for all of known time, perform the same role of
reducing the complex universe of human culture into forms that children
can grasp. I am not saying that children are simple, unable to apprehend
the complex relationships which form cultures, rather, that toys help
the child to guide itself into culture, playgrounds where rehearsals for
reality can proceed without constraint or self-consciousness.

These points have been made before, but have gained unusual currency
over the last few years, as the character of our toys has begun to
change, reflecting a new imagining of ourselves and the world we live
in. Somewhere in the time between Project Apollo and the Mars Pathfinder
we learned how to make the world react to our presence within it,
sprinkling some of our intelligence into the universe-at-large in much
the same way a chef seasons a fine sauce. Our toys, touched by fairy
dust, have come alive, like Pinocchio; some - like the incredibly
popular Furby - simulate ever-more-realistic personalities.

Although the Furby seems to have come from nowhere to capture the hearts
of children worldwide, in reality, it incorporates everything we already
know about how the future will behave. The world reacts to us -
interacts with us - at a growing level of intelligence and flexibility.
A century ago people marveled at the power and control of the electric
light, which turned the night into day and ushered in a twenty-four hour
world. Today we and our children are amazed by a synthetic creature
possessing a dim image of our own consciousness and announcing the
advent of a playful world, where the gulf between wish and reality
collapses to produce a new kind of creativity.

Toys can serve as points of departure for another voyage of exploration,
a search for the world of our children's expectations. As much as a
spear or wheel or astronaut figurine ever shaped a child's view of the
world, these toys - because they now react to us - tell us that our
children will have a different view of the "interior" nature of the
world, seeing it as potentially vital, intelligent, and infinitely
transformable. The "dead" world of objects before intelligence and
interactivity will not exist for them, and, as they grow to adulthood,
they will likely demand that the world remain as pliable as they
remember from their youngest days. Fortunately, we are ready for that
challenge. Just as the creative world of children has become
manipulable, programmable and mutable, the entire fabric of the material
world seems poised on the edge of a similar transformation. That, at
essence, is the theme of this book, because where our children are
already going, we look to follow.

In the evolving relationship between imagination and reality, toys show
us how we teach the ways of this new world to our children. Their toys
tell them everything they need to know about where they are going,
providing them the opportunity to develop a mind-set which will make the
radical freedom offered in such a world an attractive possibility. Many
of us - "older" people - will find that freedom chaotic, discomforting -
if not downright disorienting, and it will be up to our children to
teach us how to find our way in a world we were not born into.

All around us, the world is coming alive, infused with information and
capability; this is the only reality for our children, and it speaks
louder than any lesson taught in any school, because the lesson is
repeated - reinforced - with every button's touch. But it is up to us to
rise to the challenge of a playful world, to finish the work of culture
and change the nature of reality. It might seem, even after all of this,
to be nothing more than a dream; but this is a book about dreams made
real. So, follow on, as we trace a path through a world that is rising
to meet us...

Copyright 2001 by Mark Pesce

Meet the Author

Mark Pesce is the Chair of the Interactive Media Program at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. A contributor to Wired, Feed, and Salon, he is the creator of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) which distributes 3-dimensional scenes over the Web.

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