USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC

Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer Looks at the Future of News


David Brin envisions a future in which the world is plastered with e-info -- virtual Post-It notes, e-advertisements and other data -- that we can access via glasses, earbuds and other technologies that link wirelessly to databases and instantly deliver information to us.

2020 VISION: Journalism the Day After Tomorrow

Trolling for news at street level was getting harder all the time, Tor thought.  I'm glad I won't have to do it for a living anymore.

Not since one of the big ratings clubs gave her a Big Nod, boosting her credibility level all the way to National. One benefit of achieving professional status -- in any field, not just the news biz -- was getting to rise above all the hungry amateurs and semipros out there, scratching to be noticed.

The way she used to. But no more of that.

Well, not as much. From now on it would be office towers and arranged enterviews. Politicians. Celebrighties. Enovators. Luminatis. All sorts of nelites, no flashpans or sugar-coated surrogates.

Still, with her bags already stowed aboard the liner that would take her to a new life at Mediacorp Central, Tor underwent a sudden hanker -- to go walking along the sidewalks and urb-ways, down by the waterfront, or under some of the bright bridges spanning the new ethnic neighborhoods of Sandiego -- the Big S.

Call it strolling... or S-trolling... for something worthy of the news. A story fresh in her pocket to show the ace "tellers" when she arrived at MCX. Or at least for some distraction, to avoid chewing the active elements off her manicure while waiting for the embarkation whistle to blow -- a throaty moan beckoning passengers to board the Spirit of Chula Vista.

Typically for an autumn morning, there had been another micro-monsoon just hours before dawn. It coalesced out of the swirling Catalina Vortex then drove ashore in a brief howl of horizontal rain. Now pavements glistened and pedestrians stepped gingerly over bits of debris. Some seaweed. An unlucky fish or two that had been sucked into the funnel at sea, then haplessly dropped here. Light stuff, mostly. None of the boats or rocks or surfers that gloomy commentators used to predict, back when the phenomenon began a decade ago, when it seemed the very sky was falling.

Some guys will say anything for ratings, she thought. People were always getting excited, overplaying bummer-effects of global warming without mentioning the good stuff.

Tor sniffed, relishing the upside of a micro-monsoon. A fresh breeze. Washed clean of any pollutants from Old Town, it felt almost electric.

Other folk seemed affected the same way. Her specs, tuned to track bio signs, emphasized the flush tones of people who were in good spirit, for the most part. Smiling street vendors stepped out from their stalls, murmuring in a dozen refugee tongues -- Russian, Finnish, Polish. When they saw that she didn't understand -- her translator-earpiece hung detached -- they switched to waving their hands and arms, drawing attention to patches of open space.

One used a theatrical flourish, like a stage magician materializing bouquets of imaginary flowers, all in a showy attempt to draw her glance to the awning above his stall. Tor wasn't shopping, though. She had her specs tuned to omit adverts, so the merchant's virtual come-on remained invisible.

Well, she thought, shrugging at his disappointment. The real world has always been crueler than our hopeful imaginings.

The shopkeepers' own specs must have tattled, revealing her selective blindness. Still, even knowing it was futile, the tradesmen kept on smiling and waving as she passed. Several of them murmured compliments in broken English, that Tor took as sincere.

Well, it's nice to be noticed, in a friendly way.

Would she have chosen to be in news, if it didn't involve admiration?

Even nowadays, when a person's looks were largely a matter of taste, augmentation and budget, it felt good to make heads turn. Anyway, Sandiego never lacked for pretty people. More flocked in all the time, undeterred by the prim legal admonitions and health warnings. She was depriving no one, by moving away.

Out of habit, she tooth-clicked commands that tapped into other eyes, other cams. First a satellite view of this area, with the Spirit standing out most prominently, bobbing gently but hugely against her mooring mast at the nearby Zep-Port. In contrast, little farther away, arsenal ships anchored by the new Shelter Island Naval Base appeared fuzzy, as demanded by security protocols. Silly. You could zoom in on them from three million, four hundred and seventy thousand, five hundred and twelve other points of view that Homeland Security did not control.

One of those POVs -- a penny cam somebody had stuck on a lamppost, just above the chewing gum -- won a brief auto-bid auction to sell her a closer view of the marketplace. A good panorama for half a mil. Not that Tor cared about that. Omnipresence spread and prices fell as the cams bred and proliferated like insects.

It sure was changing the news biz, at least in urban areas. Wherever cam overlap grew beyond seven-layers deep, lying became damn near impossible. Any kind of lying at all.

I guess the next generation will take that for granted, Tor pondered. But at twenty-six, she was old enough to remember when people tried all sorts of tricks to fabricate images and fancy pov-deceits, using tech wizardry to fake events, alibis and attempt blackmail. Till the age-old solution of more witnesses made that kind of scam increasingly impossible. With enough savvy eyes at work, consensus-reality must come closer to reality itself.

Or so went the latest truism. Tor distrusted all truisms.

We'll see if it still holds next year.

The quay was already getting crowded. S-trolling sailors haggled with a street artist whose super-delicate portraits -- molded out of gel-smoke -- could not be reproduced by fax or shipped by omail, the very trait that made this medium valuable. That left the boys -- (few married men were stationed in Sandiego) -- without leverage to negotiate. No way to bid-out the same service elsewhere -- at least not right away. Accepting the artist's price, they forked over hard cash and she set to work, puffing from a hookah pipe, adding clots of fast-congealing haze to a cloudy caricature that grew texture and shape while onlookers sighed approvingly.

Tor recalled a story she had been pondering, about how the Navy assigned mostly young males to Big S. Supposedly to protect the more radiation-sensitive fertility of female sailors. But one of her leads had grumbled about old-fashioned sexism, a desire by codgers at the upper ranks to preserve one base where macho ?lan could still prevail in its full, grunting, TwenCen flavor.
Look into it later, Tor thought, sub-vocalizing a note to her specs, putting the topic on action list for when she had the full resources of MCX at hand.

Nearby, a tourist haggled with the proprietor of a craft shop selling handmade canes and walking sticks. Using latest software and flex-fibers, the sticks could apparently perform a variety of strides and even break into a jog. The visitor -- you could tell an out-of-towner because they always wore lead-lined underwear -- agreed to a price, then asked about delivery.

"They're for my sister's store in Duluth," said the man, who perhaps did not realize that his metal briefs were causing telltale ripples in the display patterns of his vis-fiber jump suit. The effect made him look like a pot-bellied satire of Superman. Underpants on the outside. "Can she get them in a week?"

Waggling fingers and tapping his own specs, the shopkeeper quickly knew everything about the customer, his sister, the Duluth store and their ability to pay. Holding out a hand, he said -- "Make it ten days. I'll have a batch mature by then. Deal?"

The two men shook. Their specs recorded. So did several onlookers' including Tor's. No contract needed. As in villages of old, your reputation mattered more than any legal document. And now the "village" was worldwide.

Tor walked on.

Although her specs were tuned to omit adverts, virtual salesmen, and come-in lures, other kinds of enfo could penetrate, according to her private formula, laying over her viewfield a spiderweb of traces, links, cues and gloss commentaries. Faint nametags appeared under every passerby, for example, provided by automatic face recognition. Data that was dim enough to ignore, unless she decided to look. If her iris dynamics showed actual interest in a passing face, there might suddenly flow text and animation from that person's preening personal profile... or else dissenting opinions from an ex-spouse. Well, old-time villages were gossipy too.

For now though, Tor kept the virt overlays to a minimum. No kid-stuff -- fairy castles or leering caricatures, designed to make every passerby look silly. That was for pre-teens who quickly learned to squelch their derisive sniggers. A little imaginative dissing was all right. Freedom of Thought. But anything too overt or rude might draw unwelcome notice. The strolling grownup who looked the most clueless might be a member of a liaison-club that wasn't.

These days, when anyone could fight back, you learned courtesy early.

Anyway, who had time for kid-stuff? Tor's ersatz world was pragmatic. The world's second stratum of texture, as important to any modern citizen as the scent of food and water might have seemed to a distant ancestor. The modern equivalents to a twig cracking. Hints of predator and prey.

She had assigned one color -- a prickly shade of mauve -- to glitter near any person or object on a public safety watch list. Everyone did that, adjusting sensitivities to their level of risk aversion. If your virtual view warned that a puddle held suspicious residue, you might step around... or else slosh on through, because this was, after all, Sandiego. Anyway, most cancers vanish with a weekly drop-in at the clinic.

Likewise, if a well-dressed man in a crowd wore an overlay-aura of misgiven reputation -- on probation for a crime, perhaps, or maybe just a bad credit rating -- people in most cities might edge away, made wary almost without thinking. But not here.

You grew a thicker skin in Big S. Some said callousness. She preferred calling it tolerance. The kind you found in any frontier town filled with refugees.

Hell, everybody had a past. And very few secrets. So you forgave most closeted skeletons, as others forgave yours.

Still, mom will be glad to see me move somewhere civilized. Away from the residuals.

All the better to nag me for grandchildren.

But Tor knew she would miss the S.

Ever since the Bomb, low property values had pulled in a rich mix of immigrants -- both legal and quasi -- mostly escapees from frozen Europe. Exiles who didn't mind radioactivity levels a tad above background. Not when compensated by sun, surf and exciting weather that sometimes dropped fish out of the sky. It beat shivering, watching snowdrifts turn into glaciers outside Helsinki, Warsaw and Stockholm. The Arctic's revenge, while most of the planet baked.

Immigrants always stirred things. The music scene was way-raki. The linguistic brew exciting. Manic-experimental arts flourished, perhaps encouraged by a faint glow that seemed to surround the buildings of old downtown at night. If you set your specs to notice beta rays. Or even if you just squinted, bare-eyed, and let your imagination go.

Tor shook herself and blinked. This wasn't like her. Quietly strolling instead of S-trolling. Contemplating, not templating. Musing, instead of sifting the scan spectra for stories to amuse her fans. Every cubic centimeter above these sidewalks swarmed with position-tagged information, notifications, e-comments and Post-Its that existed only on the high-overlaid planes of IP6 cyberspace. Most of them were supposedly encrypted and person-specific, but accessible to her sophisticated specs, if she used cracker programs.

She could have been wading through all that, unleashing a pack of snoop-agents and probing for a story, instead of wandering along in almost-real mode, maundering nostalgically. What nonsense.

Lifting one hand, she prepared to correct the lapse, twiddling fingers to command...

Too late, she realized, as a low, groaning whistle seemed to permeate, making the very air quiver, beckoning from the Lindbergh-Rutan Skydock. Boarding call.

Tor sighed, then turned to go.

But her reaction to the whistle did not go unnoticed. One nearby vendor tapped his specs while looking at her, then smiled and bowed.

"Bon voyage, Miss Tor," he said, with a thick Belarussian accent.

Of course, he must have scan-correlated, found her on the Spirit passenger list and then noted her modest local fame. Another shopkeeper, grinning, pressed a cluster of fresh flowers into her hand as she passed.

A ripple of e-lerts flowed just ahead of Tor and suddenly she found herself walking along a corridor evanescent goodwill, her arms filling with small, impulsive gifts and her ears with benedictions in a dozen languages.

Half-buoyed by a wave of sentiment for the town she was leaving behind, she made her way toward the terminal where mighty Spirit of Chula Vista bobbed ponderously at its moorings, straining for the sky.

Tor -- despite the perceptiveness of all her surrogate guardians -- never realized that she was being followed all that time. Indeed, there was no reason that she should. For it was a ghost that made its way after her through the familiar paths of a global village, amid the happy flow of neighborly love.

All rights to the story "2020 Vision" reserved by David Brin.

Related Links
Main Story: The future of online news
Science fiction writer David Brin's vision of the future of journalism