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Hackernoon logoDystopian Unfolding: A Remote Chat with a Mad Scientist by@rachelminnlee

Dystopian Unfolding: A Remote Chat with a Mad Scientist

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@rachelminnleeRachel Lee

mother of unicorns. not a hacker. social distancing since 2018.

I remote-chat this afternoon with Marco Helmut Sobol, a veteran game developer with roots in the late 1980's, also a serial founder in the games industry, and technologist.

Hello, Marco.

Hi, Rachel :) How are you doing over there? Is Singapore still shut off like Hong Kong?

Yeah, we’re pretty much in a partial lockdown situation but the numbers of community transmission are low so we’re expecting to reopen hopefully in June. How is life on that island of yours?

Well, I’ve been crunching numbers, both by WHO, local German sources and what I could find in published papers. It seems we’re dealing with a flu-like epidemic that already went around the world and affected vulnerable healthcare systems. With few exceptions, mortality rates are below normal for the season, so there is little justification for any measures at all. But instead we see unprecedented drastic lockdowns.

Sounds like you’re saying the lockdowns are unnecessary in some places.

Yes. At least unnecessary for public health - if not dangerous. The human immune system relies on exposure to a variety of pathogens. And the lockdown is making that difficult. Even worse, there are very negative effects on people with chronic illnesses who don’t get proper treatment.

I think many people grossly underestimate the impact on economy, but not many people are supporters of ‘herd immunity’. Would you expose yourself, on purpose, to Covid, then?

That is in a way a funny question. I think the virus went around the world months ago. We both most likely have been exposed to it a long time ago. In Germany, for example, a “background immunity” exists, estimated at 15% of the population. That is very difficult to explain if this is truly a novel virus. The name “coronavirus” is misleading - we all carry thousands of different coronaviruses in us all the time. The common flu is caused by one. The impact on the economy, to be clear, is due to the lockdown - not the virus.

Do you think this situation also affects technology development as a whole?

Oh yes. It’s a heyday for the big tech companies. We’re witnessing a corporate power-grab. Soon enough, we’ll all be constantly tracked with no chance to opt out. For anyone with a dog in that race, great times lie ahead. Think of streaming services, data collection services, advertisers, crypto developers - and let’s not forget the games industry that benefits from people staying at home.

Yes, right now (In Singapore) we have to check in at major entry and exit points with the barcode on our id, and scan a QR code displayed in front of shops in Malls if we want to enter, in the name of safety. There’s little chance to escape from that here. Are you still working on several game development projects?

That sounds truly dystopian. I’m currently working on a project that aims to combine the benefits of games with the necessities of work. With so many jobs converted to remote work, there’s a rare opportunity to transform the workplace into something fun. There is good research today suggesting that gamers mobilize almost infinite motivation if the environment is right. I’ve been carrying the idea around for over 20 years. Now, I see a real application.

Wow, that’s awesome. Working remotely can be really hard for people who have never done it before (and lack the tools or the mentality to do so).

I’ve been in remote work for the past year, serving startups from the US and Europe. Not really my cup of tea, as I enjoy working in small teams and dealing with issues face-to-face and in real-time. I have a question, too. How do people in Singapore react to the current situation? I guess the media propagates overwhelming agreement, but what is your impression?

There’s been some criticism of the current management of the situation being too ‘soft’, compared to the no-nonsense policies of yesteryear, but overall, except from some areas, the implementation of many initiatives went down really fast, as was observed by many from different countries, and they also allowed for changes according to general feedback (that was brought up and discussed by the Parliament). We trialed interesting initiatives which I think quite original, employing the usage of a robot dog to dispense medication and make people aware of social distancing in nature parks, we re-employed flight stewardesses to work in healthcare during this time. It would be interesting to see which country Singapore will open the borders to, first. I have my suspicions it would be based on economical purposes.

The economical purpose would have been not to close borders at all. Getting everybody into the grid and making life outside of it impossible - that seems the narrative right now. I also think that pressure from China will play a role. It seems that Singapore and China are becoming very compatible.

It seems you have many thoughts on the subject having lived so close to China yourself.

Yes, living in Hong Kong and witnessing the negative impact of the CCP on all aspects of life has been a transformational experience for me. Just 10 years ago, I’d have labelled China one of the freest societies on the planet. But things have changed radically and I’m not even keen to visit anymore. In fact, Hong Kong is a part of China. There is barely a corner of the world that doesn’t have its own serious problems. The matter of a single city is of little importance in the grand scheme of things.

Well, economically speaking, we hardly contribute to the grand scheme of percentages in the world’s gross domestic product, so it’s surprising to me that we are often regarded to be highlighted in the world’s events of media reportage. I guess... no one dares to report about Russia...

Putin in a hazmat suit? I think Russia Today reports a lot on it ;)

You mentioned earlier about the stay-at-home gamers who will also be affected by lockdown policies.

Gamers get more time to play, game developers get more players. A win-win situation, it seems.

Is your 20 year old idea mainly about disrupting their behaviors?

Not at all. It’s the gamer’s behavior that can be harnessed. I believe that the only thing that gives value to things is human attention. Gamers spend a lot of it on whatever they do in games. To tie that to actual work at this point seems just a matter of interface. It’s not trivial, but if approached from both ends, this can succeed today in many industries already. Basically everything that is done on a screen. And with the rapid development in other field, even more so in the near future.

What is it about, then?

I can’t get too much into detail. But maybe this helps you to get an idea. If you are familiar with the concept of ‘farming’ in many online games, then it’s not too hard to compare that to similar repetitive tasks in work life. The difference is that in a game, people tend to enjoy doing things they hate in real life. If both is done on a PC, then one must wonder where that difference in perception originates. I believe it’s the environment. That is something a game developer can control, and if I may be so bold, much better than what we are presented with at work. The potential for improvement is huge, and so are the benefits.

That’s really cool. I like the part where you said about ‘enjoy doing things they hate in real life’. We could construct so many different worlds just based on that...

I see you got the point. 20 years ago, it was a silly idea, but not so much anymore.

Before you go, how do you see the world 5 years from now?

5G will bring a lot of changes. Most items we use will be connected to a gigantic network, the IoT. I think most of the gadgets we know today will become invisible. Buildings will recognize who’s trying to enter. Satellites will track everbody, algorithms will predict our behavior and exploit it. Vaccination will become mandatory and be enforced world-wide. Surveillance will be painless as long as you comply. People who don’t will be outcasts. I expect that to function similar to the way China’s social scoring system does. In the West, I believe there will be considerable armed resistance against this move and we’ll see that labelled as terrorism. And eventually be dealt with. Big corporations will exercise direct control of government. I’d compare that to what we commonly think of Nazi Germany. Science will be like a religion, partially nonsense, peddled by tech priests like Gates and Co. and not to be questioned by anyone. I can already observe that now. Most of us went to school and mastered basic math- yet few are able to apply that to the current crisis. People rather tend to blindly trust the co-ordinated media. If Immanuel Kant was living today, he’d call for a time of enlightenment.

Sounds like the small freedoms we have taken for granted will be called into question.

I think freedom requires a threat in order to even exist as a concept. You can only be free ‘from something’ and we’re looking into a future where those small freedoms become very valuable. But it’ll get a lot worse before it gets better.

Your insights provide me with so much to think about. Thanks for the chat!

Talk soon, have a nice evening!

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