Toys of the Trade

Sven Johnson returns to Futurismic for another instalment of Future Imperfect.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

Cyberpunk literature mirrored its era by speaking of the the fetishism of hardware; Sven takes a look at the state of play today, where what were once tools are now toys, and where complex design modeling software is available at the click of a mouse to anyone who wants it … as part of a video game.


One of my favorite William Gibson short stories is “New Rose Hotel”. I first read it in 1988 somewhere on the ocean between San Diego and Panama. Particularly memorable for me, as I sailed south on a ship equipped with weapons so outdated they would later elicit laughter from South American sailors, was the high-tech shopping list rattled off near its conclusion. It’s been two decades but it remains embedded in my memory.

A freezer. A fermenter. An incubator. An electrophoresis system with integrated agarose cell and transilluminator. A tissue embedder. A high-performance liquid chromatograph. A flow cytometer. A spectro-photometer. Four gross of borosilicate scintillation vials. A microcentrifuge. And one DNA synthesizer, with in-built computer. Plus software.

Beyond the exotic-sounding devices – sure to get the attention of an aspiring product designer – this paragraph was memorable for Gibson’s audacity in suggesting someone, even a corporate double-agent, could be casually hauling around a personal Cray (super)microcomputer and using it to … shop. The nerve.

Today, of course, Cray is little more than an obscure brand name, but in 1988, a Cray was exotic unobtainium; synonymous with The Future, like artificial intelligence, transhumanism and blisteringly fast pocket calculators with solar cells.

The trade name fit better in the context of a cyberpunk story than it did in real life. If you wanted to lend futuristic authenticity to your science fictional prose, you’d just stick “Cray” in front of whatever mundane thing you were describing; Cray microwave, Cray moped, whatever.

In 1988, a Cray Y-MP sported up to eight processors; each peaking at a blistering 333 megaflops. It was a larger-than-life computing monster housed inside an expensively designed archi-product hybrid shell.

Today, everyday low prices will get you a smallish Sony PS3 game console measuring its performance in gigaflops, while that Y-MP is little more than fodder for creative consumerism.

Of course, you all know this. “That was then, this is now” comparisons litter techie websites and magazine articles. Only I’m not here to discuss hardware. That’s just environmental. I’m here to draw attention to those last two words:

Plus software.

It’s almost an afterthought. I certainly didn’t assign much importance to those two words back when I first read this story. But as they say, God (or the Devil) is in the details. Or perhaps in a God-game.


As most of you are aware anticipation is building over the forthcoming release of Will Wright’s videogame, Spore; very likely the most eagerly awaited game release in years. If nothing else, it’s certainly one of the most discussed videogames. For some of us, however, interest stems not from gameplay but from some of the groundbreaking procedural technology being used to power the game and its associated tools.

Wright describes Spore as a “creative amplifier”, and I believe him. From the videos I’ve watched, Spore‘s built-in 3D modeling seems both intuitive and powerful; in some ways not very different from some recent developments in the evolving CAD/PLM industry. As a consequence, I’ve been following rumors and reports regarding an announced early release for Spore‘s “Creature Creator” toolset.

Call it serendipitous, but while following Spore news I was alerted to an announcement regarding Nanorex’s NanoEngineer-1 software. According to the Next Big Future blog, on 24 April, Nanorex will be releasing their molecular modeling application to the public.

I vaguely recall reading news of Nanorex’s 3D molecular modeling CAD application, but I’d not previously seen images or animations. Both are startling.

More startling, however, was being made aware of something I’d apparently managed to miss in earlier announcements: the NanoEngineer-1 application is open source. “Please return your seat backs to their full upright and locked position,” because this is worth some attention.

On one hand we have the availability of a consumer-friendly but powerful 3D modeling toolset built into a low-cost videogame; essentially an entry-level training application. On the other end of the spectrum we have a 3D molecular modeler “created for anyone with a personal computer” (plus source code), free to download and modify.

I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but I’ll admit to wondering where the broader discussion is taking place regarding this particular area of convergence. When I’m also reading stories of government incompetence in the handling of sophisticated hardware and high school kids ordering materials to construct bombs, it just seems to me that the public should be discussing these things. It’s one thing to have the hardware. It’s another thing to have the training and knowledge. And still another thing to have the software. It’s a scary thing to me when just about anyone potentially has all three at their disposal.

Looking back, Gibson’s 1988 audacity pales in comparison to our 2008 reality; what were once tools of the trade have become toys. How far off might I be, on this topic, in 2028?


Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the U.S. military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]