Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What's going on in the NET?

Just like any other teenager in the late 21st  century,  Troy Bentley spends hour after hour surfing the NET – an Earth-like virtual world, where you serf in person and every Earth hour is a full day.

But Troy is no ordinary 15-year-old: He has a secret life. He and his bio-computer and best friend, Flint, surf the NET illegally, looking for adventures in the Random Areas, where no one is allowed. And when they stumble upon a "wormhole" that shouldn't be there – a "fold" in the NET fabric – they can't resist opening it to see what is on the other side.
The duo realizes too late the danger they have unleashed, but neither they nor the NET Security Unit hot on their heels, may be able to contain the terror that threatens the NET… and perhaps all life on Earth!

About the NET

It’s rather hard to describe the NET to someone who hasn’t experienced it first hand. I remember how I felt the first time I surfed – somewhat bewildered, a bit disoriented to begin with, but totally and absolutely fascinated. And that’s how I’ll bet you’ll feel when you get there, as you will eventually.

Oh, yes – everybody surfs! That’s the place to be, after all, in the last decade of the twenty-first century. Surfing is a term lifted from early computer-speak, when logging into a network of combined computers allowed the user (or surfer) to visit myriads, if not millions, of places at will. True, he didn’t actually visit those places (which were called websites). But he was a virtual presence there, if only as a temporary number.

Today, we have an equivalent in the NET – just magnified several thousand-fold. And the user surfs, just as in days of yore. Only now, visiting a site becomes much more vivid. You don’t stare into a monitor which describes to you in word, picture and sound the location you have visited. Instead, you are embedded into a virtual reality where all your senses are stimulated to the degree of real life. Your vision is not bounded by the frame of a monitor, nor is your hearing tuned to a speaker. You can see all round you as you would in normal life, and sound can emanate from anywhere as well. Furthermore, you can smell, taste and feel, alongside with feeling hungry, tired, tickled or in love.

And I haven’t yet touched on the issue of speeded up time… bear with me, please.

How, you may ask, is all this accomplished? I could brush you off with a curt ‘technology, my boy – technology!’ But I don’t suppose you’d buy that. So I’ll need to strain your scientific ken for just a bit to allow you a slightly deeper glimpse into the most basic staple of our times.

Three main technological breakthroughs afforded this near miracle. Let’s skip the credits to all those ingenious Nobel Prize winners that made this phenomenon possible, and stick to the facts as simply as I can understate them.

First of all came the discovery that virtual worlds were indeed possible. Simulated eco-systems behaved according to scientific principles, including the laws of evolution. This was the least significant of the breakthroughs as it was a natural continuation of research that had commenced almost a century earlier.

Second, and far more dramatic in its effect, was the invention of the surfing helmet. The user could “enter” this virtual world by creating a complete copy of himself. That is, the helmet created a simulation of the user and inserted it into the simulated world. Now here’s the nifty part - this copy of the user also carried his consciousness with it. The real, physical, flesh and blood user remained with the helmet on by his computer in the real world, in a state resembling a coma - while the simulation, the surfer, retaining all the physical and mental facilities of the original user, including personal tastes, memories, everything, traveled in the simulated world – the NET.

Why is it called the NET? Because all surfers come to the same virtual world. If I plant a tree at coordinates XY, and then you were to surf and arrive at those same coordinates, you’d find my tree there (it may have grown somewhat meanwhile). And if you chop it down, I and every other surfer to that location would encounter the stump you leave behind. See what I mean?

And by describing the NET now, we’ll also discover the third, and truly most remarkable, aspect of surfing. What began as tiny self-contained eco-systems as mentioned above, developed with time into an entire planet, just about Earth-sized – all simulated. Progress was sped up by accelerating the virtual world to very high speeds in relation to Earth. As a result, time ran slower in these virtual worlds, and processes that took extended periods of time could now be observed on Earth much faster. The faster the acceleration, the greater the time discrepancy between the virtual and the real worlds.

This became a material benefit when accelerations approached the speed of light. Today, NET acceleration slows down the NET twenty-four times the speed of time on Earth. In other words, if you wandered in the NET, surfing for twenty-four hours – on your return to Earth you would discover that only an hour had elapsed.

Now that’s quite something, isn’t it? Think of all the time-saving uses available just by donning a surfing helmet. Mainly, we have the learning aid – studying for hours, days, weeks in the NET, and returning to Earth with everything you’ve learned retained in your brain, with just a fraction of the time gone by. And there are endless other applications that I’ll leave you to think up for yourself – and then practice them in person in the NET

I’ve already mentioned the virtual world as a planet. Most of it obeyed complex algorithms coded before launching the project, but a small portion of the planet, about half the size of Australia, was dedicated to human habitation.

Sounds weird? People living in a virtual world? Actually, if you think about it a bit longer, it’s not so strange. In the initial stages the NET was visited only by scientists and researchers, but as technology made it increasingly accessible, the public streamed in. Today, practically the entire population of Earth surfs in the NET for several hours a day, and many stay there much longer. This means that there are about a billion surfers in the NET (actually in Netville, the city in the habitable section) at any moment in time. All of these surfers have personal sites on the NET, and most of them arrive in order to take advantage of facilities provided – libraries, theaters, restaurants, playgrounds, parks – you name it, it’s there.

These facilities are run by surfers, too, They don’t just visit the NET – they work there! They are aided by robots, called netters, who can exist only in the NET.

Netters are a concept a bit difficult to grasp, but I’ll give it a shot anyway. You just need to remember that everything in the NET – and I mean absolutely everything – is actually a computerized entity. The ground and the sky, the sounds and the food – everything you can see, hear, touch and smell – all are computer simulations.

So are you, the surfer, and your friend who chose to surf with you. You, too, are a computer creation. The difference is that you and other surfers are the only NET entities that are truly conscious. Non-surfers might appear to be conscious, but they would be only clever computer simulations. Netters are such entities. They look human and behave (to a certain extent) in a very human-like manner. But their intelligence is limited to those specific tasks for which they were created – usually menial jobs like sanitation, guards, drivers, waiters, builders… you know. By the way, pets in the NET (your common domestic cats, dogs and rabbits) are also created with the same technology.

Netville’s size is staggering. Half the size of Australia is big, and most of it is Netville - an immense, sprawling city with several ‘downtown’ nuclei, each of them the size of Manhattan. This gigantic metropolis is bordered by the Green Ocean on three sides, and a wide strip of desert on the fourth. Beyond the desert is uncharted continent.

Oh, yes – most of the virtual planet is left to itself, and remains unexplored. It is not a new frontier to be conquered, as Netville contains everything a surfer could require and there is no lack of space for expansion. No energy sources needs to be sought, and adventure seekers can get their thrills in Netville itself. Actually, going into the random areas (as they are known) is extremely hazardous. The dangers are so numerous – the terrain, the plant and animal life, practically everything – that survival is almost impossible. These territories are, therefore, out of bounds. Surfers who try to explore them (against regulations), usually get killed very early in their attempts.

Hey, don’t worry. Getting killed in the NET isn’t the end of the world. All that happens is that your surf is terminated, and you wake up on Earth with your helmet on your head and a message on your monitor. And you remember nothing of how you died, or indeed anything whatever about your last surf. That’s the way surfs that end abnormally behave. So what’s a normal termination? It’s when a surfer deliberately and consciously uses the NET’s Exit Button (more on these in a minute) to return to Earth. All his surfing memory and experiences (like hours of studying for a test, or driving a race car) are uploaded and updated to his real brain. If the surfer returns to Earth by any other means, like getting killed or by using the emergency escape ring (that every surfer wears on his pinky), the last surf is not registered in his memory. It’s as if he hadn’t surfed at all, and he had just had a dreamless sleep through that period.

Naturally, a place as huge and as complex as Netville needs administration, not to mention government. Suffice it for now to mention that there is an extremely efficient unit in charge of law and order – Babel. Not surprisingly, the largest threat Netville (and, in fact, the entire NET) could ever face is – bet you couldn’t guess this one – viruses! The nemesis of all computer systems! And by now you know enough about the NET to grasp what the consequences could be if the infrastructure of the NET were damaged, or even compromised, in any way. Babel’s foremost task is keeping viruses and their authors out of the NET, and it’s doing a remarkably good job, too.

Just one more word about transportation in the NET - I promised that earlier when I mentioned Exit Buttons. Actually, an Exit Button is one of the components of a Transport Box, so let’s talk about them first. These devices are strategically placed all over Netville – millions of them. They may seem like glorified telephone booths to you, and indeed there is some resemblance in their function. They serve to get surfers from one place in Netville to another – that is, you step into a Transport Box, indicate your destination, hit a button, and step out of another Transport Box at the location desired. The transition is instantaneous, and not so mystifying once you recall that ‘you’ are just a computer entity. Movement within Netville would be extremely restricted without the Transport Boxes, as distances are so vast that clan-like territorial subdivisions of the population would evolve – something we wouldn’t want to see happen.

Every Transport Box has an Exit Button in it. Any surfer could enter a Transport Box and request to exit by pressing this button. And right away he would have performed a normal exit as described above.

This, my friend and potential surfer, is the tip of the iceberg awaiting you. I had better quit here – as I would only spoil your fun in discovering new stuff for yourself if I rambled in. You have all you need to begin. Don’t hesitate - buy your surfing helmet today and join the NET community. If you need a confidence boost, surf with an experienced friend for the first time. And a last hint from me: When you enter your NET-site, go to your computer there (the simulated one, of course), and access the leading message board, Undercurrent. You will find answers to every imaginable question there. Everything I've told you and more. And you will find a lot of new friends as well.

So what are you waiting for?