Over the past year or two I've read a couple of books and watched a couple of films that personally I think would make epic video games.
The Realities of a Watch Dogs Future
Cities run by software, smartphones used as weapons, and a vigilante hacker who uses technology against its creators at will. With elements that sound like something pulled straight from the novel 1984, Watch Dogs’ plot has set itself up to be a techno-thriller that explores the impacts of technology on society. But even more interesting than the game’s story is how startlingly close we are to adopting its fiction into our real lives.
Watch Dogs’ protagonist Aiden Pearce lives in a near-future Chicago, but it’s not the same baseball and deep-dish pizza-loving city we know it as today. Instead, the city has been placed under the control of a Central Operating System (ctOS) that uses a network of cameras and sensors to monitor everything inside the city from traffic flow to criminal activity.
A software-run city may seem years away today, but there have been many companies and outlets that have recently begun discussing these so-called “smart cities” and how they are the proper next evolution in urban development. After all, as cities continue to grow in size, making sure that issues surrounding transportation and security will become all the more difficult to maintain effectively, and using a network of sensors that could monitor everything from energy use to home security would make for a much safer and more manageable environment for its citizens.
Problems arise, however, when you start to discuss anything that could potentially put someone’s private life at risk. In this day and age, there’s a strong negative sentiment toward ideas of surveillance and protected personal information in the minds of the public, so the word “monitor” carries with it some pretty heavy implications. Being watched by a camera or detected by a sensor everywhere you go is an unsettling thought for many, and because of this, the technology in development for these smart cities hasn’t always been met with the warmest of reception.
The possibilities and consequences of security compromises can’t be counted out either, especially when you look at how the system is used negatively in Watch Dogs’ setting. If software has the ability to run everything from traffic lights to building temperatures and processes large quantities of data at all hours of the day, then what would happen if someone was able to hack into it and use it for nefarious purposes? What would be put at risk?
Such is the double-edged sword of innovation; while we are fascinated with technology and the options it gives us day after day, we’re often equally dubious of it and how secure it really is in the long run. In Watch Dogs’ case, increased surveillance and technology has led to safer and more efficient cities, but has also seen a severe drop in personal privacy.
Despite these hesitations, however, smart city technology has still found a way to work itself into the lives of many. In 2012, a company called PlanIT began testing its UrbanOS software in the Greenwich Peninsula area of London. Sensors used to monitor and control indoor and outdoor lighting and heating systems were put in place, and the company even talked about using “smart streetlights” to monitor traffic and conserve energy by going dim when no cars were on the road.
It may seem like a far cry from Watch Dogs’ Chicago that monitors every aspect of daily life and stores a large amount of personal information about its citizens, but given time, it’s inevitable that the technology will evolve to the point where these ideas are explored and perhaps even used in our own backyard. Whether or not this is a good thing will ultimately depend on how it is implemented and whether or not it proves to be essential in successfully running a city, but it’s still interesting to consider how close to home the developers at Ubisoft have chosen to play it with their next gen action game.
Even more important and relevant to us than Watch Dogs’ ctOS is how it uses a smartphone as a core game mechanic. Like a lightsaber to a Jedi Knight, Aiden’s smartphone is the most indispensable and important tool he has. Using it, he’s able to hack into the ctOS and literally control sections of the world around him, bending the rules of the system at will to suit his needs.
Being that they’re able to connect to the internet from virtually anywhere and feature an application or functionality for countless uses, smartphones have quickly become some of the most important gadgets in our lives today. It’s amazing to see that we’re able to access everything from local restaurant reviews to Twitter in the palms of our hands, and we are constantly seeing new ways in which the technology of smartphones evolves in order to enhance our lives.
However, like smart cities, smartphones have also been subjected to their own criticisms surrounding security and how safe our information really is. How much personal information should we store on our phones, and how easily can that information be compromised? And being that actual phone calls make up a smaller percentage of a phone’s use than ever before, what else could the devices be capable of doing?
Using his smartphone, Aiden is able to access many parts of the ctOS and manipulate it to serve his needs. Sure, this might sound like it’s the work of a genius fictional sci-fi hacker, but using technology such as a smartphone to hack into something outside of itself is actually not at all a foreign concept.
Just last month, Forbes Staff Writer Andy Greenberg wrote an article that discussed his time driving a vehicle with two engineers who had hacked into the car’s operating system from within and had taken control of everything from the car horn to more critical functions such as the brakes and acceleration. While car companies have written car hacking off as a task far too complicated to cause any real alarm, researchers at two different universities were later able to penetrate the same critical systems of a vehicle using wireless devices outside of the vehicle and exposing the always-connected systems of a car such as OnStar or Bluetooth.
That’s not all that has been exposed, either. Certain types of credit cards have had their information gleaned by malicious apps on smartphones, gaping security holes in a phone’s operating system have been exposed countless times, and programs have found their way onto phones to help hackers steal your info. If this is possible now, why wouldn’t hackers like Aiden Pearce be able to use them for equally destructive uses in the future?
Of course, there are upsides to smartphone evolution as well. Using applications on their smartphones, people are now able to control many of the settings in their own homes, unlock their cars, pay for items at the store, translate foreign languages, and even check on their kids while at work. As these ideas continue to evolve and improve, it’s becoming increasingly clear that they’ve transformed from being phones with neat gimmicks into tools necessary for interacting with the world around us.
Great science fiction is often able to turn a mirror on ourselves and ask us questions about how mankind interacts with the technology it creates. Does it define us? Does it ultimately make our lives easier, or leave us more exposed to dangers we’d never previously considered? Playing on the fears we have about technology and our increasingly-connected lives, Watch Dogs has taken an interesting approach in showing us what may be in store if technology continues in the direction it’s headed. Whether or not it will ultimately be successful in its exploration of these themes has yet to be seen, but it’s already added to the conversation and given us a glimpse of a very possible future that is equal parts terrifying and captivating.