Last month I went on a walk with my friend Ezra. It was his birthday, so we walked for almost two hours, drinking coffee, eating cinnamon rolls, and talking about semantics and coding. The funny thing is that Ezra lives on the West Coast and I live in New York, so we conducted our entire conversation by cell phone, with him walking through Ballard and Loyal Heights, and me walking through Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst.
Cell phones have been around for decades, and I’m sure we’re far from the first to walk together this way. You’ve probably done it yourself. But it reminded me of Isaac Asimov’s 1956 novel The Naked Sun, in which our hero Elijah Baley visits an Earth colony on the planet Solaria, where all the colonists live on separate estates, with at most one spouse and possibly an infant child, surrounded by robots who tend to their every need, almost never seeing one another in person. They interact socially by “viewing” each other through realistic virtual-reality projections.
Baley interviews a murder suspect, Gladia Delmarre, and is intrigued when she tells him she goes on walks together with her neighbor. “I didn’t know you could go on walks together with anyone,” says Baley.
“I said viewing,” responds Gladia. “Oh well, I keep forgetting you’re an Earthman. Viewing in free motion means we focus on ourselves and we can go anywhere we want to without losing contact. I walk on my estate and he walks on his and we’re together.”
I had no visual contact with Ezra during this walk. I’ve seen people “viewing in free motion” on FaceTime. We could probably have rigged something up with a GoPro camera and Google Glass, but it would most likely not have been much like on Solaria, where I could have looked over and seen a chunk of Seattle superimposed on Queens, with Ezra walking across it next to me.
The biggest reason not to attempt any visual presence is that it was dangerous enough for me to be crossing the street while talking; it would have been much worse if the virtual view of the cars on 24th Avenue NW were blocking my view of the cars coming at me down Northern Boulevard.
Of course, on Solaria all the cars were (or will be?) automatic, and there are armies of robots to protect the humans from danger.