This book combines The Amazing Race, the golden ticket in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the virtual world found in the book Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. Definitely one of the best books I read in 2011!
It’s 2044 and the world has become a dark and destitute place. The people are saved from having to slog through their dismal reality by the invention of a virtual world called OASIS. Jacking into OASIS allows you to become a part of a digital universe with limitless possibilities. However, the amount of access you have depends on the money you’re able to spend for gear and the quality of your connection.
Virtual worlds are only as utopic as the people within them, and humans have a tendency towards power plays. In this setting, the power is through the internet connections and ability to manipulate OASIS once there. There is one company, in particular, who is close to monopolizing all the connections, and would like nothing better than to own OASIS for themselves.
However, James Halliday, the founder of OASIS, wanted his world to be accessible to everybody. As he lays dying, he sees the imminent power struggle on the horizon and knows he will not be around to stop it. So, he comes up with a plan. He will make the world’s largest scavenger hunt and set up clues and puzzles throughout OASIS.
The person who solves them first will be the new and invincible leader of OASIS. They will be the keeper of the key, to be used positively or negatively. Wade, our protaganist, is a poor kid with a long shot. His imagination is sparked by the possibility that anybody could win this race and he sets off to do the impossible, be the first to solve the scavenger hunt.
Even as the years pass, and the rest of the world’s interest wanes, Wade carries on with his research, until one day he comes across the solution to the first puzzle and re-ignites the fervor once again. So sets up the race between good and evil. A struggle to be the first person to find the prize that will unlock unlimited power, in both real and virtual worlds.
Anybody who grew up in the 80s and remembers the music, movies, tv shows and old video games fondly will enjoy this book. It brought back nostalgia of playing Space Invaders on the Atari and the excitement I felt the morning I received my first Nintendo.
Despite the 80s trivia, there are a lot of themes in the book that relate to concepts our society is grappling with now. Most notably, it addressed issues in regards to net neutrality and open source coding, the ability to control the flow of information and education, how we interact with each other virtually and in reality, and what constitutes a relationship and friendship.
It also acknowledged the complications in how we define ourselves and the concept of self-identity in a real and virtual world. How, sometimes, it’s easier to relate to our handle and online persona than to our actual self.
If you are familiar with online games such as Everquest and World of Warcraft or if you’ve ever kept a blog or interacted with Facebook and social media, you will recognize the world of OASIS. Don’t get me wrong, OASIS was not a regurgitation of those worlds. Rather it was the next horizon of what will become possible.
It was especially refreshing how OASIS was integrated into more productive aspects of everyday life, particularly when it came to education and public learning. I loved the ideas introduced with online classroom learning and being able to fully engage students into a subject. Could we be looking at a solution to our underfunded public schools and a new frontier for educating our society?
Evidence suggests that this would be the case. I recently came across an article that talks about the new role of technology in our classroom and how it’s being used to connect and inspire students to their lesson material. Months after reading this book, I’m still left thinking about these ideas.
That, alone, should convince you read this book!