That is the opening line to one of my favorite science fiction shows in the 90s called "Sliders." The premise of the show is simple: a group of people travel to different dimensions, where history played out different, and as a result their host societies have different cultural norms, values and/or beliefs. What if the United States lost the American Revolutionary War? Penicillin was never discovered? or gender roles were reversed?
An aspect of the show that I remember finding interesting was that in having to quickly adapt to (sometimes subtly) different worlds, the characters developed a method for exploration; after their initial reconnaissance, they'd reconvene in a hotel room (when it existed) and assess their (often dire) situation.
The way they "browsed" alternate worlds stuck with me when reading Mary's recent posts on new forms of fiction on the web:
Web reading tends towards entropy. You go looking for statistics on the Bornean rainforest and find yourself reading the blog of someone who collects orang utan coffee mugs. Anyone doing sustained research on the Web needs a well-developed ability to navigate countless digressions, and derive coherence from the sea of chatter.
Browsing takes us to unexpected places, but what do the starting points mean? Browsing does not begin arbitrarily. It usually begins in a trusted location, like a homepage or series of pages, that you can easily refer back to or branch out from. But ARGs, like World Without Oil, which Ben wrote about recently, require you to go some obscure corner of the internet and engage with it as if it was trusted source. But what if the alternate world existed everywhere you went, like in Sliders?
In college, a friend of mine mirrored whitehouse.gov and replaced key words and phrases with terms he thought were more fitting. For example, "congressmen" was replaced by "oil-men" and "dollars" with "petro-dollars." I don't remember the other phrases he replaced, but he had a clear idea of the world he wanted people to interact with (knowingly or not). The changes were subtle and website looked legitimate, so it garnered lots of attention. Those who understood what was going on sent their praise and those who did not, sent confused and often angry emails about their experience.
(I believe he eventally blocked domain because he found it disconcerting that most of the traffic and emails came from the military)
Although we'll need very sophisticated technology to apply more interesting filters across large portions of the internet, I think "Fiction Portals", engines that could alter the web slightly according to the "author" needs, could change the role of an author in an interesting way.
I want to play with the this idea of an author: Like a scientist, the author would need to understand how minor changes to society would manifest themselves across real content, tweaking words and ideas ever so slightly producing a world that is that is vast, believable, and could be engaged from any direction, hopefully revealing some interesting truths about the real world.
So, after playing around with this idea for a bit, I threw together a very primitive prototype that alters the internet in a subtle way (maybe too subtle?) but I think hints at a form that could eventually allow us to Slide.