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  • What We Talk About When We Talk About A Virtual World

    Thadeus told me about an article he was reading (the provenance now lost to our oversaturated, 35-plus-year-old memories) about the future of computing and artificial intelligence that quoted some professor (?) or some professional at a conference (??) who asked his students, all born in this new millennium, how humans will talk about computers in the future. Thadeus remembered the punchline of the article was a student who said something like “we won’t talk to our computers, like we do now. They will be a place. If we talk about them at all we will say ‘I’m going in.’”

     

    This bothered me. I pulled at it like gristle between my teeth. It was wrong headed somehow (uncredited and mis-remembered anecdote tho it was). It spoke to a larger fallacy that has been bothering me for decades in the way my culture discusses technology and the “real.” It seems like people are describing what they want to see, and not what is actually apparent. Like “3D movies” – which were supposed to have yet another emergence in the early aughts, but which have fizzled yet again because WE ALREADY HAVE 3D PERFORMANCE and cinema is NOT IT – what people are actually describing is their own imagination which fills in the cracks. They do not say “oh, that’s multiple 2D imagery layered together implying depth.” They say “wow, it’s receding into the deep!” And then aren’t sure why their heads are pounding for the next 40 minutes.

     

    They are responding to a fiction, but claim, with unacknowledged arrogance, to be responding to “science,” so much more valued in the overt consciousness of our society than the humanities. Back to “the article:” I guess first of all I was responding to the uninformed leap that increased computing power would somehow spontaneously forge a biosphere, even a “virtual” one.  (No less absurd to me than the idea that computers will evolve into independently conscious life forms as the “singularity”-phobes harp about). I mean, that’s just not thinking. Certainly, it contains no deep understanding of what computers are, or do. It’s seeing computers as an ultimate anthropomorphized projection of the self (i.e. religion), not as a tool (science).

     

    I read a book, Ada’s Algorithm, about Ada Byron Lovelace and her understanding that Babbage’s Analytical Engine could calculate not just numbers but anything that required a comparative relationship.

     

    In enabling mechanism to combine together general symbols in successions of unlimited variety and extent, a uniting link is established between the operations of matter and the abstract mental processes of the most abstract branch of mathematical science.

    A new, vast, and a powerful language is developed for the future use of analysis, in which to wield its truths so that these may become of more speedy and accurate practical application for the purposes of mankind than the means hitherto in our possession have rendered possible. Thus not only the mental and the material, but the theoretical and the practical in the mathematical world, are brought into more intimate and effective connection with each other.

    - Ada Lovelace, Notes

     

    So she not only “sees” computing, but sees that it is a method of exponentially increasing via “speedy and accurate practical application” human analysis, and the generation of human commodities.

     

    Then, read a NYT article (The Amazon-Walmart Showdown That Explains the Modern Economy), detailing how contemporary corporate dominance can only come from a union of algorythmical retail, and physical impulse. This seems an intensely apt description of the fundamental sameness of the Jacquard loom and the Analytical Engine. The programming makes clothes better, faster, cheaper. The programming draws the people to the clothes. The programming enables transportation, storage, delivery – all the physiognomy of a commodified life – to be faster, cheaper, more accurate.

     

    Thus, computing technology does not engender a new “world” – it is not analogous to a place. It is not a noun. It is a compound adverb: more + quickly.

     

    So, what is a “virtual world?” Why do we want to “enter”? Is it merely escapism: A theoretically non-human-generated space where the world’s ills won’t be our fault? Could it be aesthetic: A lo-res world with easier shapes, a simpler color range, and a less complicated fractal geometry? A safety blanket, or a blindfold?

     

    I told my theater students the other day that immersive theater was trying to emulate the holodeck. They’d never heard of it. They have a completely different relationship with the virtual. I think they can see it more clearly than my generation can. They see the “virtual” as it is: a human-generated false address. They know what it does: obscure identity, mask emotion, deflect culpability, shield vulgarity. They know it is the mask of the uncivilized – a designated playground for the id and its base impulses, which will out somehow no matter the attempt at regulation. But this syphoning of their wildness has left their exterior blatantly empty. They sit without affect, or shouldering a grimace, unspeaking, staring at their tiny screens while their thumbs tap, seemingly devoid of desire. As a result, they already hate their phones. They already see them as a trap; they already resent their addiction. They do not fantasize about jumping into their screens and living a life of 8-bit adventure. (This, at least, is a blessing.)

     

    But they are afraid of their own world. They look at each other with distrust. They have forgotten how to make friends easily, how to manage boredom, how to be unsure. They are terrified of “getting it wrong.” They are terrified to be alone with themselves. What will technology’s “more + quickly” give to them?

     

    More stuff doesn’t make us feel richer. More tags don’t make us feel more connected. Quicker services don’t give us more time. Faster tasks don’t give us more leisure. What is it for?

     

    Mars. I guess. We’ll get to Mars in my lifetime. And we’ll live in literal space-suits instead of (and in addition to?) our emotional ones. The virtual landscape will have prepared us for desaturated vistas with pockets (“lands”) of relatively complicated existence surrounded by copy/pasted open-world dead zone.

     

    But: that’s it. Mars. The technology leads the discovery. It is not a coincidence that computers rushed into development as the quest for space travel became an international “race.” The understanding and capability had existed for nearly 100 years, but the purpose of computing remained unclear. There is no need to be able to compute as fast as an electric computer, until there is. There is no reason to replace our rich, complicated world with a poor, flat facsimile. Until there is. [Insert inevitable and endless cast-from-Eden similes here.] All this “ai” and “virtuality” is exactly to create the holodeck. Why does a car need to see like a person? It doesn’t. But a rover does. Because a person can always drive better than a robot, but only on earth. Why do we need to be satisfied with a “lo-res” artist-rendered illustration of a landscape? Only when that landscape is impossible to experience in person. The technology is making our exile possible, and simultaneously generating the comfort we will need at that distance of space and time.

     

    And so the screen is, in fact, a portal. But not to a “land.” It’s an entrance to a psychological state. As television has replaced the analog action of telling stories by the fire, the screen – the “virtual reality” – will replace the visit home, the letters from loved ones, the family dinners. The screen will show us what we left behind (on one side), and where we fear to tread (on the other). We will not “go in,” but we will use the rendering as a scaffold for our imagination, just as the loops of handwritten “g”s and “w”s once did. The same way we used to imagine ourselves just out of frame, on the margins of a piece of paper stained by silver. The object is a tool for our faster, more accurate fantasies. It is not a salvation in itself. It is a rosary, a stick of incense, a prayer mat. It is a symbol, a tactile metaphor for something we do in our own psyche. It is, like the best computer, an enabler of our own imagination.