Sunday, February 13, 2011

Beyond Immedacy: Devolution...?

After last week's discussion, the concept of the Holodeck was proffered as the ultimate expression of Immediacy, by which I mean the ability to be totally and completely immersed in a fictional or virtual reality where any technological apparatus is completely and utterly hidden from the participant's perception.

I occurred to me that Immediacy doesn't end there, however. 'Being There' has never been enough for humanity and almost every individual, consciously or unconsciously, places their own 'spin' or personality on the subject material no matter what the medium. When reading a book, we put faces on the characters and dress them in our mind's eye as we would like to see them (sometimes even in the face of a complete description given directly in the text), we interpret their motives as good or bad and we often try to imagine what we, ourselves might do differently in certain situations.

This desire remains even when watching a film, which may show us directly what a character looks like and even what their motives and outlook are by the exaggerated body language of the actor, but restricts exploration of the fictional world to those areas where the director decides to place his camera and often leaves us with a lack of closure at the end of the film as to the further lives and experiences of the characters. At times, the feeling of helplessness as you watch a specific character do something incredibly stupid can be intense as you place yourself in their shoes and think 'all of this could have been avoided if I were that character' and 'no way would I go down in a basement, by myself, with no lights with a serial killer on the loose.'

Computer games give in to this impulse, in a limited fashion, allowing you to do what you want within the restrictions of the programming. Table-top Role Playing Games give even more freedom, the story being almost entirely free-form and unrestricted by anything but the imagination and the need to 'step-out' of the story to consult rules or roll dice, but lack the immediacy of a 3D rendered environment and automated rules handling by the computer.

Our theoretical 'Holodeck' is the ultimate form of immediacy, of course. You are 'there' for all intents and purposes and your actions are only restricted by what the virtual reality environment around you restricts you to in much the same manner as 'real' reality. What's more important about it, however, is not the level of reality it can recreate, but the level of 'unreality' it allows the user to indulge in. Here is an environment in which all your personal feelings, frustrations and peccadilloes can be set free to roam about in a world entirely of your own creation. And you can live there.

This can be entertaining, to be sure, and when you watch Star Trek the Next Generation, you see a bunch of enlightened folks doing proper things like reliving a Sherlock Holmes mystery or indulging their musical interests and then politely unplugging themselves when reality needs attending to. All very nice and orderly, but considering the main uses film, games and internet are put to today, this idealized idea of what the Holodeck would be used for in the future seems fairly naive.

What about those base aspects of humanity that are only given free reign through some sort of virtual reality?
Think all minorities are inferior beings and want to indulge your whip-wielding domination fantasies on them? Want a world of women (or men, or animals or zombies, whatever) who are debased before you in every manner you can think of and are devoted only to your pleasure? Want a world where Christians are hung up on crosses with their heads lit on fire like human torches while you fiddle in your coliseum, lord over all you can lay waste too? Want to be God? Or the Devil?

You can do these things today through film, video games or the internet and one might argue it has coarsened the human condition considerably as is, even within these Hyper-mediated mediums where reality can tug at your sleeve to remind you that it's 'all a game.' Imagine the effects on the mind of a person who can completely immerse themselves in their base desires with no interruption from reality, living in a world of the Id, in which the thoughts and desires of other human beings are completely subservient to their own. Nietzche' greatest dream and fear come true in one fell swoop.

Imagine a world of such people. All the millenniums of cultural evolution, all the lessons of morality and need for social norms, all of that gone out the window as our brains are restructured not only by technology (as many of the books I've been reading suggest) but by the reality we choose to live in. What kind of people come out of the other end of that?

So, the question is an age old one of 'just because we can do a thing, should we do it?' We have seen so many instances in history, particularly the last 100 years, where mankind's ability to create technology far outpaces his ability to understand its ramifications and responsibly use it. This is even truer today, when technological innovation comes at an exponential pace but our society is even more fractured and divided than ever before. And given the ability of technology to shape our thoughts and behavior, shouldn't we stop and try to understand that process a little better and try to predict the ultimate results before jumping feet first into the 'latest thing' to come down the technological pike and just 'see where it takes us?'

Another age old question, this time on morality and values, is brought to mind as I think about this. There is a strong movement in western civilization towards perspectivism and moral equivalency, basically 'there are no useful morals, no justifiable judgments, no need for values, just a need to be free to do whatever feels good to the individual.' This is considered by the secular progressive movement to be the only way to world peace and human enlightenment. But in the face of such transformative technology, where one's own desires are God, isn't a strong set of values and morals to guide the user absolutely imperative before entering such a world?

How can one fight the Id if there is no Superego to balance it out? And how does a person without a basic set of societal values interact with the rest of the world of the real, when the world of the unreal reinforces their most base instincts? And will they want to live in that world at all or just lose themselves in 'The Id Universe, where [Fill in the Blank]s want him (in the most perverse ways) and [Fill in the Blank]s want to be him, except for those [Fill in the Blank]s who serve him and never revolt at his violent abuse because they know their place.'

Things to consider as we move into a new age where the lines between humanity and technology are rapidly blurring...

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