Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Living Inside Of A Video Game

            In its growing diversification, consumer technology is extending itself into our lives in more and more ways.  A new device created by the Israeli company Oculus, a company that now belongs to Facebook, is going to totally transform the world of video gaming.  It is a wearable computer device called the Rift, and you put it over the head.  You put on the device and you enter a world of virtual reality.  Now there are many potential uses for this device, but one that will be of major importance will be that of allowing a person to actually experience living within a video game.  Not watching it from the outside and manipulating it from outside, but actually being a part of it.

            Gamers will, of course, love this.  They will be able to have a visceral experience of the game in which they are participating.  It will be qualitatively different from anything they have done in the past.  It will provide an incredibly heightened level of excitement, an incredible rush.

            It will also have some incredibly dangerous side effects.  Virtual reality starts out being a distinct compartment within human experience.  But just as people start blending together with computers and robots as they enter the world of experience of these machines, so the borders that exist between virtual reality, on the one hand, and the primary experience of the real world, on the other, will start to blur.

            Video games are already an addiction for many young people.  Imagine how much more of an addiction will be created by a game in which one temporarily has no experience of any world of experience outside of virtual reality.  And video games can be so exciting.  By contrast, for most people in modern technological society, life in the primary experience world has become pretty bland, predictable, pedestrian and mundane.  So if borders blur between virtual reality and the primary experience world, the direction of the blending is going to be from the virtual reality to the primary experience world, infusing the latter with traits of the former.

            This means that everyday life in primary experience becomes infused with traits of the video game.  Unlike everyday life, a game is built on defined discrete rules.  One’s actions in a game have very precise parameters within which they can operate.  Because there are defined actions or moves for playing a game, we can say that there is a delimited infinity of possible actions or moves in a game, unlike life in the world of primary experience where there is a flowing nondelimited infinity of possible actions or moves.  Returning to the discussions I have had of different kinds of infinity, we can say that the infinity of actions or moves in a game corresponds to the infinity of whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. – both positive and negative).  And the infinity of actions or moves in life in general more closely corresponds to the infinity of the number of points on a line.  Infinity theory in math teaches that the number of points on a line is greater than the number of whole numbers.

            So, to the extent that the virtual reality game could infuse our daily lives in the real world, it could gradually mold our responses in life to be like game responses and create a diminished infinity of response possibilities.  The focus would be more on black and white moves and actions rather than moves and actions based on a nondelimited infinity of shadings and nuances.  The focus will be more on a delimited infinity of defined discrete actions and moves that follow one another rather than a nondelimited infinity of blendable continual moves that flow into one another.

            Furthermore, a game model for life presupposes a person moving through life with a series of tactics and strategies for always winning.  Such a life posture is not conducive to a person actually bonding with other humans.

            Finally, playing in a game does not leave strong imprints on the surface of a field of experience in the way that making a baby, building a business, planting a tree, painting a picture or writing a book does.  Yes, in formal competitions, trophies are won and records are created, but such imprints are not left in ordinary private games.  And in video games, which people frequently play by themselves, there is not even the fleeting imprint that results from defeating an opponent.  Recording a new high score on the video game itself is more like an impersonal mark than an imprint.  There is no organic surface in cyberspace that can act as a template for making strong imprints.  And if a person is immersed in video games, he doesn’t have much time to make and preserve meaningful imprints to create a meaningful surrogate immortality and prepare for death.

            It is not just video games  for which the Rift can be used in human life applications.  One category of uses is the creation of a virtual representation of a task situation, so that a person can practice a task without making mistakes that could lead to serious consequences.  One example of this is a doctor performing virtual operations before actually operating on a patient.  In other words, supposedly the doctor would be able to perfect his technique without injuring or killing his patient.

            But there may be a problem here. Because of the lack of grounding in a material world, virtual reality is based in an experiential vacuum.  Experiential vacuums as a substrate create numbness in people, even when there is a lot of exciting dynamic surface activity occurring as in rock concerts.  The overstimulation of the rock concerts is a layer of experience that exists over the understimulation of an experiential vacuum from the lack of grounding of young people in modern life.  By the same token, underneath the excitement based on doing a highly skilled risky activity in virtual reality, there is a substrate of numbness living within the virtual reality.  Living a lot in virtual reality while practicing a virtual operation will make a doctor increasingly numb.  And the vacuum base of virtual reality will blur into real time performance.  Rather than preparing a doctor in a safe environment, virtual operations could increase the doctor’s state of numbness even in the material world and cause him to feel understimulated while carrying over the state of experience he had in virtual reality.  In other words, mistakes can be made from numbness rather than from the anxiety resulting from practice in real-life performance.  Or, by contrast, performing the operation in real life could seem very overstimulating in comparison to the practice that occurred in virtual reality.  After practicing in virtual reality, practicing in the material world could generate even more anxiety, more nervousness than if the person had started practicing the operation right away in the material world through primary experience.

            Another possible task situation is when a student driver is taught how to parallel park a car in virtual reality before actually doing it in a car.  Such a situation creates similar difficulties to a doctor operating on a patient.  A student driver could carry over the state of numbness that he feels when he practices parallel parking in virtual reality and be more prone to making mistakes as a result.  Or the student driver could be overstimulated by actually having to parallel park in the real world, and increased anxiety and nervousness, as a result, could lead again to being more prone to mistakes.

Finally, another application being conjectured is to be able to talk in the same room with someone who is actually far away.  Here we have similar problems to those created by Skype, only more so.  Talking with a three-dimensional image of someone is not the same as talking to someone in the flesh.  It is a numbing vacuumized experience that will spill over into human interactions in the real world of primary experience.  And again, it will numb encounters with real life people, so that bonds that are formed will be more shallow and tenuous.  Or else it will make encounters with real life people seem overstimulating and anxiety-producing, and induce a person to withdraw from such relationships.  Either way, it will make it more difficult for a person to sustain deep-bonded relationships in the real world of primary experience.

            The point is that virtual reality is not a safe neutral environment.  It is a sensorily distorted environment that, as a result of the experiential vacuum it creates for humans, also creates new and different dangers for humans.

            These dangers must be fully considered, before people start to eagerly embrace the idea of getting involved in all the different possible applications available in this exotic new world of experience.  People need organic friction to feel fully alive, something they are not going to get in virtual reality and its vacuumized world.  Virtual reality will lead to virtual life.


© 2014 Laurence Mesirow

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Positive Effects Of Friction In Our Lives

            Efficiency is based on the notion that if you have to do something, you might as well find a way of doing it in the quickest most frictionless way possible.  On one level, it means you end up having more time and energy to do the other things you have to do.  Within a business context, savings in time and energy means savings in money.  Less fuel is used and machines and humans have time to do more tasks.  Modern industries are always looking for new ways to increase efficiency.  It is a virtue that is enshrined in the modern work ethic.

            Nevertheless, something is gained and something is lost with our modern focus on efficiency.  What is lost is perhaps not always immediately obvious.  We can perhaps explore more fully what is lost when we look at pre-industrial traditional society.  There, people do not always look to perform their actions in the most efficient way.

            In most traditional societies, people do not tend to break up their actions a lot into isolated defined discrete steps.  There is not a science to getting an action precisely right.  Instead actions are performed as an organic continual flow.  Traditional society actions are coherent, and there is an art to performing an action with style.  It is not simply a matter of doing something right to achieve a particular goal at the end.  The whole action performed as a flowing continual cohesive unity is a goal in and of itself.  There is an art to fishing, an art to hunting, an art to gardening and to planting crops, an art to making implements and other necessary accessories of life.

            In a modern mechanical action, the focus is on the mark left on the world at the end of the action in the form of a discrete product or service.  In a traditional organic action, the focus is on the imprint left on a person’s field of experience throughout the whole course of the action.  The journey of the action is as important as the destination in terms of human validation.  When one is looking for efficiency in actions, the journey of the action is of secondary importance and the only source of human validation is the quality of the mark at the destination of the mechanical action, the quality of the product or service. 
            There is something else that distinguishes the actions of traditional people from modern efficient actions.  A traditional action is actually several different actions with several different ends.  There is the ostensive dominant sub-action within the action.  The sub-action which triggered the action process in the first place.  A group of men decide to go hunting for game to bring their tribe some meat.  Going hunting for meat is the dominant sub-action for each man in the group. However, interspersed with going on the hunt is the need for socialization.  While on their way to the hunting ground, the hunters talk, making and receiving imprints from each other in the conversation.  On a larger level, there is rooting themselves in the camaraderie of a group, feeling grounded in a segment of the larger group of their village.  The hunt will create a preserved memory imprint in the mind of all the hunters, a memory that will be discussed after the hunting action is done.

            On the way to the hunt, prayers or offerings can be made to the gods in order to have a good hunt.  Each hunt is not just an attempt to find food.  It creates a disturbance in the activity of the cosmos which must be dealt with properly.  If not, the hunt will not be successful.  The hunt makes and preserves a larger cosmological imprint than simply killing an animal or animals.  It affects the balance of nature; it creates a shift within the hunters’ field of experience.

            Hunting is in and of itself not necessarily an efficient way of obtaining meat.  An animal has to be followed patiently for a period of time, before the hunters are in a position to kill the animal.  And sometimes, the animal escapes.  Hunting is a true test of skill for each of the hunters.  It becomes a way of validating himself as an adult male member of his tribe and as a provider for his family.  Hunting for meat requires skill, patience and care more than efficiency.

            Hunting not only leads to the defined discrete survival of people as figure biological organisms.  It leads to the more nebulous flowing continual survival through grounded group interaction and to the internal flowing continual psychological survival through a successful demonstration of the art of using hunting implements and to the larger external flowing continual cosmological survival through an embracing grounded integration in the larger scheme of nature and the spirit world.  Efficiency strips an action of any other meaning other than arriving at a focused goal.  Efficiency turns an action into a temporally-defined figure floating in a vacuum.

            The point is that a lived life is more than constantly taking the straightest path from point a to point b.  And yet that is what a machine does.  But a machine does not have to satisfy a need to feel alive.  Even a complex robot cannot be construed to have an organic cohesive consciousness the way a human would have.  All of the many different operations to move a robot in different ways or to make it analyze or speak do not add up to consciousness.

            And frankly, the quick frictionless movements of efficiency are not very stimulating for a human.  A person loses his connection to himself, to the people around him and to his living environment, when he is at his most efficient.  He doesn’t feel the stimulation of the journey of the action flowing within him.

            Put another way, what point is there for a person to reach a destination, if he is unable to experience reaching the destination.  And he is not likely to experience reaching the destination, if he is unable to experience the journey that takes him to the destination.  A person has to be able to experience where he has been – his temporal grounding – in order to fully experience where he is arriving.  Making and preserving organic imprints is a flowing process, not simply disconnected points in time.

            But, some will say, we are living in a modern technological society built on machines and computers and robots, and we can’t simply get rid of them, or we will have a complete societal breakdown.  And we need the efficiency built on this modern infrastructure, or our society will become dysfunctional.

            My answer is that I am not trying to get rid of this machine infrastructure, but to minimize its influence, particularly among those people who are beginning to feel bothered by modern technology’s pervasive influence.  If people can understand that there is more that is potentially available in the journey of a human action than simply the possibility of attaining an end goal efficiently, they will become less obsessed with efficiency.  They will start focusing on psychological, social, environmental and cosmological grounding; creating good flowing complex actions; making, preserving and receiving good organic imprints; having rich vibrant experiences and ultimately preparing for death.  And focusing on these ideas will prevent people from sliding into machinehood or computerhood or robothood.  Too much efficiency diminishes our capacity for human experience. Too much efficiency very simply diminishes our capacity to be human.

(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow