Unification of Science and Spirit -- Copyright Ben Goertzel © 1996
THE VIRTUAL WORLD
Nothing is real
-- John Lennon
Some get strong, some get strange
Sooner or later, it all gets real
-- Neil Young
Reality is whatever doesn't go
away when you stop believing in it
-- Philip K. Dick
Annamaya, physical reality, is the domain of "everyday life." It is what, in the modern Western mind-set, is commonly taken for absolute reality -- for the be-all and end-all of existence. It is also the domain of most physical science. Chemistry, classical physics, molecular biology, zoology, botany -- everything trapped between the quantum level and the human level -- all deal with the category I have called World.
A great deal of classical philosophy, Western and Eastern, deals with the nature of annamaya. Classical philosophy asks questions like: "What is this world we see in front of us? Where does it come from? What is it doing to us? What are we doing to it?" In this chapter I will ask these same philosophical questions, but from the rather unorthodox perspectives of computer science and virtual reality.
Computer science has led a number of modern thinkers to the view that the world, annamaya, is a computational entity. Virtual reality is a newfangled technology, which barely even exists yet, but it has an important point to teach us. It brings this emerging computational view of the world to life. It provides a concrete model for thinking about the idea that the everyday world is not absolutely real, that it is an epiphenomenon, a collection of computational patterns. The world that we live in now is every bit as virtual as a world created inside a computer of the year 2112.
I will argue here that the computational view of the world is, in fact, closely related the spiritual view of the world. This idea is one of the key points of the philosophical attitude I call hyperrealism. It is a link between technology and spirituality -- a link which is simple enough in itself, but does not seem to have been previously recognized.
Based on the link between virtual reality and spiritual philosophy, I will make some radical futurological predictions, hinted at in the Prelude. I will argue that as virtual reality technology becomes more prevalent, recognition of the virtuality of everyday reality will increase, thus having an "enlightening" effect that I call electronic eschatology. In other words, the possibility is open for future generations to use VR as a short-cut to spiritual experience -- a short cut sure to be preferable in many ways to the psychedelic experience.
Having established that the world is "virtual," it still remains to understand what makes the world "hold together," what makes it appear as real and solid as it does. This is where it is well worth asking what the science of complex systems has to teach us about the construction of that most complex system of all: the world itself. But this question will be put off until later chapters. For now, we will content ourselves with exploring the virtuality of it all.
THE DUBIOUS REALITY OF THE WORLD
Before entering into virtual reality and computational philosophy, I will discuss the question of the reality of the world on a purely philosophical level. Some of the ground for this discussion was laid in Chapter 2, with the discussion of spiritual reality. Here, however, I would like to keep the discussion more concrete and personal. Instead of Buddha or Nietzsche, I will begin with "Row, row row your boat."
Every American child learns the song
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream ...
The melody is fairly plain, but sung as a round, it has a rather nice ring to it. Most children seem to pass it over without much notice. When I first learned the song, however, it threw my mind for a bit of a loop. I was unwilling to merely accept it as a nice little ditty. I puzzled over the lyrics again and again. My perplexity was rendered even greater when I heard the following alternate version on the TV show Mr. Roger's Neighborhood:
Propel, propel, propel your craft
Gently through liquid solution
Ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically
Existence is but an illusion
"Existence is but an illusion, eh?" I thought to myself, worldly-wise as only a precocious five-year old can be. "Maybe so, maybe so...."
A few years later, when my mother was taking graduate courses in Oriental history, I poked around in her schoolbooks and found similar sentiments expressed much more impressively and extensively. I spent idle hour after idle hour pondering such gems as "The sound of one hand clapping," and "Am I a man who dreams he is a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he is a man?" I imagined an entire universe living inside my thumb, which would unfold itself to me if I simply concentrated hard enough....
I noticed how, when listening to a completely repetitive sound, such as a ticking clock or a dripping water-faucet, my mind would spontaneously impose all sort of fancy melodies. I would actually hear the clock going tick-(pause)-tick-(pause)-(pause)-tick-tick-tick-tick, over and over again ... but then, when I forced myself to pay close attention, I would realize that the modulations of timing weren't really there. The next day it would be going tick-tickity-tick-(pause)-tick-tick-tick-(pause)-tick-tickity-tick instead.
This humble observation struck me as a major scientific discovery. Perhaps, I mulled excitedly, all the patterns and structures in the world around me were just as illusory as these fanciful melodies. Yes, I saw and felt the world, but I also genuinely heard the melodies, even though they "weren't there"....
Perhaps, I told myself, the world was only there when you were truly paying attention to it -- and all the rest of the time it was improvised, like my little tick-tick melodies.... This whimsical hypothesis led me, after a few years, to another interesting topic for investigation. How much of the time, I wondered, was I actually consciously aware of what was going on? I estimated one percent, but figured I might be off by a factor of ten in either direction.
I set myself the improbable task of becoming consciously aware all the time -- aware of every time my feet hit the ground, every time I saw a word in a book, every time I took a breath of air. Aware, aware, aware!
But what I found, very quickly, was that this made it quite difficult to do things. Walking was OK, but reading a book while being acutely aware of each word was mental torture. My speed-reading ability, on which I prided myself, could not survive this treatment. It seemed clear that our ability to do things efficiently was predicated on our not being conscious of our every action. So, in other words, if unconscious action was illusion, then illusion was necessary. There was no way out!
Morality was also a cause of constant confusion. I found myself generally unable to hurt others, without understanding why. Some elderly relatives tell the story of how, when I was five years old, they saw my two year old sister walk up to me and ask for one of my candies. I only had one left, so I smiled weakly and gave it to her. I turned to them and said, "It feels good to give something to someone when you don't want to." I wasn't trying to be clever, but merely expressing, with childish directness, the paradox of morality that endlessly disturbed me. If I had wanted to give it to her, it wouldn't have felt good to do so, it would have felt like nothing. Somehow, I felt, morality was a pleasure taken from self-denial, and this was unhealthy. If the existence of others was a dubious proposition anyway -- life was just a dream! -- then why should it be enjoyable to deny myself something in favor of someone else? Could it be that somehow by extending my compassion to others I endowed the world with life? But this proposition was almost too strange to entertain.
This fascination with the insubstantiality of the world never left me. In college, I would infuriate casual acquaintances by informing them, matter-of-factly, of their own nonexistence. "You're not conscious," I would say. "You're not real. You're just a product of my unconscious imagination. You're a spontaneous hallucination. When I recover my senses in a minute or two, you'll be gone...!"
So far as I know I never convinced anyone of their own nonexistence. However, I did have the experience of having to convince a friend, whose incessant LSD use had finally taken its toll on his mind, that he did in fact exist. His nonexistence was very vivid and very upsetting to him, not a subject of doubt at all, extremely different from my musing, meditative skepticism. I told him that he was being ridiculous, that obviously he was just as real as anyone or anything else; but this did not assuage him in the least bit. Finally I put aside my inner doubts and reassured him, over and over again, that he was absolutely real and solid.
My drug-infused friend, I realized, was wrong in his extreme denial of the world. The world was there in a a sense that he, in his delusion, did not acknowledge. But on the other hand, there was a grain of truth underlying his madness: the world was not there in a sense that the ordinary person's "realistic" view did not acknowledge. The world was neither a totally meaningless illusion nor a solid, given fact. It was something inbetween, something that I didn't know a word for....
I recalled from my mother's schoolbooks the Buddhistic distinction between the "nirvanic" and "samsaric" views of the world. In the nirvanic view, the everyday world is insubstantial, it is just a kind of "dream." Since the world has no true reality, it is unable to cause strong emotions; it just floats past, an array of breaking, blending forms. In the samsaric view, on the other hand, the world is solid and real, and the mind is in its grip; the world controls the mind by the manipulation of emotions. This is a rigid distinction: the world as illusion versus the world as solid reality. But yet the highest level of spiritual development consists of the deep realization that "nirvana is samsara and samsara is nirvana." The distinction between real and not-real is a farce; only by overcoming this distinction does one arrive at true understanding. I had never fully understood this before, but now, as I mulled my friend's predicament, it was absolutely clear to me.
Of course the insight didn't last. This is -- as I willemphasize later on -- one of the flaws of undisciplined spirituality. It tends to produce highly erratic "growth patterns" -- periods of exalted understanding followed by intervals of utter confusion. Other periods of deep insight were to come later, some much greater in length -- some via my own use of psychedelic drugs, some via meditation, and some just, or so it seemed, via random chance. The most important thing, however, was the vivid and definite realization that there was another way of looking at the world -- a way of looking at objects as being both there and not there, both substantial and insubstantial, both permanent and fleeting....
The technical term for my drug-infused friend's attitude is nihilism. Most people have, at one time or another, experienced the feeling described in "Row, row, row your boat" -- felt the dreamlike nature of the world, doubted the substantiality, the very "reality" of everyday reality. But these feelings tend to fade with age, often peaking during the teenage years, when social alienation is at its greatest. And when they do spring up during adult life, they are usually rapidly dismissed. "Yes, I've had those doubts too," my father explained to me once when I came to him with my childish puzzles. "I didn't answer the questions, I just eventually put them aside and got on with other things."
On the other hand, every now and then there comes along a human being who is unable to put aside these feelings of existential doubt -- a person who is, instead, dominated by these feelings, absolutely overtaken by the sense that it's all an illusion, nothing is really there. It is for these rare individuals that the labels of "solipsist" and "nihilist" were invented. Believing in nothing, not even the sentience of his fellow human beings, the nihilist is free to do whatever he wishes to his illusory surroundings. It's all a dream anyway!
My friend, for the brief time span of his nonexistence-obsessed acid trip, was a true nihilist -- or at least, as close to being a true nihilist as any human being can come. He genuinely believed in nothing, not even himself, not even the floor beneath his feet. He was absolutely incapable of doing anything, so overtaken was he with the feeling that the world was just ephemeral dream-fragments floating past. At first he was unable to listen to my words, since they and their speaker were no more substantial than anything else. Personally, despite a lifelong fascination with the topic, I have never experienced a nihilism anywhere near this complete, at least not for more than a few odd moments.
Nihilists are, it would seem, more common in literature than in reality. In Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut introduces the character Dwayne Hoover, a frustrated car dealer who reads a science fiction book informing him that he is the only conscious human being in a world of android robots. Having thus learned that his world is just a fiction, he proceeds to kill one "robot" after another. Eventually Vonnegut himself appears inthe narrative, explaining to the characters that he holds their fate in his hands. The previously solid reality of the story is now exploded: confronted with its own fundamental falsity, it reverts into an ontological chaos.
Going back a little further in history, Dostoevsky's books teem with miserable nihilists: there is Kirilov in The Possessed, obsessed with suicide; Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, committing murder for aesthetic reasons; Ivan Karamazov, spinning intricate philosophical fables about the meaninglessness of the world; and of course, the Underground Man, so far consumed by his nihilism that he is barely able to keep his body alive. In Dostoevsky's world, when one abandoned belief in God and Mother Russia, there was nothing left; the only alternative was absolute mental and spiritual confusion. And, though this view seems absurd when promoted by modern figures such as Solzhenitsyn, it was fairly well justified in its historical context. The nihilistic attitude was particularly common among the Russian youth of Dostoevsky's day, and probably was associated with the fading popularity of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Tsarist government. Dostoevsky realized that, while there is no particular idea (God, country, whatever) that is necessary for the avoidance of nihilism, nevertheless the loss of any ruling, world-rationalizing idea will tend to foster nihilism. And what he saw around him was a whole generation of Russians losing the ruling, world-rationalizing ideas that had supported their fathers and grandfathers.
Dostoevsky himself fluctuated between the extremes of nihilism and religious devotion; it was, no doubt, his own personal experience that gave him such keen insight into the subject. It seemed he was never completely satisfied with either end of the pendulum's swing. And, indeed, realism and nihilism are both, in their own way, untenable attitudes. Realism is frustrating and irrational. It requires you to ignore the obvious arguments for skepticism -- after all, how do you really know you're not a butterfly (or a space amoeba!) dreaming you're a human, who will awaken in five minutes? Realism requires you to consistently hush your "inner voices" preaching doubt and confusion and questing spiritual freedom. On the other hand, nihilism, though perhaps more rational, is even more frustrating: it gives you, literally, nothing to go on. Everything is divested of meaning. There is no reason to continue, and no reason to stop.
Of all Dostoevsky's characters, only Alyosha Karamazov hints at having discovered a satisfactory world-view beyond these two alternatives. Prince Myshkin in The Idiot seems to have discovered such a thing, but then collapses into madness, his Christlike universal compassion too extreme to survive the manipulative bitterness of human society. And, of course, Alyosha's character is never fully described -- The Brothers Karamazov, which was Dostoevsky's last book, deals only with Alyosha's childhood. For all its thousand-page bulk, it was intended as the introductory segment of a longer work.
I was introduced to nihilism through personal experience and through literature. The role of nihilism in philosophy was brought to my attention by my college philosophy teacher, a balding ex-monk named Ed Misch, who had once spent several years under a vow of silence. He always struck me as the embodiment of wisdom -- as much for the eternally placid and satisfied look on his face as for his exhaustive knowledge of history, philosophy and theology. I raised my philosophical doubts with him time and time again, both and out of class. We had many enjoyable discussions, but he never took a side, for or against reality; for him the point was in the process of weighing the issues.
We debated pragmatism, the philosophy founded a century ago by the American Charles S. Peirce, which holds that the only things worthy of attention are the real, measurable properties of entities. I wrote a brief paper arguing that pragmatism was logically flawed, because it ignored the possibility that real, measureable properties don't exist -- but Ed was disappointingly unimpressed. He was more pleased with a paper I wrote on Benjamin Lee Whorf (to be discussed in a later chapter here), whose radical theory of mind and language I saw as forming a link between Peirce's philosophy and the concerns of contemporary philosophers of artificial intelligence.
He introduced me to the older Sophists, Gorgias and Protagoras, who argued most adroitly for the nonexistence of the world. And, more importantly, he introduced me to Nietzsche and the existentialists, who embraced the feeling of "Existence is but an illusion," and hinted that it was somehow possible to move beyond this feeling, without moving back to simple realism. The existentialists find in the inner self a kind of power which lifts one out of nihilism, into a new and more vivid kind of existence. Kierkegaard, generally considered a proto-existentialist, spoke of the "leap of faith" -- the act of will by which one believes one's way out of the nothing, much as Dostoevsky believed his way out of his Underground-Man states of mind, by seeking out within himself a consciously irrational faith in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Slowly, as I read more and more, I realized that Buddhism and existentialism, despite their very different vocabularies, were both getting at the same sort of thing: a state inbetween reality and unreality -- a state, to use Philip K. Dick's felicitous coinage, of "semireality." Nirvana is unreality, samsara is reality, and semireality is -- what? The paradox is that this semireality is not in every sense less real than ordinary, solid reality. It is in fact more vivid, more intriguing, more alive -- it is reality come to life. In this sense semireality is more real than "real" reality....
These ideas intrigued me without end, because, more than any other philosophy I had studied, they resonated with my own experiences and observations. So these philosophers, too, had sensed the presence of a middle way -- a path between the utter nihilism of my friend's drug trip and the blinkered realism of the average human being.... Amazing, I said, tell me more! But on these topics my teacher was uncharacteristically uninformative, and I realized that my philosophical journey was sharply diverging from his. He was a deeply spiritual man, buthis fairly conventional Christianity had no obvious relation to the kind of understanding I was seeking. If I was going to search for the other side of nothing, I would have to rely on my own devices.
One sure way to win people's hearts is to propose a dichotomy. The good way versus the bad way; false understanding versus true understanding. Taking the way labeled as "good" then makes people feel good. We enjoy communing with others taking the "good" way, and feeling superior to those poor fools who have taken the "bad" way.
A time-worn variation on the same theme is the trichotomy. For instance, Buddhism labels itself the "middle way." On the one extreme, asceticism, on the other extreme, worldly indulgence, and in the middle, the moderate, reasonable path: Buddhism. The trichotomy archetype is epitomized by Hegelian philosophy, with its thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It is also highly visible in modern politics: nearly everyone wants to be thought of as a moderate, a centrist, repudiating the extremists on the right and the left ... a tendency which always makes me think of Benjamin Franklin's saying, "Moderation in all things, including moderation."
These twofold and threefold divisions are oversimplifications, but they help us to understand. Along the same lines, what I am proposing here is a new simplification, a trichotomy. There are three ways, I am saying, of approaching the world. Two of them are well known: realism and nihilism. The third is less well understood, though it has been proposed under a variety of different names. Coming from the realistic side, one might call it hyperrealism; coming from the nihilistic side, transnihilism. In traditional trichotomous fashion, I contend that this third path is the best one, better than realism or nihilism in all respects.
Realism poses a strict distinction between concrete objects in the physical world and inventions of the mind and spirit. On the one side are hard cold facts, on the other side opinions, feelings, intuitions. Realism is the consensus world-view of modern society; it is the philosophy underlying Newtonian physics. It has been very useful but has also had some unfortunate consequences: it has caused generations of Westerners to virtually deaden themselves to the inner, spiritual, "unreal" side of their lives.
Nihilism, on the other hand, poses no distinctions whatsoever. Everything is equally unreal. Nihilism is based on a powerful insight: it recognizes that everything is relative. After all, if every thing is defined in terms of other things, then where do the circles of definition bottom out? The whole world must be meaningless. Nihilism goes hand in hand with solipsism, with the feeling that no one, with the possible exception of oneself, is actually alive and conscious.
So what is hyperrealism, transnihilism, the third path? The third path involves acknowledgement of both the relativity ofbeing and the temporary vivid solidity of being. It recognizes that at the deepest level the universe -- mindspace -- is a system of processes, producing and supporting each other. Some of these process systems intersupport each other in a particularly stable way: examples are belief systems, or individual minds, or, at the utmost extreme of stability, physical objects. Hyperrealism sees the whole world as real, solid, vivid, alive -- the physical world as well as the mental and spiritual realms. But it recognizes the nonexistence of a "bottom line," the ultimate relativity of all divisions of the universe into categories such as individual objects or processes.
Hyperrealism is transnihilism -- the "other side" of nihilism. It is what lies beyond the recognition that nothing is truly real. It is a philosophy, an attitude, a world-view of semi-reality. It is closely related with Oriental philosophy in various ways, as well as with Gnostic Christianity and the shamanic traditions of pre-civilized societies. However it casts the insights of these belief systems in a different form, a nonsecular form, a form more suited for modern Western culture. Like all ideas in philosophy, it is both new and old.
A slightly different way of drawing the trichotomy also occurs to me. Nihilism is not quite the opposite of realism: the opposite of realism would be transcendentalism, which claims that facts of the physical domain are insubstantial, while spiritual insights are real and substantial. Just as hyperrealism lies between realism and nihilism, it also lies between realism and transcendentalism. It affirms the spiritual meaning of the everyday, physical world, rather than viewing the entire universe as spiritually dead, or viewing spiritual reality as lying in another plane, somewhere beyond mere physical reality.
Hyperreality is a quality of being. It comes along with a certain attitude toward life -- an attitude which I call hyperrealism. To understand mindspace, neither realism nor nihilism is an appropriate attitude. One must adopt an attitude of transnihilistic hyperrealism: of acknowledging the virtuality and relativity of forms without denying their elemental aliveness and vivid reality.
To put it another way, one may say that hyperrealism is harmony with the creative force. Hyperrealism accepts the tentative reality of creations while openly accepting that they are creations. It views everything as both object and process. As opposed to nihilism, which gives no value to tentative reality, and denies any intuitive feeling for creative process ... or realism, which distinguishes rigidly between unreal mind-creations and absolutely real physical entities.
Of course, realism, nihilism, transcendentalism and hyperrealism are not the end of the story. Human reality is endlessly diverse and complex. It can be divided up in many different ways. But the trichotomy of realism/nihilism/ hyperrealism is a conceptualization that seems particularly relevant to life in modern society. Many of us today are, in one way or another, steering ourselves through the narrow passage between the Scylla of realism and the Charbydis of nihilism. The merits of the hyperrealistic attitude are, in the end, subjective: they can only be discovered through the process of living.
The Social Context of Hyperrealism
Hyperrealism, as I intend it, is a purely philosophical doctrine; it does not tell one how to live one's life, merely what sort of attitude to strive for. However, philosophy and everyday life are certainly not unrelated. It is also interesting to look at these abstract ideas in a different way -- in terms of their social context. Upon close inspection, one invariably finds that philosophical trends can be related to sociological trends, in deep and intriguing ways.
Socially, the realism/nihilism dichotomy can take the form of a choice between conformism and anarchism -- between conforming to the roles and routines of established society, or living at the margins, as an alienated outsider. Conformism is the acceptance of given structures and facts as the only absolute reality, and the dismissal of alternatives as insubstantial fancy. Anarchism is the rejection of all structures and facts as essentially unreal; continual rootlessness with a conscious avoidance of strict social forms. Of course these are extremes -- no one can be truly conformist or truly anarchic -- but they are ideals to which people aspire.
In the context of the modern US, these social/philosophical archetypes may be thought about in generational terms. My parents' generation, the "baby boom" generation, is generally characterized as having moved from counterculturism to conformism. Having thrown off established forms in the late 1960's and early 1970's, they have now returned to the establishment in a big way, changing from "hippies" into "yuppies." While statements like this are vast overgeneralizations, they do reflect underlying statistical trends, movements in collective mindspace. I have known many people who typify this pattern -- my uncle the hippie turned corporate headhunter comes to mind. I have also known many who do not fit the stereotype at all, for instance my mother, who was involved in the civil rights, anti-war and women's rights movements but refrained from taking drugs, rarely listened to rock music, and throughout the 60's and 70's retained a quite ordinary lifestyle. She continues to maintain her socialist politics, and has devoted her life to social service and radical feminism.
Clearly, there was much more to the 60's-70's counterculture movement than mere anarchism: there were many important concrete issues at stake, such as the Vietnam war, civil rights, and women's rights. At the center of the whole movement, however, was a core feeling that "the establishment is bad" -- without, however, a clear articulation of what superior reality should be put in its place. This attitude, a mistrust of accepted reality combined with a fluctuating unease as to the alternatives, is an exact social analogue of the philosophical confusion felt by the nihilistic mind. Once the concrete issues were resolved -- the war was over, civil rights and women's rights were largely achieved -- all that was left, in many people's minds, was this vague dissatisfaction and confusion, this struggling for something different. The movement lost its critical mass andgradually fragmented.
On the other hand, my own generation, labeled "Generation X," is accused of having lost its way entirely. We are, so the pop wisdom goes, neither anti-establishment activists nor pro-establishment conformists. We are aimless, alienated, confused. We make few concerted efforts in any direction. We do not know what we are doing. Again, this is a drastic overgeneralization, but it is something that everyone feels.
Personally, I have been more traditional than aimless in my journey through life. I proceeded straight through school all the way to my Ph.D., and became a university professor, which I still am. I married young and have two children. All along the way, however, I have felt the constant call of the anarchist path. I have avoided entirely conforming to social norms, been as much of an "underachiever" as possible given my overall goals. I always tried to get B's rather than A's in school; I still dress more like a student than a professor -- and I write books like this, which are of dubious value toward advancing my research career. All these are ways of rebelling within the context of the basically conformist routines of my life.
Many of my friends fit the "Generation X" stereotype more closely. For years I envied one of my college friends, who spent his time wandering from one city to another with a loose band of punk rockers, high most of the time, squatting in abandoned houses and working occasional odd jobs for food money. At the same time, I pitied my closest friend from high school -- an extremely intelligent college dropout who, having failed to take a fundamental interest in anything whatsoever, has proceeded from one mind-numbing job to another ... parking lot attendant, clerk in a car dealership, 7-11 clerk. And I have watched my wife Gwen float from one life path to another, continually dropping in and out of school, perpetually unsure whether to be an oil painter, a math teacher, a linguistics or sociology professor, a computer artist ... continually returning to the same dilemmas of money versus personal fulfillment, social acceptance versus personal independence.
Now my punk rocker friend has settled in Berkeley, where he is working in a co-op bakery, finishing up his B.S. in math, and thinking about working as a computer programmer or going to graduate school. My high school friend is a limo driver in Vegas; he says he has learned how to be happy even in unstimulating jobs, by "living in the moment." My wife is trying to do everything at once: painting, teaching math part-time, working on her Ph.D. in computer art, and raising two young sons. With luck she will end up as a professor of computer art, and will thus be able to earn a living by doing what she loves.
Hyperrealism suggests that it may be possible to take a more positive view of the confusion and struggles of my generation. What is going on is, perhaps, not pure confusion, but a muddled quest to go beyond the old dichotomy of conformist versus nonconformist. The challenge of my generation, it seems, is to become comfortable working within existing institutions and social forms, while at the same time continually recognizing their relativity and insubstantiality. This challenge may be met by different people in different ways. For me, it means working in academia to support my family, while keeping my mind free ofthe at-times stultifying restrictions of academic disciplines and academic publications. For my ex-punk rocker friend, it means surrounding himself with alternative culture while going off now and then to study mathematics. For my limo driver friend, it means going through the motions of blue collar work, while keeping his mind relatively detached, focused on the humor in the situations confronting him. For my wife, it means keeping her inner artistic vision alive while searching for a creative solution to the problem of earning money.
As yet this is still an erratic, difficult kind of "social transnihilism." However, if my analysis is correct, then one might expect the next generation -- my children's generation -- to embody this kind of dichotomy-busting even more thoroughly. The key is the acceptance of semi-reality -- looking at the world as if one were a humanoid space alien, committed to live on earth, following the customs and routines of humanity but never taking them altogether seriously. The difficult thing is to maintain this detached perspective even while becoming, as inevitably happens, emotionally attached.
This is, as I see it, the social context underlying the philosophical ideas which I put forth in this book. My ideas are certainly not determined by their social context -- the are influenced at least as much by trends in the history of science and philosophy, and by the quirks of my own individual mental, spiritual and physical history. But social context is important and should not be forgotten. Too often, in academia and broader intellectual circles, we ignore the deep and subtle connections between conceptual and the social -- between the abstract issues that concern us and the collective mindspace of the surrounding human world. Individual mindspace reflects collective mindspace, in all sorts of obvious and obscure ways.
IS THE WORLD A MACHINE?
Now, in preparation for our excursion into virtual reality, let us take a ninety-degree turn -- away from philosophy, and into computer science.
Virtual reality technology suggests that the world we are living in might as well be a computer simulation -- that we might actually be, to make the metaphor complete, patterns of data on some cosmic optical disk drive! But the notion of a computational world is actually a fairly subtle one, going beyond virtual reality technology, and having a deep background in theoretical computer science. In theoretical computer science, the notion that the world is a computational entity -- a giant computer -- is called the Church-Turing Thesis.
The Church-Turing Thesis is not a mathematical or scientific statement; it is rather a philosophical axiom. In its simplest form, it is simply the statement that every process can be executed by some computer. In other words, you, I, and everything else in the world we live in, are just sophisticated machines.
In the Church-Turing view, everything reduces to the annamaya level in a very specific way: everything is basicallya machine. Of course, this conclusion resonates wonderfully with the idea of virtual reality. If everything is essentially computational, then a "virtual" world is just as real as a "real" one. All minds and worlds are at bottom virtual; they are just specific manifestations of computational structure.
Three alternative statements of the Church-Turing Thesis are as follows:
According to Turing-Church, all physically realizable dynamics are equivalent to computation...
-- M. Conrad
Mental processes of any sort can be simulated by a computer program...
-- Douglas Hofstadter
Living organisms are nothing more than complex biochemical machines.
-- Francis Crick
These are all variations on the same idea: It's all a computer, a machine!
The Church-Turing Thesis is important for virtual reality, as mentioned above. It is also crucial for artificial intelligence. For, a consequence of the Church-Turing Thesis is that if someone
found a way to build a computer as complex as the human brain, and
programmed this computer with a detailed simulation of the physical equations governing the human brain
then the result would be a thinking machine. In this view, artificial intelligence is a serious psychological and engineering challenge, but not a problem from the standpoint of logic. Mind, like reality, is just a particular set of computer instructions, a certain digital dynamic.
The modern form of the Church-Turing Thesis, as the name suggests, is due to Alonzo Church and Alan Turing, two of the earliest computer scientists. But the basic concept can be traced back about three hundred years further, to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the great German philosopher and mathematician. More so than Church and Turing, it would seem, Leibniz understood the full philosophical importance of the idea.
Leibniz is best known for his fundamental contributions to differential and integral calculus: independently from Isaac Newton, he discovered the basic rules for differentiation,integration and summation that are taught in first-year college calculus courses today. But Leibniz's work on computational mathematics and philosophy, although much lesser known, is very nearly as impressive. Leibniz was not so far-sighted as to envision the modern computer -- but he did invent the binary numeration system on which modern computer hardware is based, as well as the simple symbolic logic which lies at the foundation of high-level programming languages. And he argued for the possibility of a Universal Calculus -- a language, based on discrete computational operations, in which all statements about physical, mental or spiritual reality could be formulated precisely.
Leibniz envisioned computational thinking as a sort of meta-science, guiding human investigation in every realm. This prediction may someday be validated, but as of today, the influence of the Church-Turing Thesis is mainly restricted to psychology, philosophy and computer science. In these three fields, however, the Church-Turing thesis has been nothing less than revolutionary. In the forties and fifties, the relationship between thinking and computation was a fringe topic. But today, theoretical psychology has been taken over by "cognitive psychology" -- a fancy term for analyzing human mental processes as computational processes.
The Church-Turing Thesis has been the subject of a great deal of debate in the artificial intelligence and cognitive science communities, and my own attitude toward it has been somewhat fluctuating and ambiguous. When I first read about the Church-Turing Thesis, I rejected it out of hand. "Yes," I thought to myself, "of course the brain is a machine, but what about the mind? After all, the brain and the mind are two different things! My mind holds depths that merely computational concepts cannot touch!"
This is a common reaction, shared perhaps by a majority of those individuals who have encountered the Church-Turing Thesis or other forms of computational reductionism. It is the same feeling that Roger Penrose communicates in his books The Emperor's New Mind and Shadows of the Mind. He simply does not believe that what he does when he proves mathematical theorems can be done by a computer. Phenomenologically speaking, it does not feel like a computational process. It feels like he is pulling mathematical forms from some abstract space, some realm outside himself.
I held this anti-computationalist view for years, and then gradually changed my mind. What converted me to an avid computationalist was realizing the deep connection between the Church-Turing thesis and metaphysical philosophy. I read the pragmatic philosophers, Peirce and James. I read Gregory Bateson's book Mind and Nature, and thought about what he called the "Metapattern" -- the idea that the world is made of pattern. I read the radical linguist Benjamin Whorf, with his visions of the universe as an abstract space of linguistic pattern. Whorf and Bateson, it seemed to me, were simply spinning out modern variants of Peirce's and James's pragmatist philosophy.
Pragmatism was born when Charles S. Peirce came up with the idea that the only things we can know about an an entity are its measurable properties. If there is no way to measure something, it isn't there. And he deduced an important consequence of this pragmatic maxim: the only things which we can know are regularities, patterns. A measurable property of a thing is just the outcome of some repeatable experiment involving that thing; thus it corresponds to a regularity, a pattern in that thing as it exists over time.
And finally, my head filled with pragmatism, I discovered the branch of mathematics called algorithmic information theory, developed independently by Kolmogorov, Chaitin and Solomonoff. Algorithmic information theory allows you to represent any pattern whatsoever, any regularity you might observe in the world, in computational form. A pattern in some collection of data is simply some program, some algorithm, for computing this data (exactly or approximately). A measurable property of the world is simply a program that computes aspects of the world, given appropriate input.
The world is pattern -- this made sense to me. The only things you can see in the world are observable patterns, regularities. But if all patterns can be expressed as computer programs, then I saw no course but to accept the Church-Turing Thesis as true.
Having convinced myself in this way, I was an avid computationalist for a few years' time. But the old doubts began to return, and I eventually realized I would have to look deeper.
One runs into severe philosophical problems if one assumes that the mind and universe are solely dominated by processes of deterministic computation. One arrives at the idea that there is no true creativity -- that everything which appears to be creativity is just the unfolding of computational processes. One arrives at the Laplacian idea that there is no free will; that everything happening is preordained.
Exploring further, I found that the idea of a deterministic universe had deep philosophical foundations. Nietzsche, among other philosophers, preached the notion of a finite universe, absent of free will. Cleverly, he even realized that a truly finite, computable universe would be an eventually repeating universe. A finite universe would have a finite number of possible states, so in infinite time, it would have to eventually hit some state more than once. And, having hit a state for the second time, it would have to proceed through the same course of events it proceeded through when it hit it for the first time. Thus, the universe would repeat itself. Thus arose Nietzsche's famous philosophy of the eternal recurrence, which I will have more to say about later.
As much as I liked the vision of the universe as a collection of computational patterns, I was unable to accept total determinism. Again I was confused. But I found a way out, in the form of a paper by the physicist David Deutsch on "quantumcomputation." A quantum computer is like an ordinary computer, but it contains truly random elements, as well as certain other unusual features, such as nonlocality. Deutsch also discussed "stochastic computers" -- ordinary computers with truly random elements added on. He showed that quantum computers were more powerful than stochastic computers, as well as ordinary Turing-style computers.
These kinds of computer, it seemed to me, were not nearly so restrictive as the ordinary kind. They had some room in them, some leeway. I was intrigued.
Deutsch, in his article, proposed a "Quantum Church-Turing Thesis," which states that every process in the universe can be computed by a quantum computer, rather than an ordinary computer. And, what is more, he actually proved this revised Church-Turing Thesis, beginning from the assumption that the universe works by quantum physics. This is not the same as a general philosophical proof of the Church-Turing Thesis -- which is supposed to hold in any universe, regardless of the particular physical laws. But it is certainly an interesting result.
All this is wonderful. The catch to this seemingly radical bit of theory, however, is the fact that quantum computers can't actually do any particular thing that ordinary computers can't do too. They can generate random numbers, but over any finite period of time, ordinary computers can generate numbers that are indistinguishable from random numbers. Using nonlocality, quantum computers can do some things more efficiently than ordinary computers, according to certain measures of efficiency. But they cannot do magic: they do not lead to any kind of mysterious "intuitive function," as is suspected by most individuals who doubt the Church-Turing Thesis.
Roger Penrose has suggested that when we finally get a good theory of quantum gravity, it will come along with a new model of computation that is even more radical than the Church-Turing model. A "quantum gravity computer," Penrose believes, will be able to carry out magical intuitive functions, fundamentally noncomputational activities far beyond the realm of ordinary computers. But I don't believe it, and neither does anyone else whom I know, except for Penrose.
My current view on the computational universe is as follows. I believe that stochastic or quantum computers, I have come to believe, are reasonable models of the mind. But they are incomplete in an important way -- a way which highlights the complementary relationship between spirituality and science. These generalized computational models allow a "doorway" through which some kind of nondeterministic force can enter the mind -- the doorway of randomness. This may seem like too small of a doorway: are we really supposed to believe that things like "free will" and "inspiration," which feel so non-computational, so non-deterministic, are actually just random?
The catch here is the definition of "random." What is randomness, actually? It turns out that there is no mathematical test for randomness, except for infinitely large structures (likeinfinitely long sequences of numbers). In practice, all that "X is random" means is "X has virtually no patterns that I can detect." One can never guarantee that another observer, with a different set of biases and pattern-recognition tools, might deem X not to be random. There is no fixed meaning to randomness.
So, what is a stochastic computer, really, then? A stochastic computer is nothing more or less than a computer which now and then receives mysterious input. It receives input which, from the point of view of its own or some observing entity's pattern-recognition routines, has no significant structure. In a less scientific language, one might say: stochastic computation = computation + mystery.
From a scientific point of view, the assumption of randomness allows one to use certain mathematical and statistical tools. From a more intuitive, spiritual point of view, however, there is no reason to assume that things that appear random to the thinking mind, the memory-store, are actually entirely meaningless. The Vedantic point of view would be that these "random" inputs to the computational mind are actually inputs from a higher level of being -- forms filtering down from the realm of vignanamaya or Bliss, and presenting themselves to the mind as inspirations or "higher intuitions."
We see, then, that in this context, the scientific and spiritual views of the world are in fact complementary. We can accept the modified Church-Turing thesis, which states that mind/universe can be modelled in terms of quantum computation. But we can also accept that what appears as randomness from the scientific view might actually have hidden structures.
From the scientific point of view, it is useful to look at the world as determinism plus randomness. From the spiritual point of view, it is useful to look at the world as determinism plus mystery. In the end, these are just different languages for talking about the same thing. The first perspective allows one to unravel in detail the temporal unfolding of real-world system, and the structures that emerge from this unfolding. The second perspective leads one to ask about the structure of this "mystery" -- which turns out to have an hierarchical structure, and many other subtle properties.
THE VIRTUAL WORLD
So, let us suppose the world is computational, in some sense -- that it is, for many purposes, reasonably viewed as a quantum computer. What does this mean?
One way of exploring the notion of the computational world is through virtual reality. A virtual reality is a simulated world that exists "inside a computer." If the "real world" itself is computational, then it follows that real worlds and virtual worlds are not at bottom any different. Reality is virtual reality.
I will get started by describing my experience with some very primitive (even by 1990's standards) virtual reality technology -- and then move to the future.
When I received my Ph.D. in mathematics, in 1989, I accepted a job offer from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. I stayed there for four years, long enough to get to know Vegas rather well. Not being much of a gambler, the casino scene had only a very limited appeal for me. But I liked all the swimming pools, jacuzzis, tennis courts and buffets. The jazz scene was surprisingly active too. Carl Fontana, a world-class trombonist, would surface periodically for gigs in local bars. One local pub had a big band every Thursday night: the band members invariably outnumbered the customers, but it was a treat anyhow.
Downtown you could play penny slots and drink free drinks under the garish neon forms of Vegas Vic, Sassy Sally and the Golden Goose. The town's population seemed to double on weekends and holidays: tourists would bubble from one casino to the next, keeping entirely irregular hours, often sleeping all day and eating, drinking and gambling all night -- living in a simulated realm, entirely oblivious to the existence of a city of eight hundred thousand people sprawling out around them. All the grocery stores were open twenty-four hours and one would see the strangest characters wandering into the Lucky Supermarket at 3AM in search of a cheap case of beer.
I remember sitting outside by the pool, rereading Jean Baudrillard's philosophical treatise Simulations, which was my introduction to the concept of the "hyperreal." Vegas, I thought to myself, was about as hyperreal as anything I'd every seen.
One of the many peculiar things about Las Vegas, I observed, was the abundance of 7-11's. There was one on nearly every street corner. Some corners even had two! I soon discovered the reason for this statistical aberration: each 7-11 made three quarters of its profits from the one-armed bandits and video poker machines lined up against the wall at the side of the store. Even in the middle of the night one or two of the machines was usually occupied. But to me, the most striking thing about these gambling machines was their sheer uninventiveness. The slot machines were just digital versions of the machines of fifty or a hundred years ago. And the poker machines were just digital versions of old-fashioned five-card draw poker. Clearly, the movers and shakers of gaming technology were of the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" school of thought.
What a contrast to the machines that sat next to the gaming machines in the 7-11 on my corner -- the video games. I played the video games only very occasionally, even less than I played the poker machines, but I often stopped to watch the automatic "demo" games dancing across the screen. And it didn't take Sherlock-Holmesian powers of observation to notice that, year after year, the action kept getting better and better and better. The Asteroids and Space Invaders games of my youth are long since perished -- not to mention the infamous Pong, with its lonely square "ball" zipping slowly across the screen between two rectangular "paddles," the only sound effect a high-pitched blip when paddle hit ball. We now have games which talk, games which project 3-D images, digital bodies which move gracefully rather than mechanically, and so forth.
Every year the 7-11 on the corner got brand new video games-- while the gambling machines stayed exactly the same. But even with this constant devotion to new technology, the 7-11's were never quite on the cutting edge. In late 1993, right before I moved away from Las Vegas, the Circus Circus Corporation opened a new casino, the Luxor, at the south end of the Las Vegas Strip. Bucking the Nevada tradition of conservative architecture, they made it a beautiful building the size and shape of an Egyptian pyramid, with a concrete Sphinx out in front. One of the most advertised features of this new casino was a fancy new video arcade called "SEGA VirtuaLand." To my disappointment, the arcade contained no actual virtual reality games; presumably some will be provided in the future! But the games that were there greatly outclassed the selection at the 7-11. Most impressive was a 3-D flight simulator: a sphere with a seat in the middle of it, suspended in the air on a complex gyroscope-like apparatus. You sit on the seat and look at a video screen showing pictures of outer space; as you steer your simulated spaceship through three dimensions, the picture on the screen moves accordingly -- and so does the sphere you're sitting in. You can flip upside down, backwards, left, right -- all three degrees of freedom are fully available. The illusion is completely convincing, in the sense that it really feels like you're flying a spaceship up, down, left, right....
And across the hall from VirtuaLand was an even more impressive approximation of virtual reality: Las Vegas's first motion simulator ride (the second one was installed two months later in the new MGM Grand -- that's Las Vegas!). After a ride down several thousand simulated feet on a very convincing runaway elevator simulator, you're escorted into an ordinary-looking theatre, where you are shown a cheesy science-fiction movie. The movie itself consists of little more than some chatter about time travel and a number of spaceship chase scenes. But the catch is, as the heroes race about in their spaceships, the camera is placed to give you the illusion of moving with them -- and the theatre moves too, expertly synchronized to give the illusion of motion. It gave me motion sickness for the first time in years ... but it also gave my mind quite a shock. The illusion was crude -- if I just turned my head and looked to the side, I could see the theatre rocking around like an amusement park ride, and the motion sickness subsided. But then, when I looked back at the screen, that didn't even matter: no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't help but feel that I was racing around in the air in a spaceship, tumbling helter-skelter up and down and backwards. My mind of course knew it was an illusion, but my body couldn't be convinced by any amount of argument. What disturbed me was to realize how little it takes to create an effective simulation of reality. The technology was simply not that great -- certainly not the cutting edge of research. But my body, which is after all my direct connection with the real world ... my body was convinced.
What Does the Future Bring?
Every year brings greater and greater and greater sophistication. Returning for a visit to Vegas in 1995, I foundno end of genuine virtual reality arcade games, complete with special gloves and goggles. As the wearer turns her head, the simulated scene shown through the goggles rotates. The gloves translate the wearer's hand motions into actions, within this same simulated scene. The combination of simulated sound and vision with simulated action yields a sense of physical presence -- a sense of "thereness," a visceral, intuitive feeling that one is really "physically grounded" inside the computer-generated world. With this technology, instead of the pseudo-VR of 1993, one can now experience a convincing simulation of racing around inside a futuristic world, carrying out various uninventive acts such as, say, shooting a gun at evil robots. It is still bit awkward, not as smooth or natural as it should be, but it is a vast advance over two years previously. Eventually, it seems inevitable, the simulations will become so good that they are indistinguishable from reality.
It's not so farfetched as you might think. Remember, fifty years ago we were a long way off from having any video games at all. It took the computers of 1943 all day to do what a modern pocket calculator does in ten minutes. And 100 years ago, the concept of a video game would have seemed just about as unlikely as the concept of a convincing reality simulation. A mere 150 years ago, airplanes, reality simulation and time travel were all approximately equally preposterous.
Many computer scientists believe that, within the next century or two at the outside, we will indeed achieve the ability to create virtual realities -- computer simulations which feed data into our senses so artfully that we are convinced we are experiencing something real. The technology for virtual reality is not yet here today. But every year we get closer and closer.... Howard Rheingold, in his book Virtual Reality, has summarized the state of the art as of 1991 in a masterfully entertaining way.
There are no fundamental technological obstacles to pushing this approach even further -- to creating whole-body suits which are able to translate real body-motions into simulated body-motions, and are able to deliver tactile sensations corresponding to the surroundings in the virtual world. And of course, artificial synthesis of smells is easy. This means that four of the five senses are well within reach. And the fifth sense, taste, is largely composed of smell. There are even designs for incorporating sexual stimulation into the glove-and-goggles set-up, to allow for "teledildonics" or sex at a distance.
And, looking a little further into the future, it is easy to imagine doing away with the physical paraphanelia altogether. Contemporary virtual reality research centers around gloves and goggles, and this is a perfectly plausible programme. Even if a certain virtual world lacks a few qualities of the ordinary world, such as taste, that's no argument against its fundamental reality. However, once we understand a little more about the brain, it may well become possible to attach the simulated reality directly to the sensori-motor centers. This is how cyberspace generally works in science fiction stories; and although this is a good bit beyond current technology, there is certainly no fundamental paradox involved. It is worth remembering that, over the past few decades, neuroscience hasbeen developing nearly as fast as computer science.
Perhaps, when true virtual realities are created, they will be the exclusive province of scientists and rich eccentrics. But on the other hand, it seems much more likely that they will be on every street corner -- just as silicon chips are today. In every 7-11, next to the newspaper rack, where "Super Mario Bros." used to be.
And this possibility leads us to another question. What will this do to our minds? How will it change us, to know that reality is no more stable than a pencil balancing on its eraser -- that it can be knocked down, totally altered, just by dropping a couple quarters in a machine.
You may say: "People can adjust to anything." But, while this is true within certain limits, it doesn't obviate the question of how adjustment takes place. Which aspects change, and which ones stay the same?
As you have doubtless already guessed, I believe that virtual reality will come to every 7-11 -- and, absurd as it may sound, I maintain that this will mark a watershed for humanity. It will entail a fundamental shift in our perception of the world -- a shift far more profound than anything which has occurred since the break from tribal, nature-oriented life to organized civilization. This shift will affect every aspect of our lives -- sex and love, work and recreation, art and literature, manufacturing and engineering; science, mathematics, and philosophy. And the reason is this: with the advent of virtual reality, we will finally come to understand the nature of physical reality.
This gets back to the reason why I have begun this chapter on the World with a discussion of virtual worlds. Thinking about virtual worlds is a way of coming to grips with the virtuality of the everyday world in which we live.
Of course the emergence of a "virtual future" is not guaranteed -- lots of other things could happen. Some crazed Third-World dictator could let loose enough nuclear bombs to send us back to the Dark Ages, or back to the Pleistocene for that matter. The world could be swept by an anti-science religion such as Islam, permanently halting virtual reality technology at its present primitive stage. As Niels Bohr wisely said, "It is difficult to predict -- especially the future." But I am convinced that a virtuality-infused future is by far the most likely scenario -- and certainly the most interesting....
Supposing virtuality does take over: then we will no longer understand physical reality as a solid, objective thing -- for this understanding will be contradicted by direct experience. And, as a consequence, we will not understand the world of dream, hallucination, lunacy the same way either -- for no longer will this nether world be the opposite of the ordinary order of things. The world will enter a new category -- simultaneously real and surreal; and hence beyond both real and surreal. This new category of being is what some modern commentators on thevirtual scene have come to call hyperreal.
The hyperreal, however, is not some newfangled invention. It is precisely the realm of being hinted at throughout history by various spiritual traditions. The essence of spiritual wisdom is the recognition that the apparent everyday world is not fundamentally real, but is yet somehow there anyway. This point will be made in more detail in the following chapter when we discuss Zen Buddhism. In Zen, one is supposed to realize that, although men are not men and mountains are not mountains, yet men are men and mountains are mountains. In other words, all forms are insubstantial; nothing is really there. But yet forms are there as forms: they are present without a fundamental solidity.
The spiritually accomplished person, it is said, is supposed to live in the world, but not of it -- but this is exactly the way one would live in a virtual reality. One would be in the virtual world, but one would not be constrained in one's behaviors in the same manner as in the ordinary world. Though thoroughly engaged with one's reality, one would still, in a sense, exist at one remove from it.
For a further understanding of hyperreality, listen to Randel Walser, director of "cyberspace" operations at Autodesk, Inc. (a rapidly growing computer company best known for its AutoCad 3-D computer-aided design software):
Cyberspace will not merely provide new experiences, like new rides at a carnival. More than any mechanism yet invented, it will change what humans perceive themselves to be, at a very fundamental and personal level. In cyberspace, there is no need to move about in a body like the one you possess in physical reality. You may feel more comfortable, at first, with a body like your "own" but as you conduct more of your life and affairs in cyberspace your conditioned notion of a unique and immutable body will give way to a far more liberated notion of "body" as something quite disposable and, generally, limiting. You will find that some bodies work best in some situations while others work best in others. The ability to radically and compellingly change one's body-image is bound to have a deep psychological effect, calling into question just what you consider yourself to be.
Imagine a costume party at which you adopt not merely a new set of clothes, but a new body, a new voice, and -- in a very fundamental and literal sense -- a new identity. Now imagine that you do this not only at a party, but every day, as an integral part of your life. Who, then, are you? It may seem, from your present view in physical reality, that you will be centered as you are now, in your physical body. It always comes back to that, right? But does it, even when you spend nearly all your waking life incyberspace, with any body or personality you care to adopt? Does it, when the consequences of your actions and decisions in your alternative personalities have physical, social, economic, artistic, technical and ethical consequences every bit as significant as those in your "original" personality? Does an alternative personality, active only in cyberspace, legally constitute a person?
This is a thrilling, frightening vision. But perhaps even Walser's argument does not convince you -- perhaps you feel that, even if you spent 99% of your time in virtual reality, you would still be fundamentally "centered" in your physical body back here on solid old earth.... Your skepticism is understandable: body-centeredness is a hard thing to abandon, even speculatively. But I ask you to consider this thought-experiment.... Suppose that, in cyberspace, in the virtual reality computer, your cyber-self lives in a nation called Cyberia. And suppose that Cyberia has a very strange state religion, called Cyberianism. The main principle of Cyberianism is that one must never assume reality is objectively real. And, to ensure continued faith in this non-objectivist principle, each citizen of Cyberia is required to place herself into a virtual reality machine every four weeks. The virtual reality machine then forces her to experience the false reality of being a citizen of the U.S., who has to attach herself to a virtual reality machine that transports her to Cyberia....
Living in Cyberia, except for a few hours every four weeks, it would take a pathological mind to believe that the U.S. and not Cyberia was the real place. The point is that, as Walser correctly observed, virtual reality destroys our objectivist sense of self. It projects us, in some fundamental sense, beyond the concept of reality. But it does not lead us to total nihilism -- any reasonable person will still try to make sense of their surroundings, be they virtual or "real." Virtual reality leads us to a point of view that is neither nihilism nor realism -- to a cyberspace philosophy, a philosophy of hyperreality.
Now we have reached the point where we can discuss what I have called the digital dharma dream -- the Extropian notion of a future golden age of virtual reality.
If your response to this notion is utter skepticism, you are well justified. After all, ever since the start of recorded history, self-styled visionaries have been predicting the advent of a "golden age" -- an utopian future world, filled with love, harmony and creativity. Humanity will rise to a higher plane of being; the concerns of modern society will be revealed as the basest of illusions. Dreams of future paradise are remarkably pervasive in human culture.
There is even a word for these dreams: eschatology. Eschatology, within Christianity, refers to the study of death,Judgement Day and last things; however, I will take the word more generally, to refer to any notion of a different and better human condition, posited to occur after our present human condition is over and done with. I am championing virtual reality as a kind of electronic eschatology.
Eschatology, in one form or another, is essential to most of the world's religions. Buddhism has its nirvana -- the indescribable paradise at the end of the karmic road. Christianity has its Heaven, which, incidentally, began as a very concrete place, not the "airy land in the clouds" of modern folklore. Most early Christians agreed with Tertullian, who wrote in the second century A.D.: "The body will rise again, all of the body, the identical body, the entire body." Even Marxism, which proclaims that "religion is the opium of the people," is at bottom paradisiacal. Marx's "perfect communism" is nothing more than a secularized version of Heaven: it is a land full of people so phenomenally well-adjusted that they are able to work hard and share equally without ever becoming jealous or lazy.
Eschatology pervades nearly every system of human belief. One could quote any of the great poets to illustrate the point, but I prefer to go with Kermit the Frog. Who could forget his plaintive froggy voice singing out in The Muppet Movie...
A rainbow's a vision,
it's just an illusion,
but it's got nothing to hide...
Someday we'll find it, the Rainbow Connection --
the lovers, the dreamers, and me...
And speaking of rainbows, what about that other childrens' song...
Somewhere, over the rainbow,
way up high
There's a land that I heard of once
in a lullaby
Somewhere, over the rainbow,
skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream
really do come true...
The imagery of the promised land invades all our artistic creations, children's books, moview and songs to Paradise Lost and Henry Miller (whose promised land of the mind -- the "Land of Fuck" -- was to be achieved through means that probably would not have met with Milton's approval).
These are all beautiful ideas ... but the sad fact is that, in the past at any rate, visions of paradise have always rested on extremely weak ground. Rather than a reaction to trends in human evolution, it has been more closely a reaction against them. As far back as Homo Erectus and perhaps even farther, nearly all social and psychological change in the human species has been in the direction of increased technology and suppression of drives. There has been no significant movement towardheightened consciousness, toward harmonious and creative life. While religions, philosophies and other belief systems have popped erratically in and out of history, technology has steadily and inexorably altered our lives, minds and environment. Eschatology has, in the past, represented a noble attempt to deny the course of history.
This anti-empirical bias is most explicit in the case of those who promote an anti-technology paradise, who call for an abandonment of material progress, a return to a "simpler" life. Only when living a life of intense daily interaction with Nature, it is argued, can the mystical oneness with the world be truly experienced. In this view, the rapid development of technology is a trip down the wrong road -- the "golden age of spirituality" lies not in the future but in the past. And, as I have already mentioned in the Prelude, there is some truth in this proposal -- perhaps, as study of surviving Stone Age cultures suggests, pre-technological homo sapiens really did have a higher level of mental health and spiritual insight. But even so, very few of us would want to give up our TV's, cars, medication and computers to live in the forest -- for the very same reason that each generation of pygmies spends less and less time in the forest. The question of desirability aside, there is no practical possibility of returning to the ways of the Mbuti pygmies, or any approximation thereof.
Every now and then one reads in the newspaper that a fanatical religious sect, convinced that the new age will start on this or that particular date, has sold all its possessions and run into the hills to wait. I have always wondered what the leader tells his flock the next day. "I'm sorry, I made a mistake in my calculations; I forgot to carry a two...." There was a great deal of this sort of thing at the end of the first millenium A.D.; and as the year 2000 approaches, I would suppose we will see some more. This sort of thing goes a long way toward making the concept of a paradisiacal future seem ridiculous.
So, all in all, if one wishes to view the utopian future as a refuge for weary minds, it is not difficult to concoct psychological explanations for the expectation of transcendence. Perhaps, as some theorists would have it, the craving for utopia is a transformed version of the desire to return to the womb. Or perhaps it is sublimated sexuality. Whatever the underlying dynamics, one thing is clear: in the case of a mind driven to despair by the tedium of daily life, the glowing vision of a brighter future is exactly what the doctor ordered. Transcendent eschatology is well explained as a sort of mass daydream, a collective fantasy.
But yet -- and here is the interesting part -- I suggest that the "golden age" is rather likely to come about anyway. Just because something is expected for a bad reason, does not imply that it won't occur. We are in the position of someone who believes it will rain tomorrow because the date will be December 17, and it always rains on the seventeenth. The reason is wrong; not only wrong but ridiculous. But it might just rain anyway, for a completely different reason.
Vague, unfulfillable unconscious cravings have gnawed at our minds for millenia, prodding us to paint, write, compose, theorize, experiment, and dream utopian dreams. And at the sametime, technology has advanced at its own pace, without reference to any "eschatological agenda." It is truly amazing, therefore, to think that technology itself may be the agent for spiritual revolution -- for the very quantum leap in the human condition which our unconscious cravings impel us to desire and expect.
Today, Sega and Nintendo are designing video games based on helmets and gloves which feed the wearer's eyes, ears and hands a comprehensive and responsive simulated world ... which give the vivid multisensory feeling of driving a racecar, or piloting a spaceship, or leading a street gang in a bloody fight. But, in the long run, virtual reality is no more of a game than life itself. Television, telephones, cars and airplanes may have changed our world -- but virtual reality technology will change our "world"; our private, internal model of ourselves and our surroundings.
And how, exactly, will the advent of virtual reality change our mental models of the world?
I have said that it will bring on a shift from the real to the hyperreal. Now I will make the same statement in a different way: Virtual reality can be spiritual reality. Or, in other words: the advent of virtual reality technology has the potential to bring on the "revolution in the human condition" which our visionary thinkers have sought for so long. What I call "hyperreality," the transcendence of the distinction between objectivity and hallucination, is nothing more than the elusive state of grace which mystics of all stripes have struggled to experience and articulate. This claim is what I call electronic eschatology: the validation of the obviously irrational dreams of eschatological visionaries, through cold, hard technological advance.
One thing must be made clear right from the start. The idea of electronic eschatology is not to use computers to simulate the effect of a "perfect drug" -- to make everyone high, happy and useless forever, in a digitized world full of meadows and bluebirds, where the sun always shines and childrens' laughter eternally echoes through the simulated air. This could be done, of course, but only in a very dark mood would any healthy person find it desirable. The idea of electronic eschatology is something quite different. It is that, by the continuous presence of the option to creatively change reality, the mind can be liberated from its present dependence on selfishness and routine, and opened up to a new level of inventiveness, intelligence and love.
But the key word in the statement "Virtual reality can be spiritual reality" is, obviously, "can". Virtual reality technology has the potential to bring the wildest dreams of our mystical visionaries to their final fruition. But it also brings an unprecedented potential for abuse. Imagine, as a worst-case scenario, a Nazi Germany in which Hitler had the power to mold physical reality. We, collectively, have control over the direction VR technology takes. It is up to us whether or not to exercise this control. The price for ignorant inaction may beextraordinarily severe.
Christian eschatology is an eschatology of transcendence: it prophesies a future "promised land." But there are also eschatologies of immanence -- eschatologies which lack the factor of time. For instance, in the Gnostic gospels, Jesus boldly proclaims that "The Kingdom of God has come!" Unlike the Christ of conventional Christianity, the Gnostic Jesus believes Heaven is here already ... all we have to do is train our minds to recognize it. The painful, sin-permeated world that we see around us is a product of our faulty perceptions. The same idea can be found in many Eastern religions: in Zen Buddhism, for example, it is taught that nirvana is always and everywhere, that "samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara," that the world is both solid and insubstantial at the same time. The enlightened mind sees through appearances and understands the underlying perfection of the present world. As will be discussed a little later, there are reasons to consider the eschatology of immanence to be the earlier and healthier type, and view the eschatology of transcendence as a degradation, a perversion.
Typically, eschatologies of immanence are intimately bound up with more traditional visions of transcendence. The doctrine of an inevitable future utopia seems to grab the imagination in a very special way. The idea of utopia being achieved right now, through a difficult routine of mental perfection, is not nearly so attractive. Even Nietzsche, whose theory of the will to power is the best modern example of an eschatology of immanence, clothed his ideas in the image of the Superman. "Man is a bridge between animal and superman," he wrote, meaning that the greatest among humans might someday be able to achieve a state of total mental self-control, and in this way justify the existence of the rest of the human race. But in order to make his ideas vivid, he used the language of Darwinian evolution, of the temporal sequence "animal, man, superman."
Electronic eschatology, as I have defined it above, is an eschatology of transcendence: it predicts a transition to a higher plane of human existence, at some point in the definite, physical future. But it is also, less obviously but just as interestingly, an eschatology of immanence. For, after all, the unique thing about virtual reality is merely that it is explicitly virtual. There is no particular property which, as a matter of principle, distinguishes a virtual reality from a "real" one -- for all we know, we may be living in a well-engineered virtual reality right now. In theory, by perceiving reality as if it were virtual, we can leapfrog ahead to the virtuality-infused world of the future. If we understand the world as it is, we will see that there is no difference between virtual reality and real reality. Virtual reality is a different kind of world, but in a more fundamental sense it is the same kind of world: it is a collection of floating, interlinking patterns, which is just what our physical world is, despite our persistent inability to see it this way.
In practice, however it is tremendously difficult to maintain an hyperrealistic perception of the world, day and and day out ... just as it is difficult to continually follow the edicts of the Zen masters, or the doctrines of the Gnostic Christ. When virtual reality technology reaches the stage automobile and TV technology are at today, the perception of the world as virtual will be continually forced on us. And that will make all the difference. We will no longer be able to persist in our delusions about the world: we will be forced to recognize that physical reality is nothing but our greatest work of art, that our individual minds are not really individual but part of a multilayered continuum extending from particles up to molecules, subpersonalities, human society, and the whole physical universe.
There is a close relation between electronic eschatology and the claim that psychedelic drugs offer a path to mental exaltation. Psychedelic drugs offer many of the most exciting aspects of mystical experience -- brilliant hallucinations, loss of the ordinary sense of space, time and self, etc. They have the potential to be very powerful tools for exploration of tge universe. But for the typical drug user, this potential is not actualized. The drug experience happens; it is not used for any purpose, and it is not directed toward the service of any mental or spiritual ambition. The object is thrills rather than mind expansion.
The shamans of primitive cultures use psychedelic drugs in a very controlled, intelligent and adaptive way. They realize that is not enough merely to see that reality is a mental construction -- one must thoroughly internalize this vision, by using it, by working with it continuously. This shamanic tradition has been carried into modern times by the LSD psychotherapists, such as Stanislav Grof, whose work will be discussed in detail a little later. These examples show that, used properly, psychedelics can be a profound tool for psychological exploration. But I would argue that VR has even greater possibilities. Psychedelics open up the mind; they free up "frozen" thought systems, revealing the hidden structures and dynamics of the world. But they are erratic in their effects; they also flood us with bizarre perceptual phenomena, and with persistent, not necessarily productive hallucinations. VR has the potential to open up ossified thought systems, not by chemically overactivating the neural circuits that maintain them, but by placing the mind in situations in which the systems are no longer meaningful. It has the potential to place the mind in situations of fluctuating reality, situations in which the only survival strategy is continual awareness of the nature of thought systems, recognition of the world for what it is.
The virtual reality path to mystical understanding may seem too easy, it may seem like cheating. But the airplane and the television seem like cheating too, until you get used to them. Western science has provided plenty of apparent "miracles" already. It is time, I suggest, to get ready for the grand finale....
APPROACHES TO HYPERREALIST PHILOSOPHY
In conclusion, let us retreat from computer science and futurology, back to the domain of philosophy.
First of all, these considerations of virtual reality and hyperrealism bring us back to 19'th century pragmatism, in a very satisfying way. For one is led to ask: in what sense is a virtual world any less substantive than the "real" world? If it has the same measurable properties, the same observable patterns, as the "real world," then it is just the same. After all, how do we know that the world we're living in right now isn't "virtual"? All we can do is measure patterns! And even if some virtual world should have different observable patterns than the world we choose to call real -- so what? What makes one collection of patterns better than any other?
Virtual reality technology compels us to think in terms of pattern. Cyberspace philosophy is pragmatist philosophy. But this is not the only interesting equivalence here. I will argue extensively, in later chapters, than in fact cyberspace philosophy is also spiritual philosophy. Spiritual visionaries have been saying for a very long time that the essence of mystical vision is seeing what is there. The "hidden structure of the world" is precisely that there is no hidden structure of the world, that the only reality of an object is the patterns we see involving that object. Constantly looking for more, for some solid reality beyond the virtual world of interconnecting patterns, obstructs us from seeing what is really there.
Pragmatist philosophy may be humble, but it is the first step toward a truly hyperrealist philosophy of the mind and world. It confronts the fact that the world does not have any solid, substantial being; it is just a collection of observed properties. And it confronts this fact in a wonderfully scientific way. Science, which holds as a methodological axiom that only observable regularities are real, turns out to be in a certain sense opposed to the notion of a definite, solid reality.
More flashy than pragmatism, but with many of the same themes, is the recent trend in Continental philosophy called postmodernism. My first introduction to the word "hyperreal" was in the writings of the postmodernist philosopher Jean Baudrillard. It is worth briefly digressing, I think, to ask why Baudrillard found it necessary to speak about the hyperreal. He was not concerned with virtual reality, nor with mysticism, but rather with the strangeness of modern culture. Thus his work points out an interesting connection between the implications of modern technology and the emerging patterns of twenty-first-century society.
In his provocative essay Simulations, Baudrillard argues that, as we move towardy the twenty-first century, the nature of our cultural representations is shifting in a fundamental way. "These," he writes, "would be the successive phases of the image:
-- it is the reflection of a basic reality
-- it masks and perverts a basic reality
-- it masks the absence of a basic reality
-- it bears no relation to any reality whatsoever:
it is its own pure simulacrum ... it is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.
In Baudrillard's terminology, a "hyperreality" is a toy reality, a model reality, but one which no longer can be considered as corresponding to any actual reality. It is a "reality" which transcends the category real/not-real.
For a concrete example of the kind of cultural hyperrealism Baudrillard is referring to, let us turn to modern American culture. Of course, modern culture is an international phenomenon, as I have become acutely aware over the past two years, during which I have been living outside the United States for the first time since infancy. But American culture is the closest thing to a universal culture that we have today.
So, let's think about professional wrestling, as presented by the World Wrestling Federation. This is not "real" wrestling, it is elaborated staged wrestling; the wrestlers are also actors, with names like Hulk Hogan and Sergeant Slaughter. Or think about MTV, and its kaleidoscopic array of surreal music videos. These are false in some sense -- wrestling matches are, it seems clear, fixed in advance; videos are produced so as to make the musicians appear impossibly attractive, and so forth. So WWF and MTV are clearly not "reflections of a basic reality" -- they are not documentary footage of events that exist independently of TV; they record events that occurred precisely in order to be be put on TV.
But do they "mask and pervert" a basic reality? To some extent, they do: the wrestlers aren't really as tough as they look; the musicians don't really have that many beautiful, scantily clad women following them around. But, on the other hand, what is the basic reality of wrestling, of pop music? It's not as though there's some realer professional wrestling going on, which the camera isn't catching. It's not as though the MTV pop bands are obscuring their true nature in order to appear on MTV. Most of the bands are MTV bands -- they wouldn't exist if not for the MTV culture. Most of the wrestlers would not be in sports if the WWF or some analogous organization did not exist.
It could be argued that these programs "mask the absence of a basic reality" -- after all, WWF gives the impression that there really are wrestling matches when there are only theatrical shows. MTV gives the impression that there really are bands that play together, when in many cases there are only tapes produced by anonymous musicians and spliced by clever producers.
So MTV and WWF overlap with Baudrillard's second and third categories. But they fit every bit as nicely into his final class: the hyperreal. In a very deep sense, MTV and WWF exist in and of themselves. They form their own reality; they exist because they exist, they are self-perpetuating. No one cares whether the wrestling matches are staged or not; no one cares if the bands really play together as they seem to in the video. Thequestion of an underlying "reality" is absolutely irrelevant. This is what it means to say that MTV and WWF are pure simulations.
A less frivolous example is given by the U.S. Federal court system. Consider, for example, the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that any powers not specifically allotted to the federal government, automatically revert to the states. This has been openly ignored by at least four or five generations of Supreme Court Justices. Or consider modern drug forfeiture laws -- in which a person who is found innocent of drug charges in a jury trial still doesn't get his property returned to him unless he can prove it wasn't bought with drug money. Is this not "guilty until proven innocent," superimposed on the "innocent until proven guilty" precept of the U.S. court system?
In general, it takes an expert constitutional lawyer to understand the relations between court decisions and written laws. Decisions are made on the basis of "judicial precedent," and on the judges' inherent sense of "justice" -- on a very liberal interpretation of the "spirit" of the law, rather than on what the law actually says. In effect, and in direct opposition to the intentions of the Founding Fathers, judges legislate. Their method of procedure can only be called a simulation of constitutional law. Court decisions mask and pervert the basic reality of the Constitution; they also mask the absence of a solid underlying legal basis. But above all they create a pure simulacrum of justice. The modern system of justice exists not in order to reflect, pervert or mask anything, but in order to maintain itself. Like any other organism, its primary purpose is self-preservation.
If virtual reality technology becomes commonplace, then Baudrillard's post-modernist flights of fancy will become valid in a very fundamental way. Consider: the early virtual reality machines will either represent reality, or mask and distort reality. They will either be "documentary" or "escapist" in nature -- and one suspects predominantly the latter.
But then, as people spend more and more of their time in virtual realities, life in our real reality will lose some of its excitement. After a while, virtual reality will come to mask the absence of a basic reality.... This has already happened, to some extent, with television: there are fewer things happening in the real world, because people spend so much time observing what is happening in the TV world.
And then, one things reach this point, the final stage will not be long in coming. The real reality, the reality that we consider real, will be nothing more than one among many "virtualities." Cyberspace, the world inside the computer, will take over real space. We will have neither real realities nor simulated realities, but pure simulacra.
So, to summarize, we have moved from realism and nihilism to a new view of the world, harmonious with the Church-Turing Thesis and virtual reality: hyperrealism.
The realist philosophy -- the theory that the world isobjectively real -- has plenty of logical flaws. But it does stand the test of everyday life (at least if "everyday life" is construed to exclude those occasional mystical flights of fancy that our consciousness dutifully blots out). In a world invaded by virtual reality, however, this will no longer be the case. Every 7-11 will contain a solid, objective disproof of objectivism. Every time an objectivist looks at a virtual-reality video game, she will have to think: "How do I know that I'm not actually hooked up to one of those games right now?" 1990's reality does not present the objectivist mind with this kind of pressure -- but the future will.
A world in which virtual reality was commonplace would not be a chaos, a structureless mess. It would merely be a plural world, rather than a singular one. It would be a world in which the word "reality" could never be uttered without some qualifier: " this reality," " his reality," "Super Mario Bros. reality." It would be, not a universe, but a multiverse. So what will be needed, in order to live in this world, will be a multiversal philosophy. A cyberspace philosophy. Or, in Baudrillard's language, a hyperreal philosophy -- a philosophy for a world that transcends the twentieth-century dichotomy real-versus-not-real.
In terms of the hierarchy of being, virtual reality shows us the transparancy of annamaya. It shows us that what appears so definite and solid is, in fact, a supremely diaphanous, relative, shifting thing -- just a web of interlinked patterns. At its most extreme, it shows us annamaya as anandamaya -- reality as the Realm of Bliss, as the domain of shifting, barely perceptible and comprehensible patterns, flitting in and out of existence, and transcending the scope of the individual mind.
There can be no question of holding forth on ethics. I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules.
-- Albert Camus
We have considered the metaphysics of virtual reality; now it is time to consider virtuality from an ethical point of view.
At first glance, virtual reality might seem to destroy the whole concept of ethics. If the world isn't real, after all, then what's the use of obeying moral laws? If reality itself isn't solid, then how can any authority defined within reality hold any weight?
This type of reasoning is presented with great beauty and force in the novels of Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky's anti-heroescommit crimes because they see no ultimate meaning in the universe. If there is no foundation for existence, if everything is just patterns floating in the void, then why not murder, why not steal, why not suicide? In Dostoevsky, the only antidote to nihilism is the Russian Orthodox Church -- or, more generally, for non-Russians, traditional God and traditional culture.
The ethical problems associated with virtual reality also arise in various spiritual traditions, for example Buddhism. On the one hand, in Buddhist doctrine, we have the notion that the Samsaric world does not exist; it's just empty forms floating in nothingness. On the other hand, we're supposed to display compassion for certain of these forms -- humans and animals. Why bother, if they don't exist anyway?
It seems clear that the lifting of ethical and cultural restrictions will be one of the main attractions of virtual reality technology. One will have the ability to do whatever one wants, within a virtual, disposable universe that nonetheless holds the same satisfactions as the "real" one. Rape, pillage, plunder, mutilate.... Steal loaves of bread if that's what you want to do. Make love with your father, or your cat.
There is not necessarily anything wrong with virtual reality as wish fulfillment -- assuming that only simplistic simulated entities are involved, which do not "care" how one treats them. But I do think there is something inherently wrong with the idea of living this way in the long term -- for, say, weeks, month or years. For, as so many have realized throughout the ages, there is a certain resonance between the way one acts in the world and one's own inner balance. This resonance that is purely psychological and holds in virtual worlds as well as the "real" world.
Maybe Monica has always wanted to be a call girl, but would feel too ashamed of herself to take up this profession in reality. Virtuality gives her the opportunity to pursue the fantasy risk-free. Or, on the other hand, perhaps Jason thinks stealing cars is just as much fun in reality as in virtuality, but prefers doing it in virtuality because there are no criminal penalties. There are all sorts of possibilities for escapist fantasy.
Psychologically, however, it is easy to predict the consequences of this kind of virtual reality experience. Acting out fantasies will be great fun -- for a while. But eventually, the experience will become dull, and the person will begin to wonder why they ever got such a kick out of a thing that now seems so boring. Whatever psychological structures were propped up by the need for the fantasy will crumble.
In the end, these escapist fantasies are based on a shallow understanding of the nature of virtual reality. The virtual call girl is interpreting virtuality as illusion; the car thief is interpreting it as another, equally solid and valuable reality. Neither one is truly understanding it as transnihilistic, hyperreal.
One might argue that, for some people, this understanding will never come. But my conjecture -- the most important idea of this book -- is that a thorough and rich experience of virtual reality will tend to induce an hyperrealistic attitude. And that an hyperrealistic attitude will, in turn, tend to mitigateagainst "negative virtuality," against the use of VR to act out obsessive fantasies.
We have no experience with virtual ethics. But we do have experience with other reality-suspending altered states of consciousness. It is an empirical observation that "enlightened minds" from various religious traditions do often display an unusual compassion. They emanate a love and respect for the surrounding world -- not despite, but because of, their sense of its insubstantiality. We do not find a lot of monks saying "The world does not exist, so I might as well rape and pillage!" Similarly, I predict that virtual reality will not fill up with dangerous maniacs. Metaphysics and ethics match together more naturally than that.
This is an admittedly optimistic perspective, and I am not 100% certain that I am right on this issue. We will have to be very careful, as virtual reality technology is developed, to safeguard against various forms of virtual sadism. But we cannot allow pessimism to rule the day. All new technologies carry possibility of misuse, along with possibilities for great positive value. We must work to promote positive outcomes, while keeping our eyes out for the negative possibilities.
I am not trying to promote any new ethical insights here. So far as I have been able to determine, virtual reality does not lead to any profound new codes for human conduct. Whatever prognosticating insight I may have does not extend in this direction. The point I want to make is merely that virtual reality does not necessarily contradict ethics. One can quite plausibly argue that acknowledgement of virtuality promotes a compassionate attitude.
In thinking about the psychology of ethics, it is useful to introduce an evolutionary perspective. Tellingly, evolutionary logic seems to be much more useful here than deductive logic.
Philosophers from Aristotle to Spinoza have tried to put ethics on a deductive, axiomatic framework; but such efforts have always been ridiculously alienated from human nature. Compassion does not follow logically from hyperrealism in any simple sense. If one is to account for the results of observation and intuition, one must figure the self-organizing, evolutionary dynamics of the mind into the equation.
One may say that a mind, due to its living flexibility as an evolving system, tends to adopt an ethics which fits in with its metaphysics. This "fitting in" is aesthetic, practical and emotional; it is not based on rational calculations. It is based on the generation of emergent pattern. The mind chooses an ethics and metaphysics which, when considered together, lead to a large amount of emergent pattern.
In this case, hyperrealism and universal compassion fit together because of their shared focus on the aliveness and awareness of the entire world. This is really very simple. Acting compassionately affirms faith in the aliveness and interconnectedness of the world; on the other hand, insight into the aliveness and interconnectedness of a certain part of the world naturally leads one to behave compassionately to that partof the world.
It is, in this view, creative force which leads to hyperrealist compassion. Compassion and hyperrealist metaphysics match together; they combine to form intense and manifold emergent pattern; and thus they are favored by the creative force of the universe, by the fundamental dynamic of hyperreality. They are not necessarily connected: hyperreal logic never provides 100% certainty. We may yet come across a virtuality-infused serial killer. Hyperreality is a very diverse place. But this sort of thing will never be the rule: in general, a deep appreciation of virtuality will lead to a deep respect for life and complex pattern.
By adopting evolutionary rather than deductive logic, we have come to a simple, almost obvious conclusion. Living in a dead world is damn unfulfilling. To lead a rich and creative existence one has to actively endow the world with life. The hyperrealist attitude demands that one accept the world's groundedness in virtual being, accept that everything is a process acting on and emerging from other processes, everything is part of the flow. But accepting this means accepting everything's fundamental aliveness -- means accepting that people, and even inanimate objects, are as alive and aware as oneself.
This gives a basis for virtual ethics. It gives a basis for compassion. It does not solve detailed questions regarding what to do in various situations. One might well ask -- why, then, if everything is conscious, why should anyone value humans over, say, fleas or tiny fragments of rock? The most devout Buddhists don't eat meat, but they still eat plants, and from the animist point of view, plants and inanimate objects as well as animals still possess an essential aliveness. According to some primitive tribes, it's OK to eat meat, so long as you thank the gods first. Where do you draw the line?
The only honest answer here is that, while we each have to draw the lines for ourselves, based on personality, situation and culture, there are certain principles that we tend to adhere to. And one of these principles is that we tend to have more respect for structures similar to ourselves. These are the structures that we appreciate more, relate to more, understand better. These are the structures in which we, inherently, see and feel more life. Our intuition that the universe is alive becomes more vivid when considering those parts of the universe similar to us.
Thus, since we humans are complex organic life forms, the hyperrealistic attitude tends to instill in us a certain respect for organic complex lifeforms. Using evolutionary logic, we may say that this kind of respect fits in best with hyperrealism. It is not a logical consequence of hyperrealism in any simple way. The hyperrealist mind will have an easier time flowing, living and creating if it takes an attitude of respecting the wholeness of other beings similar to itself.
George Orwell, in 1984, presents a point of view almost diametrically opposed to the one I am taking here. His hero, Winston, is a champion of realism. Realism is identified with personal freedom. Freedom is defined as the freedom to say that two plus two is four, to stand firm for the facts even when the government says two plus two is five. The government attemptsto control reality, to oppress people by reaching into their minds and forcing them to feel that reality is whatever the government says it is. One year the war is with Eastasia, the next year it is with Oceania -- and once the enemy is changed to Oceania, the people are expected to believe that the war has always been with Oceania. Anyone who persisted in factual memory, who held out against the utter subjectivity of reality, was brutally tortured until their memory and reason crumbled.
I am not at all certain that the kind of mind control described in 1984 is possible. It may that Orwell has the psychology all wrong. Once people are convinced that reality is relative, that there are no absolute facts, will they not intuitively feel free to construct their own realities? Or is it really possible for the government to convince people that reality is malleable, but only in the hands of the government?
In any case, Orwell's story serves as a cautionary tale, not only for politics as he intended it, but also for virtual reality. The world of his novel is a world in which the attitude of tyranny "fits" naturally with the metaphysics of hyperrealism. The future world I am envisioning is one in which the attitude of compassion fits naturall with the metaphysics of hyperrealism. Let us constantly be on the lookout to be sure that my argument is correct and Orwell's vision is not possible -- and, in case my argument is wrong, to be sure that his vision does not occur.
There is also a somewhat different way of thinking about hyperrrealist ethics, which has seemed very attractive to me at times. I have said that hyperrealist ethics consists of identification with the creative force, the fundamental flow of hyperreality. If one takes this very literally, one finds that what one has is an ethic of pattern. For it is pattern, regularity, that is created.
The basic idea is very simple: pattern is good. More specifically, by this I mean that more pattern is better than less pattern. This implies the following maxim: "One should act in a way so as to maximize the amount of meaningful pattern the universe." This is just a more formalistic way of saying that one should try to act in harmony with the Creative Force.
There is a relativity inherent in this ethical maxim: pattern as perceived by one person may differ from pattern as perceived by another. This is unavoidable. Each of us must act to maximize creativity as measured in our own subjective reality. But this relativity need not prevent us from deducing some simple conclusions of pattern ethics, as relative to the consensus human reality of the late twentieth century:
-- Art is intrinsically good. Writing a novel is better than stringing random words together. Ulysses and The Brothers Karamazov are better than your average Harlequin Romance. Painting a portrait is intrinsically better than splashing paint on the canvas at random -- however, in certain social contexts, it is possible that the latter may turn out be superior. For instance, a lousy painting, a painting with little intrinsic pattern, may nonetheless be extremely inspiring to other artists, and in this way lead to a great deal of pattern.
-- Science is intrinsically good. Technology is intrinsically good. Relativity theory is better than phlogiston theory. Computer technology is better than toaster technology.
-- Preserving life is intrinsically good. A living organism has very high structural complexity; it is the cause of many patterns. However, some lives may be more valuable than others. For instance, a person is worth more than a bug, which is worth more than a bacterium. And some people may be worth more than others, as well.
-- Stealing is not necessarily bad. Taking drugs, cheating on one's spouse, envy, pride, gluttony, murder, etc. are not necessarily bad. These are particular cultural taboos rather than violations of a universal ethical imperative.
-- Pain is bad -- in the short term at any rate. Pleasure is good -- again, in the short term. For pleasure correlates with the feeling of increasing order; pain correlates with decreasing order. Of course, short-term order may contradict long term order and pattern, in which case what seems good over the short run may be bad over the long run. Pattern ethics does not solve the problem of deferred gratification.
In the end, maxims like this are nothing more then heuristics. They are averages which cannot be unthinkingly applied to particular situations. Specific ethical decisions are made by specific minds, with all sorts of different motivations. No abstract theory will resolve the puzzles of everyday life. But the point I want to make very clearly is that a virtual universe is not a universe without goal or meaning.
Metaphysics and ethics are relatively separate logically, but not psychologically. Each metaphysics matches some ethics better than others; the combinations which match better are more likely to be selected, according to the evolutionary logic of mind. Virtual reality metaphysics matches up with an ethics of universal compassion. And compassion is the ultimate basis of moral behavior: all the rest, or nearly all, is cultural convention.
If everything is made of pattern, of structure, then structure itself may be taken as a goal. The increase of structure may be taken as a creative force, and various actions may be understood to abet or to hinder this force. Acting ethically is not only "going with the creative flow," -- but actively pushing along with it....
As I said in the beginning of this brief chapter, there is nothing original about the approach to ethics outlined here. Virtual reality does not seem to lead to any dramatic new ethical advances. Neither, however, does it necessarily lead to utter nihilism, to the complete dissolution of ethical conduct. Virtual reality fits with metaphysics, and metaphysics fits with ethics -- the connectedness of the mind-universe system must be taken into account. There is no reason to believe that a world dominated by virtual reality technology will be any less ethical than our world is today. On the contrary, it seems quite plausible that the virtuality-induced hyperrealistic attitude will lead to a blossoming of compassion.
THE VIRTUAL SOCIETY
Finally, before leaving virtual reality altogether, we must deal with the social implications of virtual reality. Although virtual reality may seem antisocial by nature, in fact is is something that we will enter into as a collective, as a society. The Internet is already transforming human social relations; virtual reality, once it matures, will have far more dramatic social effects.
The sociological angle on virtual reality is also crucial to the idea of electronic eschatology. For, after all, the development of virtual reality technology will require money. And once it has been developed, the large-scale expansion of VR will require even more money. Whoever controls the money will decide -- or attempt to decide -- the direction that VR will take. It is imperative, therefore, that we understand what is at stake here. The negative possibilities of VR are obvious. Where can a dissenter run when the dictator has control over the very ground beneath his feet? Perhaps, as in William Gibson's Neuromancer and its sequels, future artificial intelligences will devise complex ways of subverting and destroying one anothers' virtual realities. But, in accordance with my views on virtual ethics, I prefer to focus on the positive possibilities of VR. I have already argued that virtual reality has the potential to induce a widespread state of spiritual advancement, to make the state of mystic inspiration a widespread phenomenon, rather than a rare fruit restricted to the few. In this chapter I will present a related argument -- that VR technology has the potential to create, for the first time, a truly flexible and intelligent society.
I believe that, no matter how it is developed, VR will lead to widespread creative vision, and spiritual development. There is no way to stop the experience of a constantly shifting reality from putting mind and world on the same psychological level. But the social consequences of VR are, it seems to me, a great deal touchier. Perhaps virtual reality will automatically encourage the evolution of a flexible, intelligent society. Perhaps the greater degree of creative vision will automatically lead to greater social harmony. But neither of these possibilities seems overwhelmingly certain. Therefore I think it is imperative to think in advance about the sociological ramifications of VR. Only in this way will we be able to push the technology in the right direction, when the time comes.
The basic point I want to make here is that virtual reality removes the correlation between spatial organization and governmental organization. This means that, in a "virtual society," like-minded people will be able to band together under their own local government, their own specialized society. The degree of variety among the world's various social organizations will therefore markedly increase. And therefore the world will become a more effective learning system. Given more variety, it will be more likely to hit upon interesting and productive social structures. The omnipresence of VR technology will, I believe, mark a "phase transition" in the development of the social order. Within a few centuries of the introduction of VR, we should expect to see social changes at least as profound as the movement from tribalism to feudalism to modern technological society. Thevirtual spiritualization of the human mind will come hand in hand with a virtual liberalization and restructuring of human society.
The notion of a productive, egalitarian development of VR may seem fanciful to some. How could we ever, you might wonder, keep governments and big corporations from outright controlling virtual reality? I would argue that we have a model right now for a flexible egalitarian virtual reality: the Internet. The Internet is a global information system which has proved essentially impossible to control. Even MicroSoft, currently the dominant computer software company, has not managed to aachieve any kind of control over the Internet.
Companies can charge for Internet access, but this is cheap anyway, and it does not imply any kind of control. Independent software developers, from university professors to programmers to high school kids, create their own repositories of information: World Wide Web (WWW) sites, ftp archives. They create their own "multi-user dungeons" (MUDs) -- artificial text or graphics based environments in which players around the world assume artificial personalities and interact with each other, as in the old role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Newsgroups allow individuals around the world to post messages to each other on any topic under the sun, from particle physics to erotica to Uzbekistani politics. I have even seen a newsgroup on Itchy and Scratchy, the ultraviolent cat and mouse team from The Simpsons -- full of homebrew Itchy and Scratchy stories, contributed from all corners of the globe.
The news media have, in recent months, produced a spate of articles on "sex on the Internet." There seems to be a great interest in the small proportion of Internet sites containing pornography, or instructions for building bombs, or other "immoral" information. But these things are of interest to relatively few Internet users; their main importance is as an illustration of the point that everything is available on the Internet. Everything is available, and no one can do a damn thing about it, because the Internet is decentralized. It is not that difficult or expensive to set up one's own WWW sites or MUD, and it is downright easy for anyone with a phone and home computer to access other people's personal sites around the world.
Now, imagine an Internet populated, not by text and graphics based information, but by virtual realities. Each high school computer whiz, each university professor, each interested, motivated citizen can put up their own virtual reality site -- which you can then dial up and enter into from your own home. Some will be pornographic, some ultraviolent, some scientifically oriented, some humorous, some historical and educational. Under this model VR would be just as uncontrollable as the Internet. It would be self-organizing and dynamic, constantly changing to reflect the changing ideas and emotions of the global human reality. Imagine, furthermore, reality authoring tools simple enough for the average educated person to use -- perhaps, say, MicroSoft Reality instead of Microsoft Word ... Mindscapeinstead of Netscape. This is profoundly satisfying vision of the future: each of us constructing and modifying realities which others around the world can easily enter into.
And of course, once VR technology has advanced to this point, the need to commute into the office to work will be totally gone. Why not just stay home and join your coworkers in a virtual office? Working in a virtual office will give you the money to pay for your own reality site, to pay your phone bill, to keep your body alive.
This is a plausible future. All it awaits is faster computer chips and more telecommunications bandwidth. Chips keep speeding up; bandwidth keeps expanding. I have little doubt that, within the next century, the potential for what I have described will be here. A century may even be pessimistic. Five to twenty years seems a reasonable, optimistic estimate for the emergence of crude, glove-and-goggles Internet VR. Fifty years, perhaps, to full multisensory Internet VR?
The crucial point, if we want this exciting, liberating future to come about, is to keep the Internet free -- or close to free, like local phone calls are today. To keep it free now, while it is just textual and graphical information, before simulated reality becomes an issue. The Internet is, I believe, more than just a worldwide information network. It is the early stage of development of a new phase of human existence. Not quite earthly Utopia, but a damn sight closer than what we have today. Seeing this in advance, we must resist with all our might attempts by governments and corporations to control the Internet.
The political implications of VR are worth exploring a little more explicitly. Consider the following parable....
Suppose a mad scientist has locked you in a room with ten dollars and fifty thousand slot machines, and told you that you'll be killed unless you manage to accumulate a thousand dollars within three days.
Some of the slot machines are old and broken down, others are digital; some use technologies you have never before seen. You have no idea how generously any of them pay off. Maybe none of them ever give out any money. Maybe one of them pays $1000 every time you put a coin in, but all the others are ordinary Las Vegas slot machines with a 98% payback. Maybe all the machines pay back at 110%. Maybe the scientist actually controls the machines from his laboratory.
What should you do?
Suppose you start by trying ten, and you find one that seems to pay much better than the others, on average. Should you spend the rest of the day playing that one, or should you try out some others to see if you can get something even better? Or perhaps you should alternate, putting one of every three coins in a new machine and the rest in the one you've found best so far.
At each stage of your search, what you need to know is how much effort you should spend trying new machines, as opposed to trying to get the maximum amount of money out of the machines you've previously found most successful. You need to know how to balance experiment and tradition.
Next suppose that, in the course of your experimentation, you encounter a number of other individuals in the same situation as yourself. Each one of them has a theory as to which machines are most favorable. One person says the oldies are the goodies. Another claims that if you tap on the top of a red machine while the wheels are spinning, you can get an excellent percentage.
Another informs you that one of the blue digital machines with dollar signs on the wheel paid him eight hundred dollars... but he's spent half of it trying to duplicate the payoff.
Several others, sounding very knowledgeable, pull out tables of statistics and show you complicated formulae indicating what sorts of machines to play at what times of day, based on the course of your recent play.
Some offer you information freely; others demand a price. One young woman tries to steal your money, but she is instantaneously liquidated by a mysterious ray; soon everyone realizes that violence is no solution.
Now you have another dilemma. How much time should you spend trying to determine if the people promising formulas for success are actually trustworthy? Say, by following them around, or by asking for the names of others who've followed their advice. If they're wrong, this is time wasted; if they're right, it may be your salvation.
The meaning of the parable is obvious, but I will belabor it anyway. Assume each slot machine represents a scheme for social organization. Playing the machine is trying out the scheme. The payoff comes not in dollars, but in happiness, creative achievement, spiritual development, power over the environment, and so on. Just as winning money gives you more potential for experimentation with different machines, so does winning happiness, creativity and power give you more potential though perhaps no more inclination for experimentation with different social schemes. Just as with the slot machines, different people are offering a variety of different formulas for success, all of uncertain validity.
And, finally, there is at least a possibility that if we do not find a successful social order, we shall be wiped out by nuclear warfare, overpopulation or pollution.
Certainly the analogy is imperfect. But the essential dilemma is the same in both cases. Mathematically, it is called a "multi-armed bandit problem". But we mathematicians are still working on the room full of slot machines; we have yet to even approach more complex instances such as society.
So what good does looking at society this way do? There is no reliable science of society to tell us how to organize ourselves; and mathematics cannot yet tell us the optimal strategy for experimenting with various schemes of organization. We're on our own, to manage ourselves by intuition.
This gives rise to the question: how far can we trust our intuitions? Here sociology touches psychology. The answer which current psychological research provides is: not too far! In this connection, let us anticipate some psychological experiments that will be discussed in Chapter 12. I will discuss the Bavelas experiment, which shows that an individual who has formed his honest opinions from true data can be easily misled by someone who has formed his honest opinions from false data. I willdescribe the Asch experiment, which shows that individuals can easily be lead to doubt and abandon their honest opinions based on the deceitful activity of others. And finally, I will present the Wright experiment, in which individuals are given machines to manipulate, rewarded at random, and consistently develop delusions that they have discovered the correct algorithm for causing the machine to reward them. What these experiments imply is that, if you were left alone in the mad scientist's room full of slot machines, you would be fairly likely to delude yourself as to what worked and what didn't.
The moral of these experiments is a simple one: we must be very careful in accepting traditions, in accepting that apparent patterns are actually there. We must never cease to experiment, and we must never cease to pay careful attention to the results of our experiments. We must continually mistrust our theories, and even our intuitions. Such mistrust must not be taken to the point of not having any theories or intuitions -- but only far enough so that dogmatism does not stifle the scientific spirit.
Sociologically, the only reasonable conclusion is that we must never cease experimenting with new forms of social organization. Just because it seems like we've found the best way to do things doesn't mean that we have. We may be intuitively, subconsciously attatching ourselves to forms which are associated with success only by chance. We may be forcing ourselves to see things unnaturally in order to avoid being cast out. An attitude of openness to new ideas is required.
Of course, this does not mean that one should become fixated upon some ideal, utopian vision of society. Utopian visions are often intellectually challenging -- e.g. the idea of pure communism, or the idea of the perfectly competitive free market. And they may serve to point society in interesting new directions, for good or for ill. The experiments described above indicate that a strong faith in the superiority of present social forms may often be traced to various unconscious delusional strategies. But the passion for a utopian vision may also be analyzed in terms of unconscious self-deception -- as a consequence of the same need to believe in paradise that has been hypothesized to underly religious faith. Whereas the whatever-we-have-now-is-best attitude results from the "number one human error" of shortsightedness, utopian visions result from the number two human error -- excessive autopoiesis, excessive self-production of belief systems.
So, keeping in mind both of our fundamental errors, the conclusion is that social experimentation is always necessary. Because we can never really tell when we're fooling ourselves; when our prior choices have imprinted biases into our minds.
But how can we really protect ourselves against our number one mental error? How can we guarantee a continual environment of liberal experiment? I doubt if, in the current technological climate, this is possible at all. Contemporary society, considered as a collective intelligence, is severely flawed by its inadequate flexibility.
In the future, however, things may be significantly different. Virtual reality technology has the potential to open up a new era of social experimentation. It has the potential to lead to something we have never seen before -- a society which stifles, rather than encourages, the fundamental human error of overconfidence. It has the potential to cause a dramatic increase in the power of collective human mindspace to introspect, to understand itself.
At risk of digressing too far, I would like to get a little more concrete. What, in contemporary technological societies, is the primary obstruction in the way of social innovation? I suggest that the answer to this question is a simple one: institutions. Not any particular institution or group thereof but, rather, the general domination of social structure by a small number of institutions. This is a radical political concept. If one accepts this, it follows that the central problem of society cannot be traced to "big government" and "organized labor" as the rightists would have it; or "big business" as the leftists would have it; or "the state" as libertarians would have it. The mere existence of an overwhelmingly powerful oligarchy of institutions is problematic, regardless of the nature of the institutions. If we want any kind of significant positive social change -- be it "revolution" or "reform" -- we need to move from institutionalism to something new ... to a form of social organization that counters the human tendency to jump to conclusions by actively encouraging experimentation with new social patterns. We need to invent some kind of democracy of social form.
It is inarguable that, in the present economic and cultural context, American-style institutionalism is better than Soviet-style institutionalism. But what troubles me is that, as the Communist bloc crumbles, more and more people are coming to treat the capitalist democratic welfare state as an ideal. This is the number one human error in classic form. The institutions of modern society fit together with each other in a way that is both beautiful and frustrating. In order to break their cybernetic lockhold on collective mindspace, a tremendous shock will be required -- the societal equivalent of, perhaps, electroshock or LSD therapy....
Let us consider some of these institutions in detail. Think about, first of all, the remarkable rigidity of the institution of work.
In the modern economy, most work requires nothing so much as discipline: a tolerance for performing the same tasks over and over again, and a tolerance for obeying orders without question. This is a consequence of the Adam-Smithian philosophy according to which the performance of a complex task is subdivided into a number of extremely specific tasks. Because each employee is assigned to execute only a small number of specific subtasks, work is repetitive. And because each employee is involved only with highly specialized subtasks, he is not expected to understand the overall picture into which his task fits; hence he is expected to take orders without question. This philosophy of production began in the factory, where it played a key role in the Industrial Revolution. But service-oriented businessesare almost invariably organized according to the same old approach. An office worker, just like a factory worker, is restricted to a small number of specialized subtasks. She is expected to accept her ignorance of the purpose toward which he works; and to accept orders unquestioningly.
There are certainly exceptions. More and more high-tech companies are running up against the inadequacy of this method of organizing the workplace, and are incorporating flexible job descriptions, nonhierarchical control structures, and so forth. But when you consider the variety of conceivable work situations, the homogeneity of our society is astounding. Among professionals and technicians as well as factory workers and secretaries, many of the same basic patterns recur again and again.
For instance, as a university professor, I have a relatively large amount of freedom in my work. I have some choice as to which classes to teach each semester, and a lot of choice regarding which areas to do research in. But I have been caused no end of trouble by crossing disciplinary boundaries: by shifting my research and teaching interests from mathematics to computer science and mathematical psychology. Conceptually, this is only a small change: I am still doing the same thing I learned in my applied mathematics classes, coming up with formulas to model real-world systems and processes. But sociologically, there is a world of difference. As a mathematics professor, you can't teach a computer science or psychology class without a tremendous amount of rigmarole. And if you're a young professor who chooses to do research in an unpopular area, or in the "wrong" discipline, you run the risk of losing your job.... Even in academia, one of the most relaxed and liberal of professions, the key motifs of the factory philosophy are there.
One could argue that people want repetitive tasks imposed on them, because they know that the factory philosophy is more effective than the alternatives, and they simply want the increased goods and services it brings. That if people really hated it, they'd all take half-time jobs and consume half as much. But there are at least three ways of rebutting this contention. First of all, it is plain that if the average member of the working class did so, they'd be living on the streets and eating garbage. Secondly, although the objection does hold some force when applied to the middle and upper classes, the question is: why is it that people want these goods and services so badly? To call it a "free choice" is to ignore the fact that the school system and the media continually urge this choice explicitly and implicitly. And thirdly, we must ask: what does it mean to say that people "know" that the current way of organizing work is maximally effective? How do we know this? Academic and industrial experts are divided on the matter. The fact is that there has been very little experimentation with significantly different ways of organizing work. Flextime, telecommuting and parental leave are considered radical innovations. Our society has made no effort to see if a less autocratic mode of organizing the office or the factory would be more effective -- because the people in charge have no incentive for such experimentation.
Related to the inflexible institution of work is the equally inflexible institution of school. The two main requirements ofthe factory system are effective machinery and disciplined employees, so it should come as no surprise that what our schools are best at is producing disciplined employees. Certainly, schools also impart essential knowledge. But the structure of modern education cannot be explained by the role of school as a transmitter of knowledge.
Freud, Dewey and many other students of the mind have observed that memory and emotion are inextricably linked. One consequence of this relation is that a person learns something better if it connected with an emotional response. Or, to put it in commonsense terms: a person learns something better if it means something to them. Now, there is certainly a movement in our schools to make the information transmitted mean something to the students. But it may well be that such efforts are destined to impotence because the very structure of the school is antithetical to this.
The school is founded on the obviously erroneous assumption that the student body is homogeneous. The same thing is taught to all the students in a class, even though what is meaningful to one student may be meaningless to the next. Although this may be slightly mitigated by "tracking" of students, the basic structure still stands. It might seem that this is the only way to do things -- after all, you can't have a teacher for every student. But this is definitely not the only way to do things. There are many ways of imparting knowledge, and the institution of school is only one of them -- one which has assumed a dominant role in our society for quite specific reasons.
The basic structure of education in modern schools is repetition divorced from context. Disciplines are strictly separated: spelling from writing from reading, mathematics from science, science from social science, etc. And in the study of each discipline, the primary mode of learning is memorization of facts. Never mind many facts are virtually meaningless to anybody except in a theoretical or practical context. Never mind that memorizing a set of facts is completely different from understanding the significance of the facts. Reality presents phenomena which involve numerous disciplines; and the application of memorized facts to the understanding of real phenomena is virtually impossible unless one has previously conceptualized the meaning of the facts.
Television is an integral part of virtually every modern child's life. If a group of children were to help create a video, they would have a meaningful context in which to integrate knowledge about reading and writing (scriptwriting), elementary physics (the properties of various lenses), and art. Yes, some schools do sponsor projects of this nature. But they stand out as admirable exceptions. If a school adopted such projects as the primary vehicle of education, it would have little in common with the modern institution of school. It would have little use for the classroom, or for the teacher trained only with education courses. It would not be much good at turning out disciplined employees.
In sum: school as we know it, as well as imparting knowledge, serves to get people used to repetition of relatively meaningless tasks and unquestioning abeyance of orders. By the time someone spends a decade in school, they're well accustomedto these things -- and hence well-prepared for life in a workplace run according to the factory philosophy. So the modern institution of school reinforces the modern institution of work. And the modern institution of work reinforces the modern institution of school, in slightly subtler ways. The historical record indicates that school was modeled after the factory and the office. And as long as schools are producing effective workers, the power elite will tend to see little need to change them. Politicians and executives may complain about falling SAT scores, but they'd complain a lot more if the schools were turning out people so intelligent and independent that they refused to work in tedious or excessively tension-producing jobs.
This may seem to be a radical analysis. But in fact,
in a recent conference of United States governors, the majority came to a very similar conclusion. They concurred that the American school system tends to operate according to a 'factory philosophy' which vastly overstresses fragmented facts and rote memory. They agreed that it gives distressingly little attention to thinking independently, or to integrating theories and facts into understandings of practical phenomena.
This gives us a good example of the impotence of so-called "freedom of choice." In the US. today, a person has a great deal of freedom to do whatever he or she wants. Things could certainly be improved in this regard: marijuana and prostitution could be legalized, Dade County could be forbidden to censor "obscene" rap music, etc. But these few sins against freedom have little effect on most people's daily lives.
The real problem is that, although we do have a great deal of freedom to do whatever we want, the social order makes it extremely difficult to do anything except what it "sanctions." Freedom in theory means little; what is important is freedom in practice.
For instance, we are free to educate our children however we want. But, in practice, it is very difficult to educate our children in any but the standard manner. Let's say an ordinary American family agrees with my conclusions about education -- what can they do with their children? They do have the freedom not to send their children to public schools. They have the freedom to pay to send their children to a private school, or to educate their children themselves.
For the average American, however, neither of these alternative options is easily affordable. And neither one is devoid of serious flaws. A private school is more likely to offer strict discipline or religious indoctrination than innovative education. In most communities -- even some cities --it is impossible to find a school operating according to anything other than what our governors have called the 'factory philosophy'.
And, of course, home teaching is troublesome for several reasons. First of all, a parent who recognizes the need for better education is not necessarily a good teacher. Also, the way the typical American life is structured, few people can afford to take the time to teach their children; they have to work all day. And there is no easy way for a home-schooled child to make friends. The majority of home-schoolers are Christian fundamentalists, who have no quarrel with the 'factoryphilosophy', but rather with the 'secular bias' of the public schools; their children tend to make friends in church.
The point is, although we are theoretically free to educate our children however we like, in practice we are constrained by what society sanctions. Our society is indeed rather liberal, but it is obviously not very flexible if even our governors are essentially powerless to change the educational system to match the needs of the modern world and the constraints of the modern family.
But, you might argue, if work and school are so ineffectively structured, why haven't we changed them already? After all this is a democracy! But in fact, democracy suffers from the same problem as work and school: rigid, inflexible institutionalization. The word "democracy" has definitely got an impressive sound, maybe because it goes back to the Greeks, whose slave-supported democracy was the nursery of Western culture. But it also conceals a great deal of confusion. It is part of the problem, though it also protects us from sinking into even greater problems.
Direct democracy might be defined as the form of government in which 1) every member of a society votes on every issue which appears to any member of society to require government action, 2) in each such case the decision which is most strongly supported by the population is adopted. Most everyone agrees that this is an outstandingly fair form of government. The problem, of course, is that it's only applicable to small groups -- at very most a few hundred, preferably much less.
There are three serious obstacles to the application of direct democracy to larger groups: vote-collection, corruption, and information overload. The least serious is the technical problem of of vote-collection. Each year this grows less and less problematic: with modern electronics, it would be possible for every person to cast his vote on a large number of specific issues every day. In the 1992 presidential campaign, Ross Perot brought this point into the national spotlight.
The implementation of electronics underscores the second problem: whoever controls the electronics, controls the vote. In a small group, the possibility of corruption is small: everyone present at a town meeting can see how many people raise their hands, and in the case of a secret ballot anyone can tally the votes themselves. In a large group, obviously, the possibility of corruption is much larger. It may true that there's not much corruption in American electoral politics -- but corruption would be much less easily noticed if votes referred to highly specific matters of interest only to a small number of people.
But the main reason direct democracy only works in small groups is that even the meetings of small groups tend to bog down in highly specific technical details of interest to only a small number of people. Anyone who has been to a department meeting at a university, or the annual meeting of a condominium complex, knows exactly what I am talking about. The maintenance of a large, complex society requires so many intricate and situation-specific decisions that keeping up with all the information required to understand them is at least a full-time job. And even if they had nothing else to do with their time, most people would find this task dull.
Representative democracy seeks to avoid these problems: a group of people votes for a representative to make political decisions for them. But representative democracy as it exists in modern nations is so tremendously different from direct democracy that it hardly deserves to share the same name.
When we hear the word "democracy," we think of both direct and representative democracy. And when we think of representative democracy, we therefore also think of direct democracy. Simple analogy! But to think about representative democracy by analogy to direct democracy is a grievous error -- an error which may have dire consequences.
Modern representative democracies are invariably as oligarchic as they are democratic. That is, to use the phrase coined by C. Wright Mills, they are plagued with the phenomenon of the "power elite". They are ruled by a bizarre superposition of the popular will and the will of a small "ruling class" of wealthy politicians and businessmen. This means that democracy is inseparable from the "national work machine." Those who control our work environment exert undue influence on our "democratic" government.
One result of this is that, in a modern representative democracy, no one really knows what their "representatives" are doing. They rely on the news media to inform them, and this is far from an unbiased reliable source. The news media tends -- not universally but as a significant trend -- to serve the power elite.
Another result is that, in order to get elected in a modern representative democracy, you must wage an extensive advertising campaign. This requires either: 1) a lot of money, or 2) a huge number of volunteer campaign workers. And choice (1) works a lot better -- not only does money help you to recruit volunteers, it permits you to outright buy campaign workers as well as numerous TV and radio ads. So those who run for public office are usually very friendly with wealthy businessmen; quite often they are wealthy businessmen themselves.
And as soon as you're elected to a major public office, you're confronted with lobbyists -- representatives of wealthy businesses -- asking you to vote for or against a certain bill, or to exert influence in this or that direction. If you do so, you can expect a healthy campaign contribution in return, next time you run for office. If not, you can expect your opponent to receive one.
In America at least, some legislators take this unholy connection far beyond their constituents' wildest dreams. They make systematic efforts to pass laws specifically aimed at helping the businesses which funded their campaigns. Recently it was revealed that Congress makes a habit of passing laws which apply only to one particular business, or to one particular wealthy individual -- laws providing tax exemptions and the like. This is important, because it means that politicians are so accustomed to pandering that they don't mind doing it in a way for which there is no possible alibi.
Example of the oligarchic government/business connection could be multiplied ad nauseum. There are the legions of officials in government who leave "public service" and shortly thereafter get corporate jobs which specifically involve attempting to get money out of the government. This signifies the existence of a de facto oligarchy -- it is not only the elected officials who run the country, but those who used to be elected officials, those who were previously appointed to lesser government posts by elected officials, those who are friends of elected officials or previously elected officials or of those appointed by elected officials or previously elected officials.
Numerous instances of fraud have emerged from these close connections between business and government, for instance in the case of weapons companies which inflate their prices because they know exactly how high the government will go. All the major military contractors are paid on a percentage basis: their profit on a weapons system is a fixed percentage of the cost of the weapons system. And, within certain parameters, they set the cost. There is no incentive for them to cut costs -- but there is a big incentive for them to keep costs as high as possible.
In fact, since there is so little competition, there's not even much incentive for them to keep the quality of weapons systems within reasonable limits. Due to economies of scale there are very few competitors in the weapons trade. This, combined with the excessively close relationship of the corporate and military bureacracies, means that the concept of the free market is about as applicable to the weapons systems market as it is to the Soviet economy.
Is there no way to rid representative democracy of these unsavory, undemocratic, oligarchic aspects, this phenomenon of the "power elite"? Numerous past attempts have failed, defeated by subtle trickery and sheer inertia. For instance, there is a legal limit on the amount of money a candidate can spend on his or her campaign, but it has little effect because PACs -- organizations which exist solely to campaign for certain candidates -- can spend as much as they want. A candidate is not permitted to explicitly control a PAC, but this is an unenforceable restriction.
One could forbid advertisements for a candidate to be placed by anyone but the candidate himself. This would certainly have a positive effect, but it would not prevent PACs or others from releasing thinly veiled advertisements promoting a candidate without mentioning his name. And any law so strict as to forbid this would end up posing an unacceptably severe curtailment of the right of free speech -- it would not permit the expression of opinions which happened to coincide with those of current political candidates.
Alternately, it has frequently been suggested to forbid any person to hold political office for more than one or two terms -- as we do with the President. I have no fear that this would cripple the government's already lame capacity for long-range planning. But I just don't think it would work.
These measures might slightly reduce the influence of the power elite, but they would not end it. The power elite seems to be a logical consequence of the modern form of capitalist representative democracy. It is not as damaging as some leftistswould like us to think -- after all, this is not El Salvador, where two percent of the population owns ninety percent of the wealth. But it is real, and there's no getting around it.
The role of the institution of power-elite democracy is, ultimately, to keep the status quo in place: to make sure the all-important institutions of work and school do not lose their grip on our collective mindspace. In return, work and school provide power-elite democracy with obedient, productive citizens. The system is self-supporting and it is also remarkably adaptive: it is an evolving ecology.
In sum, then, modern society faces an intriguing dilemma. On the one hand, all institutions cause problems -- this is inherent in the opposition between the rigidity of their structure and the variability and creativity of human nature. But on the other hand, institutionalization seems an inevitable consequence of large-scale society. To some extent, we must simply learn to live with this phenomenon. We must accept that, considered as a tool for recognizing patterns in itself and optimizing itself, human society is going to be severely imperfect.
Probably everybody -- even members of the power elite -- has an occasional urge to combat the power elite. But history shows that this usually ends up with the establishment of a new power elite. The revolutionaries take over, and -- surprise, surprise! -- they're not so much better than the old leaders. As The Who sang back in the 70's: "Meet the new boss... same as the old boss... Won't get fooled again!"
If real change is wanted, somehow we must fight the tendency to institutionalize. If our lives weren't governed by such a limited set of institutions, a power elite wouldn't be possible. This may seem even more hopeless than fighting the power elite directly. But I suspect that this is not the case.
It may be possible to use the wisdom of the martial arts -- to turn this tendency against itself, and institutionalize experimentalism. All institutions begin as valuable tools -- flawed but important. And as they grow more and more dominant, they cause more and more problems. It is not logically impossible to erect a meta-institution with an anti-institutional bias: an organized pattern of roles which serves specifically to encourage alternatives to patterns of roles which have become excessively dominant.
To put it psychologically: not only must we overcome our current dogmas, but we must continually strain to overcome our tendency to cling dogmatically. The institutionalization of social experimentation is proposed not as a new dogma, but rather as a means by which the human tendency to institutionalize may be rendered self-regulating. It is both an countermeasure against institutionalism and an extension of institutionalism.
The philosophy of experimentalism cannot be completely contained in any particular institution. Hence it is quite possible that an institution inspired by experimentalism might come to abandon the spirit of experimentalism. The mostintelligent response to this situation would be, not an abandonment of experimentalism, but rather an infusion of true experimentalism: experimentation as to means of social experimentation.
It is also conceivable that experimentalism could be applied in a dogmatic manner. Experimentation is no more or less important than maintenance of what has previously been successful. The present social order is so strongly focused on maintaining old forms that the threat of excessive social experimentation seems absurdly remote. But it is nonetheless important to remember that experimentation is only one component of a successful social order. Yes, we must continually participate in creative experimentation, but we must also decide what we like best and stick with it for a certain period of time; otherwise there would be nothing to life but social experimentation. At present, it is entirely justifiable to focus on experimentation rather than maintenance of successes -- but this is an exigency of the moment, or perhaps the age, and not an absolute truth.
But what might institutionalized experimentation look like? How might a society become effective at recognizing patterns in its own operation, and adjusting its rules accordingly? This is not an easy question, but neither is it impossible.
To explore the issues free from political hang-ups, let us begin very far from home. Suppose that, in another part of the galaxy, there is an interstellar Federation consisting of a hundred different civilized planets, each one the only civilized planet in its solar system. Suppose that communication between these planets is severely limited, e.g. limited to radio, which takes years to transmit a single message. Suppose that the government of the Federation has essentially absolute power over its member planets, but that it does not desire to meddle in their day-to-day affairs. Then this interstellar Federation government might be called a "meta power structure" over the power structures of the individual planets.
Assume that the Federation government is well-intentioned, open-minded and scientifically-oriented; and also that it does not have access to a truly scientific theory of sociology and social psychology (such a theory being, perhaps, an impossibility). In order words, assume that the government is morally ideal, but constrained by limitations of knowledge. Then, how should it run the Federation?
If it is truly open-minded, the Federation government will realize that, since it has no scientific way of determining how societies should be run, it should not simply dictate its preferred form or forms of government -- welfare capitalism, military autocracy, primitivist anarchy, or whatever. But it will also realize that social systems, being self-organizing and unpredictable, cannot be relied upon to spontaneously arrive at effective power structures. Sometimes the inherent dynamics of society will lead to a clearly undesirable power structure, such as Stalinist state socialism.
Furthermore, the Federation government will realize that simply asking the people of a given planet what they want is not in general an adequate solution, firstly because most people are not particularly knowledgeable about large-scale social dyamics,and secondly because any vote presupposes that the infinite variety of possible systems has already been pared to a narrow range.
Suppose, for instance, that at a certain time five thousand different planets have evolved into Nazi-style dictatorships. What should the Federation government do? Suppose that welfare capitalism is the best overall power structure it has found so far. Should it give all five thousand planets welfare capitalist power structures? What if they all demand welfare capitalist power structures, but the Federation government estimates an 18% chance that decentralized, semianarchist socialism is a better way of running things. Should it force 18% of the planets to accept decentralized, semianarchist socialism?
In general, it is clear that what is required is an intricate balance of a reluctance to intervene, a respect for democracy, and an adherence to what science of society there is. Most likely, this will take the form of a diversity of power structures. It is unlikely that, given limited inter-communication, the different planets would all want the same thing. And it is unlikely that a scientific attitude of experimentation would lead to uniformity, unless popular opinion were inclined in that direction with overbearing strength.
Of course, this puzzle applies on many levels. One might postulate an inter galactic Federation, which is a meta power structure over the power structures of interstellar Federations. This intergalactic Federation would have to decide how each interstellar Federation should regulate its planetary power structures: how often they should intervene, how strictly they should enforce their scientific estimates or opinions as opposed to the opinions of their subjects, and so on. One could even hypothesize an inter-galactic-cluster Federation, a meta power structure over the power structures of intergalactic power structures, which would be faced with similar dilemmas -- and so on, to higher and higher levels.
It is worth pausing to ponder the nature of control in such a hierarchical system of power structures. Suppose the highest, Universe-level Federation, gives its various immediate underlings different instructions, based on different plausible hypotheses about what will work best. Then each of these underlings, operating within the parameters of their instructions, will give its immediate underlings a variety of different instructions, based on different plausible hypotheses about what will work best. And so on down: each inter-galactic-cluster Federation will give its subsidiary intergalactic Federations instructions on how to manage their interstellar Federations; and, based on these instructions, the interstellar Federations will manipulate the power structures of their subsidiary planets.
Assuming a lack of horizontal communication between the various elements of this system, it seems likely that it would display a great deal of diversity. Not only might different intergalactic Federations in the same galactic cluster be given different instructions, but different intergalactic Federations in different galactic clusters would be even more likely to have different operating instructions.
If all the Federation governments are as open-minded, wise, scientific and benevolent as we have assumed them to be, thenthis experimentalist scheme would seem to be an extremely efficient means of running a universe. I claim that this universe-wide Federation would be about as close to utopia as a real large-scale civilization could possibly get....
But what does all this science fiction have to do with the problem of running the Earth?
Naively, one might identify "planets" with "neighborhoods", "interstellar federations" with "local governments", "intergalactic federations" with "state governments", "inter-galactic-cluster federations" with "national governments", etc. But obviously the two systems are not so closely analogous.
First of all, real governments are almost never run by open-minded, scientifically-minded, benevolent individuals. People meeting all these qualifications are tough to find anywhere, let alone in politics!
Secondly, the assumption of horizontal noncommunication is blatantly inapplicable on earth. When considering planets between which communication is close to impossible, one may assume that events proceed more or less independently on the various planets, so that diversity of desires and actual power structures is likely. But neighborhoods, states and today even nations are inextricably linked together. Trends spread across the earth with astonishing rapidity.
And, thirdly, it is totally incorrect to assume that a state-level government has no effect on people except indirectly, through its effect on local governments. The only level on which this type of non-interference holds is the international: the U.N. has rather little effect on people, or state governments, etc., except through national governments. But the U.N. is also virtually powerless.
Excepting the international level, power structures on all levels apply directly to individual people and also to power structures on all lower levels. Multinational corporations, for instance, exert power on all levels: international, national, regional, local, and individual. In the real world, power and meta-power are all mixed up.
It follows that, in order to make real society approximate our science-fictional society as closely as possible, we need to do three things:
promote benevolent, intelligent, scientific, open minded leadership on all levels
promote diversity among the various power structures on each level
separate, as much as possible, power from meta-power
Clearly, these three requirements are bound together in a very subtle way. To the extent that they are fulfilled, real society will work like our science-fictional Federation.
One way of working toward this would be for governments to prescribe to their subgovernments ends rather than means. For instance, rather than telling states exactly how to clean up their waterways, the national government should give them exactstandards as to how clean their waterways must be. Then they can use whatever means they see fit. This way bureaucratic inertia will not stand in the way of new ideas. The only requirement of this approach is that the national government must have the power to penalize states which consistently fail to meet requirements, whether through incompetence or indifference. Prescribing ends rather than means minimizes involvement of national government in the details of local government.
Another way of separating power from metapower is to implement the following rule: any governmental unit may do whatever it wants, so long as this does not directly affect members of other governmental units. This is an extreme form of liberalism -- it says, simply and unoriginally, "live and let live". The definition of "directly affect" may of course be problematic, but the principle is clear: each governmental unit exists primarily to regulate the interaction of the governmental units on the level immediately beneath.
This principle will be familiar to U.S. Constitution freaks. As already mentioned in Chapter One, the Tenth Amendment says that all powers which the Constitution does not explicitly grant to the Federal government, shall be relegated to the state governments. This Amendment is violated more regularly than any other part of the Bill of Rights -- usually with good intentions, but that's not the point. Regardless of your political views, you must admit that the de facto uselessness of the Tenth Amendment is incredibly suggestive. It encapsulates the whole problem of maintaining an experimentalist spirit in the real world....
What all this adds up to is, in essence, the idea that a society should be a collection of virtual societies. Global society should be thought of as a massively parallel "supercomputer"; national societies should be thought of as simulated computers running on this supercomputer; state-level societies should be thought of as simulated computers running on the nation-level simulated computers; and so forth. Each level should have a high degree of self-organizing integrity, so as to be its own self-contained "virtual social world." Only in this way can it be possible to maintain the spirit of experimentation.
But let's be realistic. These measures, though praiseworthy and well worth fighting for, would accomplish only a moderate amount. A few towns and cities would legalize marijuana; Utah would illegalize almost everything; some progressive areas would improve their schools; San Francisco would allow gays to marry -- but the basic rhythm of life would probably remain institutional-ized rather than experimentalist.
Of course, nothing can be said for certain: perhaps the programme would be a smashing success. But the problem is that any reasonably large region is terribly diverse. Gays in San Francisco would be allowed to marry, but what about gays in Toledo, or Shanghai? How many people in Philadelphia would agree to modify the school system in one particular way? If you tried to make it more old-fashioned, the liberals would complain; if you tried to make it more student-centered, the conservatives would complain.
The only way for the system to work really effectively would be if every distinct social group moved to its own area and madeits own laws. This already happens to some extent -- there are a lot of gays in San Francisco, a lot of liberals in Massachusetts, a lot of Mormons in Utah. But the current situation is far too diversified for each region to have its own specialized, experimental laws.
That is, suppose we make the initial assumptions that
1) geographically speaking, people don't care much where they live, so long as they're surrounded by the right people.
2) it costs fairly little to move people from one place to the other
If these conditions were true, then each group of "like-minded" people could be allowed to live in their own little virtual society. Catholics could all go to Europe, Buddhists to India, atheists to Australia. More specifically, high-tech atheists in Sydney; back-to-basic atheists in Perth! If location were no object, society could be arranged in an approximate dual network -- social groups could be arranged hierarchically and associatively, with each group near those that are closely related to it, and within a large area containing only groups that are loosely related to it. Each group could govern itself however it saw fit.
There would have to be certain restrictions, of course -- no one should be allowed to set off nuclear explosions, or castrate babies upon birth, etc. It is not hard to write up a detailed plan following this basic idea; a general book such as this, however, is not the place for such a plan. But the basic principle should be clear. Unlimited and instant mobility permits the recreation of our Fractal-Topian Federation right here on Earth....
But anyway, who cares, right? All this is nothing but crazy, deluded, pie-in-the-sky knee-jerk liberal conservative reactionary libertarian anarchist speculation, right?
Right enough, I suppose -- if you believe that the current state of technology is going to last forever. Just as true capitalism would have been impossible with the technology of 1500, true experimentalism seems to be close to impossible with the technology of 1993.
But, no one in their right mind believes that 1993 technology represents the eternal upper limit. The trends are very clear. People are less and less concerned about where they live. Moving people gets easier and easier and easier all the time. When the psychological and financial cost of moving people around becomes small enough, the type of experimentalist society described above will become feasible. It will be possible to run virtual societies all over the world.
And now we arrive at the punchline of the chapter. When one draws virtual reality into the picture, things get sweeter yet. For in a virtual world, there are absolutely no pre-made obstacles to moving people around. Unless dictatorial forces somehow come to dominate virtual reality, cybersociety will be essentially forced into the experimentalist model. Virtual society and virtual reality match up so naturally, in such an obvious way, that there is no need to harp on the point. Cyberspace does not have the same kind of mobility restrictionsas Earth. Therefore cyber society will be inherently more capable of recognizing patterns in its own dynamics, and of optimizing itself toward greater and greater sociological perfection.
And this leads up to what I believe is the greatest ethical and political problem that we will face upon the perfection of cyberspace technology. Today, virtual reality research is dominated by computer hackers -- nerdy or hippyish types, rarely bureaucrats or autocrats. But just as Apple Computer was taken over by corporate types, once virtual reality becomes commercially viable, the bigwigs will step in. It is all-important to ensure that institutions are not allowed to dictate the nature of virtual reality.
Virtual reality must be settled democratically -- meaning not by the dictatorship of the majority, but pluralistically. Each sizeable segment of the population must be allowed to customize its own segment of the virtual universe. Virtual reality is an unprecedented opportunity to move toward a more creative, experimentalist society. But, as Philip K. Dick has shown us, it is also an incomparably flexible tool for exploitation and terror.
The Brilliant Fluidity of Cyberspace
The experimentalist society is reminiscent of nothing so much as a mind. In the language of the psynet model, introduced in Chapter One and to be reviewed in Chapter Six, it consists of a dual network of different social groups, each one creating its own laws, its own rules of operation. For we have the crucial feature of a dual network: combined hierarchical control and heterarchical self-organization. The hierarchical control comes in because each group is governed by the larger group to which it belongs. And the heterarchical self-organization comes in because different groups will want to be near those groups that are related to it -- so as to share in the process of creating meta-rules to govern their common "boss" region.
What I predict, then, is that virtual reality will tend to erode the distinction between society and mind. Society will become more intelligent, better at solving the optimization problems of balancing the happiness of each individual against the happiness of other individuals, and balancing the happiness of one generation against the happiness of the next. Whether society will ever become as smart as an individual mind is rather doubtful; there may be some kind of "uncertainty relation" preventing this from happening. But our present societies are really not very clever; there is much room for improvement.
Don't get me wrong: I don't believe for a minute that virtual reality technology will solve all the world's problems. I'm much too cynical to be a true utopian. Doubtless VR will bring with it a whole host of new problems, most of which would be incomprehensible to us today. But I do think that more than a little enthusiasm is in order. Language didn't solve all the world's problems, and neither did civilization -- but I like to think that if I'd been around at the birth of either, I would have been exactly as thrilled as I am about virtual reality right now. Perhaps I would have spent some fraction of my life tryingto intuit the nature of what was to come.
When seated next to a particularly talkative person on a cross-country flight, I've often wished language could be uninvented. And, living as I do halfway around the world from my family (it's a long way from Perth to Philadelphia), I've sometimes questioned the wisdom of giving up tribal life. But nonetheless, I know I could never go back to the ways of the distant past. And in the same way, although the cybernauts of the future may look nostalgically back on the calm and solidity of the twentieth century, they will never seriously consider reviving our archaic mode of existence. The brilliant fluidity of cyberspace will be a part of them.