"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 28, 2013

Deception And Virtual Reality

Gary Younge (The Guardian 1.28.13) has his knickers in a twist about the increasing deception in modern life.  What is to be made, he asks, of Beyoncé lip-synching lyrics at President Obama’s inauguration, or the sneaking of some horsemeat into British hamburgers, or the fake Lance Armstrong?  Before you know it, you won’t know whom to believe.

He misses the point.  Nobody cares.  Our virtual, imagined, and idealistic world will always trump reality. When mind and machine are eventually linked; and when infinite combinations and permutations of individual fantasy are possible in a virtual cyber-world, few if any of us will long for ‘reality’.  Virtuality will replace reality because it will be so much more attractive.  It will be a world without the warts and blemishes, blebs, bulges, grime, and sludge of life and will be Hollywood, Las Vegas, the Chateau de Versailles, and the pristine air of the Himalayas.

Imagine in a not too distant future that your mind has been linked to the computer via electronic patterning, DNA manipulation, and biochemistry. Cyberspace will contain images, sounds, fragrances, and stories of all of history, and you will be able to enter this world, select the period you wish to live in and the people to accompany you.  You can write your own scenarios and your own poetry.  You can walk through the gardens of Versailles with the love of your life, sit at court with Marie Antoinette, listen to chamber music, and wear powdered wigs and high, buckled stockings.  You can make love in the bedroom of the dauphin, look out the window as the summer sun sets and the last breath of lilacs floats into the room

You will not be aware that this is a virtual reality, for it will be so meticulously created through a combination of your own imagination and the historical record, that it will exist in its own space.  You will willingly abandon reality, leave the dross and sludge of real life behind, and enter a virtual world which you create, and travel in it with the woman of your choice whether real or imagined

Would you ever exchange this virtual world for your old, shopworn, hackneyed, predictable real one?  Of course not.  (Adapted from Virtual Reality,4.4.11 http://www.uncleguidosfacts.com/2011/04/virtual-reality.html)

Younge does not agree and is worried that our world is headed for the diabolical universe of The Matrix, all illusion and construct with only one sane, grounded, real man to save the world:

In the science fiction film The Matrix, all-powerful machines transform the planet into a huge computer simulation where humans exist only in a dream world. Among the few sentient "free" people left fighting the machines is Cypher, who abandons the struggle following a revelation: he actually prefers the simulation to reality.

This view is the common one – not only has Man been finally dominated by the very machines he has created (See also Terminator I and II); but he has been forced to live in a frightening world of someone else’s fiction.  Pure Hollywood melodrama, full of conspiracy theory, heroism, and special effects.  Cypher, however, understands the temptation, allure, and final seductiveness of a virtual world:

"I know this steak doesn't exist," he says. "I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?" He chews the steak ostentatiously and sighs. "Ignorance is bliss."

What is left out in the retelling is that Cypher is eating not just a delicious steak, but the most delicious, succulent, tender steak he has ever eaten.  In a virtual world perfection according to individual taste and preference will be the currency of the day.

Americans in particular love fake.  Las Vegas is only the most elaborate example.  Why go to Paris, Luxor, or Venice when you can wander through simulated gardens, up and down simulated canals, and stare in wonderment at fake Sphinxes, palaces of the doges, or the elegance of Hyde Park? We willingly give up our disbelief, our sense that it is all not real because it is real.  If you can’t tell the difference, then the distinction between fact and fiction, real and fake disappears.

Is there any doubt that our love of games, now almost indistinguishable from the action of real war or football, will lead to a fully simulated, 3-D, holographic experience?  And is there any doubt at all that we will want to spend hours in an exciting world insulated from shit, Shinola, and dead-end jobs?

Our houses imitate Tudor palaces, Mediterranean villas, Georgian mansions, and Moghul gardens.  American colonial, white-frame or brick homes are so boring, traditional, and ordinary.  Why not opt for the exotic and the foreign?  Who cares if you build a chateau on one measly acre of land in Potomac?  You have created the environment you have always dreamed of. 

So the Beyoncé flap is nothing.  It was her voice belted out on the Mall.  It was she singing, gyrating, emoting.  No one knew the difference until they were told. Were they gypped? No. Younge disagrees:

Well, it makes a difference. If it was as much of an honor to be performing at the inauguration as Beyoncé claimed, she might have found time to rehearse at least once. Moreover, the essence of a live performance is the understanding that the audience is experiencing the event in real time and anything can happen. It is that combination of synchronicity, spontaneity and frailty that gives live performances their edge – it's the one take that matters.

Glenn Gould, the brilliant, eccentric pianist of a few decades ago, known especially for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, quit the concert stage abruptly saying that the audience interfered with his creative process; and that alone in his studio he could remaster, electronically edit, and perfect his work.  Listeners thought they were listening to the same Glenn Gould whom they had seen on stage, but they actually heard a virtual pianist, a more perfect and elegant one.  When they found out, they didn’t care and bought his records in even greater numbers.  Live performance is overrated, said Gould.

Truth is thought by many to be knowable, but most know that it is a matter of perception. 

In 1868, after five years work, Robert Browning completed and published the long blank-verse poem The Ring and the Book. Based on a convoluted murder-case from 1690s Rome, the poem is composed of twelve books, essentially ten lengthy dramatic monologues narrated by the various characters in the story, showing their individual perspectives on events, bookended by an introduction and conclusion by Browning himself.

The Alexandria Quartet is a tetralogy of novels by British writer Lawrence Durrell, published between 1957 and 1960. A critical and commercial success, the first three books present three perspectives on a single set of events and characters in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II.The fourth book is set six years later, in Corfu.

As Durrell explains in his preface to Balthazar, the four novels are an exploration of relativity and the notions of continuum and subject–object relation, with modern love as the theme. The Quartet first three books offer the same sequence of events through several points of view, allowing individual perspectives of a single set of events. the fourth book shows change over time. (Wikipedia)

Even earlier (1709) Bishop Berkeley denied the existence of reality itself:

Berkeley’s primary achievement was the advancement of a theory he called "immaterialism" (later referred to as "subjective idealism" by others). This theory denies the existence of material substance and instead contends that familiar objects like tables and chairs are only ideas in the minds of perceivers, and as a result cannot exist without being perceived. Thus, as Berkeley famously put it, for physical objects "esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived"). Berkeley is also known for his critique of abstraction, an important premise in his argument for immaterialism.

No one questioned the nature of reality so starkly as Berkeley; and in the early 18th century most people believed in this world, the heavenly, but no more; and while observers in the 19th and mid-20th centuries had matured philosophically to appreciate that truth and reality were more elusive and a matter of perception, today’s world is far more challenging.  In the Age of the Internet, who can tell what is true or false, real or unreal?  It is an age of competing claims, photo-shopping, and imagination.  It is so seductive and easy to believe whatever you read or see, why bother hunting for corroboration?

Gary Younge correctly observes this trend, but draws the wrong conclusion:

These moments of deception go beyond sport and show business. They are emblematic of a culture where marketing trumps substance, cynicism triumphs over sincerity, and what is fake is openly and actively promoted over what is true.

Authenticity and transparency, it turns out, are just two options among many. Worse still, we all too often actively collude in the deception on the grounds that the version of events that has been curated for us is preferable to the truth.

Of course authenticity and transparency are just options in this virtual, cybernetic world; and yes, alternative realities are being curated for us during this transition period before our eventual self-curated imagined, virtual world.  The train has left the station.  The smell of ‘real’ grass, ‘real’ lilacs, and ‘real’ pine trees will soon be things of the past.

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