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Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Meta, Facebook, And The Virtual World–Hey, Reality Has Never Been What It Was Cracked Up To Be

Mark Zuckerberg, President and CEO of Facebook announced that his company would now be known as Meta.  “The metaverse”, he said, “will feel like a hybrid of today’s online social experiences, sometimes expanded into three dimensions or projected into the physical world. It will let you share immersive experiences with other people even when you can’t be together — and do things together you couldn’t do in the physical world.”

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Metaphysicians since Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) if not long before have asked, ‘what is, and how do we know it?’; and they questioned the nature of perception and how it determines reality.  Berkeley’s question ‘If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?’ suggested the subjectivity of reality.  Artists like Browning, Durrell, and Kurosawa suggested that although there might be such a thing as reality, it is only relative  - what one observes.  

Each of these writers and filmmakers told stories from the perspective of different characters, all of whom saw the same event differently.  Police forensic psychologists have known that eyewitnesses cannot be trusted.  They are too influenced by prior events, social conditioning, personality, and personal circumstance to be counted on for objective accuracy.

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Religions are based on a supernatural reality, far removed from an earthly one.  Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam all rely on an invisible, unknowable, all-powerful universal force  They are based on elaborate myths which raise their gods to a high, fantasy level of existence.  Imagine only the Christian myth of death and resurrection, Christ’s miracles, or the existence of the Devil.  Or the many gods of the Hindu pantheon, each with marvelous supernatural powers.  Siva, Vishnu, and Kali and the creation and destruction of the universe told in the Ramayana.

Science fiction has been a popular genre for almost two hundred years.  H.G. Wells and Jules Verne were but two of the earliest and well-known spinners of tales of the fantastic.  Modern science fiction has long since broken through 19th century conservative, earth-bound tales of other beings and invented creatures of previously unimaginable dimensions.  As frightening as the Martians in Wells’ War of the Worlds were, they were still machines, mechanical old-fashioned things which invaded Earth.  They were nothing like the impossibly weird, frightening creatures of today.

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America has always been a country of fantasy and image.  Hollywood for more than a century has turned out imaginary, romantic dramas.  Soap operas, star magazines and women’s romantic fiction, one of the most popular literary genres ever, assume a suspension of disbelief, cater to an ethos of idealism, hope, and opportunity, and shamelessly appeal to simplistic emotions.

The social media, Facebook leading the way, have shown that Americans are quite willing to accept their own versions of the truth and none other.  Truth and facts, never hot commodities in a country of snake-oil salesmen, carny barkers, evangelists, and vaudevillians, have less traction than they ever did.

All of which is to say, that we are ready for a completely virtual world – not just an occasional dip into the unreal, but an embrace of it so entire that any residual claim on reality will be jettisoned.

Science, and especially the field of Artificial Intelligence, is already at the point where the distinction between reality and virtuality no longer exists.  We are completely comfortable conversing with Siri, an electronic, highly intelligent media avatar.  Movies such as Her have shown our high comfort level with virtual companions. We have already put aside archaic notions of things that are and things that are not.

The most revolutionary discovery yet has been the physical interface between mind and machine.  Scientists are on the cusp of deciphering the language of human thought, understanding the brain’s circuitry enough to communicate with it via the computer.  Once this symbiosis between mind and machine is complete, there will be no reason to simply rely on the ‘real’ world for stimulation or satisfaction. A virtual world which is indistinct from the ‘real’ one and of infinitely more possibilities for interaction will replace reality. 

Why should anyone prefer the humdrum, prosaic, and entirely predictable world of brick-and-mortar experience when one can explore the jungles of the Amazon, dine with the Duchesse de Nantes in her chateau, stroll through the gardens of Versailles to the music of Bach played by Louis’ own chamber orchestra, bed Scarlett Johansson, Marilyn Monroe, and Marisa Tomei, travel to Mars, and sample concoctions of the most famous chefs that have ever lived? No one.

In other words, this communication between mind and machine will not be simply one of language but of experience – sights, sounds, emotions, spirituality, sex, and euphoria.  Just as digitization has made much of the world’s knowledge available at the click of a mouse, soon the click will be initiated deep within in the brain, the search engine will be human curiosity, and the process will not stop with access.  Once we are where we want to be whether in the elegant 18th century rooms of the Chateau de Versailles or in the bedroom of our own fantasy with an amalgamation of the most sensual women we can possibly imagine, it will be a unique, personal, inimitable experience.

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When the idea of virtual reality first emerged fifty years ago with the advent of the earliest avatars – holograms – few people understood the implications of the new discoveries in AI; and those who did were frightened of them.  How could anyone prefer an artificially-created world to one’s own?  How could the scent of a Northern pine forest every be reproduced or replaced? Or the wonders of the seashore? Artificially-stimulated sex? A distortion of God’s world and a travesty of Nature. Replacing the ‘real’, palpable, and immediate sensations of the world by some electronic chimera? Devilish at best.

It might take some getting used to, this replacement of the ‘real’ by the virtual; but soon enough the distinction will disappear altogether.  In fact, once we realize that virtual reality is better than the real thing, thanks to the infinite personal adaptations possible within a virtual world, the easier it will be for us to drop our archaic notions of what is.  In other words, if one cannot distinguish between the ‘real’ and the virtual, then they are both equal in value.

In other words reality is but a convenience.  ‘Blue’ is a convention regardless how each of us see it. Trees always make noises because the laws of physics say they do, regardless of any metaphysical issues. Simply because reality is a convenience and an integral part of our daily lives, many of us are reluctant to give it up.  Those who believe in alternate universes, astral projection, and impossible physics are kooks, outliers, not to be taken seriously. Yet when virtual reality become a reality, all these theories will be acceptable.  Logic will be an option.

The train has left the station.  Virtual reality, complete symbiosis between mind and machine, Artificial Intelligence, and the loosening of logic’s hold are the future.

It is interesting to note that through genetic engineering, the human organism and human nature itself will be dramatically altered. Not only will we become bionic, but infinitely genetically malleable.  Our children can be anything we want them to be.

Double helix

The two phenomena combined – virtual reality and DNA sequencing – will change the nature of humanity forever.  A done deal. 

So Mark Zuckerberg has done the right thing.  He has accelerated the move to complete virtuality.  Every move made to enhance the virtual world, to make it more indistinguishable from the real one and far more appealing, will hasten its completeness, its universality.

The comic and political commentator Bill Maher recently criticized Zuckerberg and Meta, urging young people to reject this fantasy virtual world.  ‘Get off the couch and get a girlfriend’, he said.  A real girlfriend.  But he and others who are desperately holding on to a fading, passé world do not get it, can never get it.  They are too wedded to the real taste of a cold beer, the soft touch of a woman’s breast, the bracing cold of an October morning; when the virtual representations of them will be even more exciting, more stimulating.  There will be no mediation in this new virtual world.  The bright red leaves of Vermont will be exactly the red we want to see – brighter, more vivid, more spectacular; or more subtle, muted, and nostalgic.  Fall will be our Fall, not Vermont’s.

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