You are not a gadget...

A deleted scene

A section of the book that didn't make it into the final cut. Note that this section has not been edited- it's raw. 
If it had fit in the book, it would have been placed near the end.
It's about: Virtual Reality and neoteny; post-symbolic communication as an example of an alternative far horizon; a humanistic alternative to the singularity

Picture yourself at a hippie technology talk in, let's say, 1984.  Prototypes of today's Internet-obsessed teenagers had already appeared in small numbers.  We were a little different back then.  We still typically wore the costumes of the 1960s - mostly hippie costumes.  Capitalism was frowned upon, so there was a lot of silly socialist rhetoric mixed in with our technological utopianism.  But other than that, we were remarkably like the young people you find at tech gatherings today.   We collected weird little anecdotes and documentation of anomalies to share over what would become the ‘net (though the Web as we know it wasn’t in place yet), just like you see on today's BoingBoing, and got together to hack weird projects. 

I was particularly good at speaking to people in this milieu.  I used to get them almost delirious.  It's strange to think of it now.

Anyway, here’s a reconstruction of my vintage utopian rant, as best as I can remember it decades later:

The guru speaks

Think back to your earliest memories, and ask the question, “What was I experiencing before then?”  There isn’t any definitive way to answer that question.  The answer hovers just out of reach.  You can observe little kids, even scan their brains, but the only way to get at what the experience might have been like for you is informed imagination.

Here’s what happened to you before the times you can remember… 

There was an early phase each of us went through when we were unclear about where imagination ended and reality began.  It was a confusion that made us incompetent.  If you can’t tell whether a phantom is really there or not, it is quite difficult to navigate the world on your own.

During this time we were therefore completely dependent on our parents for even the most basic elements of survival, not to mention comfort.  But the internal experience of being so vulnerable was not negative at all; In fact it felt luminous, empowered, and even divine.

In that state, it was as if anything you imagined leapt into being.  Imagine a huge, friendly, golden tarantula emerging from an open window and it as real as the window.  If you can’t tell what is real, everything is real.  Everything is magic.

This is a way luckier identity than being King Midas.  Everything he touched turned to gold, but anything you merely imagine turns real.  You are a God.

Then a horrendous tragedy overtakes you.  You finally start to discern what is real from what is only imagined.  The window is always there but the golden tarantula sometimes is not.  Other people acknowledge the window but not the creature.  The window and the tarantula are not of the same world.

This realization grows into a belief in the physical world. 

It also amounts to a severe insult.  It is the most precipitous demotion possible in any possible world.  One moment you are Lord of the Universe, willing things into being, and the next you are a small, damp thing, helpless in every way. 

It is a bitter pill to swallow.  It has something to do with the “Terrible Twos.”  You don’t give up power willingly or gracefully.  At every step you test the physical world, hoping to find some tricks, some hidden angles, that will allow you to recover a little of the Protean abilities you lost so recently.

The struggle goes on for months, and to some degree, years and decades.  Other bitter pills present themselves, such as the awareness of mortality.  At the conclusion of your epic fall from grace, you are finally an adult. 

Some people never quite make it.  Most of us probably haven’t quite accepted the transition with all our being.

Becoming an adult does not mean a total loss of creative power.  It just means you have to put up with an enormous amount of inconvenience.

As a child you might conjure an amethyst octopus friend, 200 feet tall at its center, with tentacles 400 feet long.  It wanders into town when you call it, and sleeps under the waters of the Bay at other times.  It bends down to give you access to the very top of its head, where there is an opening.  Inside the head is a wonderful, furry cave where you can hang out.  There’s a little bed in there that hugs you while you sleep.  Imagine this at bedtime, and it is as if the creature is real. 

As an adult you can still imagine this creature, but that alone does not make it real.   You can sometimes make extraordinary dreams real, but it usually takes a forbidding amount of work.

Suppose it is some decades into the 21st century, and robotics has gotten much more advanced.  You might then be able to spend a decade sharpening your robotics skills to build a huge octopus-like robot that matches the fantasy, and then move into it. 

Or, perhaps someday in the future, you will be able to spend a decade learning genetic engineering in order to give birth to an enormous custom octopus.  But we’re talking about a major commitment in either case. 

Years of work would certainly be required before anything like the giant octopus could ever be realized in physical form, even after another century of advances in biology and robotics.  That doesn’t sound like much fun.  Furthermore you’d probably spend more time negotiating permits than actually working on the project.  (Even if genetic engineering is unregulated in the future, there will still probably be regulations about the uses of land and water for something so big.)

As an adult you can do imaginative things, but not instantly.  It takes time and work. 

The tools given to us are for the most part our hands and tongues, and we have used them to create every artificial thing, albeit through increasingly long trains of indirection. Hands built fire which melted iron to make tools, and so on.

The earliest memories we retain usually coincide with our earliest experiences with language.  In order to appreciate language, you have to start by thinking about haste.  How long does it take to realize a thought?  A young kid can imagine the octopus house into existence in a second.  An adult doing the same through engineering will take much longer- let’s say a decade.

If you look at the human body, there are only a few special parts of it that move as quickly as thought, and with enough variation to reflect a large variety of thoughts.  The tongue and the fingers are the primary examples.  Fingers can play notes on a piano about as quickly as a pianist can think of them.  The fastest piano players are playing as fast as people can hear.  This can be demonstrated by speeding up an Art Tatum solo- it becomes literally overwhelming.

Now we have a way of thinking about language.  Language is something people can do to use the tiny part of physical reality that we have the power to manipulate at the speed of thought in order to invoke illusions of all the other manipulations of reality that we can only achieve very slowly and with a lot of work.  It is what we call a “hack” in Silicon Valley culture.

A few flicks of the tongue and excitations of the vocal chords, and you can blurt out “Giant amethyst octopus.”  Compare that with the decades of work it would take to realize the creature in reality. 

A symbol is a trick for the sake of efficiency.  It lets the brain express thoughts to others about as fast as they are experienced, without all the work of realizing changes to physical reality.   Symbolism turns the part of the universe we can control, like the tongue, into an invoker of the rest of the universe, and all possible universes, that we cannot control in haste. 

Now consider Virtual Reality.  Not as it exists today, but as it might exist someday.  Suppose someday there are user interfaces for creating fresh stuff in VR that work as well, and as quickly, as musical instruments do today.  Maybe they even feel like musical instruments.  Maybe there will be a virtual saxophone-like thing you can pick up in an immersive Virtual World.  Maybe you’ll have to wear special glasses and gloves to see and feel it, or maybe there will be other gadgets that do the trick.  Pick it up, learn to finger it and blow, and it will spin out virtual octopus houses and worlds of other fantastic things with the ease and speed that a saxophone can spin out musical notes today.

This will be a new trick in the repertory of the species, a new twist in the human story.  The same parts of your body that were used to make language possible will be leveraged to make the very stuff of experience, not symbolic references to hypothetical experiences. 

True, it will take years to learn how to play things into existence, just as it takes years to learn to speak a language.  But the payoff will be tangible.  Other people will experience what you breathed into being.  Your spontaneous inventions will be objectively there, shared to the same degree that perception of a physical object is shared.

Remember, I’m talking about the good quality immersive virtual worlds of the future, not the cartoon world on a screen you might see today in a service like Second Life.  And it would have to include that expressive reality-emitting saxophone or other Protean tools, and it is an unknown whether these tools can be created or not.

But suppose it can be done.  Then Virtual Reality would combine some of the qualities of physical reality, of language, and of innocent imagination, but in a completely new way. 

Virtual Reality will be like imagination in that it will engender unbounded variety.  It will be like physical reality in that it will be objective and shared.  And it will be like language because adults will be able to be expressive with it at a speed that is at least comparable to the speed of thought.  It will be, take a deep breath, a shared, waking state, intentional, communicative, collaborative, dream.

Put another way, VR will make it possible to extend the magic of earliest childhood into adulthood.  It will be the technological expression of Bachelardian neoteny.

The illusions of childhood would no longer be false.  Practical activity would become numinous. 

The guru visits a planet of civilized cephalopods

Let’s suppose that I had the opportunity to travel in a spaceship to a planet run by cephalopods.  Perhaps they would have booked me to give a lecture about Virtual Reality.

I would be set up with my aquatic public address system at the rim of the lecture pool, and start my talk.

The tentacled audience would listen attentively to my tales of Turing and the Hive Mind, wondering at the follies of the weird, confused planet of primates I come from.  They would remain entranced until I got to the part about Post-symbolic communication.  At that point, they would be confused.

The hip kids in the back of the pool would start morphing to each other.  It would be clear that I had nothing to offer them.  They were born with the expressive advantages of Virtual Reality already built in to their bodies.


I am now finally ready to challenge the romanticism of Cybernetic Totalism.  Its appeal rests largely on a sense of manifest destiny about a far horizon to attack, which is the quest for ever-greater meta-ness, culminating in the Singularity.  Now I offer an alternative. 

The quest for post-symbolic communication can be thought of as a competitive idea, taking on the Singularity.  It will be a more vivid, colorful, entrancing, and meaningful path to follow, because it based on experience instead of abstract achievement.  It is sensual instead of nerdy. 

You can find traces of the beginnings of Post-symbolic communication already appearing in the most fun aspects of the digital world.  The kooky visuals in Second Life, the weird digital sculptures at Burning Man, the way human beatboxers use their mouths to mimic the outputs of synthesizers…  These are early signs of people turning into cephalopods.

We can compare the two ideas about the future in the context of “ramps” of progress.   Such a ramp is a visualization of the idea, mostly associated with Western culture, that the future will be better than the past, that civilization is ascending a ramp of some kind to its betterment.

The most familiar is the ramp of progress.  As you ascend it, technology improves in terms of raw powers and specifications.  The invention of fire and the wheel were early, low altitude milestones, moon missions and genomics were more recent ones, and in the future we might finally enjoy flying cars.  

There is a related idea about a computational ramp.  In that one, computation started at a very low level at the big bang.  The evolution of life on Earth has amounted to ever “higher levels” of computation, increasing exponentially.  The future that awaits us as we climb up this ramp is the Singularity.

There are other ramps in Western thinking.  For instance, you can also propose that there has been a moral ramp of progress.  The rule of law and the outlawing of slavery were altitudes attained by climbing up this ramp, though it’s been a more slippery assent.  What might await us as we climb further up the moral ramp?  It is harder to understand the question in this case.  Have we really learned anything new?  Are we just struggling to act on ethical principles we’ve known all along? 

I call the ramp associated with extended neoteny the McLuhan Ramp, after Marshall McCluhan, the philosopher of media.  It has risen as the variety and sophistication of ways that people can connect has increased.  Spoken language was an early milestone; writing came later, then the printing press, and then the Internet.  Putting people at the center, and emphasizing the potential to increase the depth of connections between them, is unique to the McLuhan Ramp.  It could also be called the ramp of empathy.  It is this ramp that I believe leads to Post-symbolic Communication or something else that will be equally wonderful.

Finite and Infinite Ramps


To explain why some ramps are better than others, I will invoke the formulation of the philosopher James P, Carse, who distinguished between Finite and Infinite Games. 

Earlier, I used chess as an example to reconsider the meaning of the Turing test, and chess will serve my argument again here:

A Finite Game is like a single game of chess that comes to a conclusion. 

An Infinite game is like the overall tradition of chess, which has no inevitable end. 

The game of chess evolves without bounds, even though it is based on simple rules that, on one level, define the most limiting bounds imaginable.  The culture surrounding the rules of chess has grown ever richer, despite the simplicity of the rules.  Chess as a whole includes a scandalous history of wild personalities, and any good game of chess includes an indescribable universe of interpersonal bluffs and taunts.

War is a Finite Game, while Peace is an Infinite Game.  Finite games are easier to get into, and Infinite Games can be fallen out of.  The idea of the Infinite Game is similar to the most profound idea of Love.

The difference between a Finite and Infinite Game can be subtle.  A flamethrower can be dangerous.  A flame throwing festival is art.  Another example I used earlier is that a bullet is naturally violent but a virtual bullet is naturally art.

Here is how I like to put it:  Good technology connects people in new and deeper ways while bad technology merely grants people more raw power.   This formulation has sometimes been called the “Sieve of Empathy.”

Once you have the fastest car, the biggest bomb, the most capacious computer, what then?  It is an empty form of ambition.  A drive for pure technological power is not only a Finite Game, but often a destructive one. 

Improving computation for its own sake instead for the cause of empathy results in misfortunes like the plague of fragments we are now enduring.  The Sieve of Empathy works for technologies aside from information technology just as well.  An approach to any underlying technological capability that solely expands human powers will probably lead to evil. 

For instance, the very most powerful way to store and release energy at a given time will probably be a weapon, a bomb.  But a way of storing energy that connects people might be a form of transportation.  A cylinder in an engine in a car is merely a civil version of a bomb applied to the purpose of helping people meet in person. 

But connecting technologies are a sustainable game because they are based on the boundless potential of empathy.

When we prefer technologies according to that particular criterion - that the function is primarily to connect individual whole persons - then we will enter into an Infinite Game.  Human connections are creative and can always become deeper and more meaningful.  It must be a matter of faith that creativity and empathy are boundless.  There is no altitude limit to Maslow’s pyramid.

Recall for a moment a notion I put forward earlier:  Whenever technologists fail to come up with ways to improve living standards enough to entertain everyone, people will fight and kill each other. 

If that idea seemed overly dark, consider it in the context of modern terrorism.  Once upon a time, at a lowly starting zone on the ramp of technological progress, it wasn’t trivial for one person to do much harm to another.  The other person would resist. 

With the development of weapons like clubs and swords, it became possible for an armed person to easily harm an unarmed person.  A later development was the coordination of multitudes of armed people.  The viability of the phalanx was the precedent for the corporation, the union, the fascia, the soviet, and all the other meta-human constructions that preceded the Hive Mind.  It became trivial for coordinated groups of people to do harm.

But now we have ascended further up the ramp of technological progress and entered into a new situation.  It is now possible for small numbers of people to trivially harm large numbers of people.  That is something new.

How shall we survive this phase in our ascent?  It must be by engaging all those people who might do harm, who let their inner troll get the better of them, in some way that diverts them into more beautiful activities.

In the old days, you could argue about whether art had a purpose, but as technology progresses, both art and technology will come to share the same explicit mission.  The mission is to come up with adventures of such beauty, intensity, and meaning that mankind will be seduced away from any inclination to commit super-empowered atrocities.

Thus the quest for beauty and meaning I have advocated throughout this book – my resistance to the meaninglessness of information as an organizing principle – is not just about esthetics, but about survival.




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