Plato's cave and Vishnu's dream:
Plato used the allegory of prisoners trapped in a cave, in order to discuss various political systems in his opus 'Republic'. These prisoners see shadows of objects projected onto a wall, as lit by a fire which they never see. To them, these shadows represent the entire gamut of reality, and they cannot conceive of a three dimensional object illuminated by natural light. One of the prisoners escapes the cave and sees the world outside, as well as the bright sun illuminating everything. In the beginning, his eyes are unable to take in this light, but gradually he understands the world for what it is. He returns to the cave to explain his findings to the others, but he is unable to find the words to tell them. Further, as he comes back, he finds his eyesight has become incapable of distinguishing the faint shadows on the wall. The prisoners deduce that going out of the cave is terrible, as that would destroy the eyesight. Thus, the prisoners are held in the cave by the captors without the use of force. Some of them need to be restrained by chains, as the person who escaped the cave unnoticed, but the others are there by their own choice. In Plato's narrative, the captors are the people in power - the guardians of the republic. His work discusses different forms of government and their relative virtues. This allegory of the cave is brilliantly rephrased in Emir Kusturica's film 'Underground'. In computer graphics, one of the first immersive virtual environments to have been developed, by Thomas DeFanti and colleagues, was called CAVE (CAVE Automatic Virtual Environment, following the fashion of recursive acronyms that computer scientists like) in reference to Plato.
Two important questions unanswered in the allegory of Plato's cave are how would a prisoner realize that he is imprisoned, and how could he escape. The allegory hits the limit of its narrative potential before answering them. In Indian mythology, I am aware of a few allegories that discuss these questions. Unlike Greek mythology, Indian mythology visualizes the world as an onion, with many layers of virtualness - internal personal world, external social world, outer cosmic world and so on - each of which held in place by the actions of gods. The gods can be thought of as subconscious mental processes, who are not always visible to the conscious mind, but visible when inspected with care. These gods can be understood in a hierarchy, with higher gods referring to more subtle processes that drive the simpler ones. When confronted with the illusion of virtualness that is preventing the conscious mind from seeing the true nature of reality, it can either react angrily demanding the destruction of this illusion, or react in mirth smiling at the illusion and going along with the play of it. These two choices refer to the nature of two principal god-heads in Hindu religion: Shiva and Vishnu respectively. There can be many other choices spanning the spectrum between the two. The formal theory of aesthetics and artistic expression in India, known as 'Rasa', specifies 9 different principal emotions, with different gods commanding the different emotions. For understanding virtual reality, it is illuminating to discuss the mythology of Vishnu. Here, the world is understood as the dream of Vishnu. Over the passage of time, the world becomes more complex as well as more repressive and unjust. It is then that Vishnu enters the world in his own dream as a conscious actor known as an 'avatar', helping the right win over the wrong. Thus, an 'avatar' is an automatic process in the virtual world, that appears whenever the world becomes too unjust. From the perspective of a person living in the virtual world, escaping the illusion means realizing that he is one and the same as the dreamer of this illusion, and doing actions in this world that are just and righteous, similar to what an avatar would do. Currently, the word 'virtual avatar' has taken quite a different meaning - to refer to a simple participant obeying the rules of the game in the virtual world.
Digital, cyber and virtual:
What is a virtual world ? Do newspapers and television media count as virtual worlds ? Can we consider early internet bulletin boards and social forums as virtual worlds ? What about social media - websites such as Facebook or Twitter ? What about head-mounted displays such as Oculus Rift or Microsoft Hololens ? I think they are all virtual worlds in some sense, with each technological evolution getting us closer to the ultimate virtual reality. In the 1970s and 80s, the popular adjective was 'digital', which referred to Shannon's information theory that helps us represent any natural signal or phenomenon as digital information. Later on, in the late 80s and early 90s, especially during the rise of the internet, the popular adjective was 'cyber', which originated from Wiener's theory of cybernetics (coming from the Greek root word meaning 'to navigate'), that presented a way to understand human beings as part of a larger technological (or social) system. Personally, I like the words 'cyberspace' and 'cybermedia', as they actively invoke human participation in the technological system. Both these words are slowly going out of fashion. The word 'virtual reality' was invented by Jaron Lanier, another great hero of mine. By this, he meant a world that is 'virtually indistinguishable', for all intents and purposes, from the real world. So the intents and purposes are very important in understanding how close we got to virtual reality. If our intents and purposes in life are just to be passive consumers, then we are already very close to virtual reality. But I hope that we have deeper desires and dreams. Nowadays, Lanier likes to use the phrase 'being an avatar', to refer to the virtual reality suits that he developed in his pioneering company VPL. By this phrase, Lanier refers to fully using the body (hands, fingers etc.) and holding active human agency while navigating the virtual world. The popular media today uses virtual reality (often condensed as VR) to mean head-mounted displays like Oculus Rift, which currently do not even feature any controls for the hands. This is a dramatic reduction in scope for the phrase 'virtually indistinguishable from the real world'. It is far easier to build a virtual world where the user watches passively or has very limited set of controls. But these limitations of user-interface are a form of slavery and repression. Unfortunately, most people do not realize them to be so, until they are completely engulfed in the virtual world and cannot escape. In this blog, I will try to elaborate on these issues. I will use the word virtual reality (VR) how Lanier has meant it. Digital media, cyberspace, social media and immersive media can all be considered as partial fulfillments of VR.
What is a virtuous life ?
Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin, impatience. Because of impatience we are driven out of paradise. Because of impatience we cannot return. - Franz KafkaEvery religion has a list of cardinal sins and virtues and devises a scheme to optimize the personal time and resources of its followers, towards achieving these virtues. Kafka has tried to condense all the sins into a single sin of impatience. Going by his opinion, cultivating a lot of patience may be a good virtue, something I am not sure the internet encourages. I find it absolutely stunning that none of the world religions have issued any dictates (yet) on how their followers should spend their time on the internet. For example, religions that value internal reflection and meditation, such as Buddhism, do not prohibit their followers from using Twitter, which inundates the user's attention with a hodge-podge of unrelated tweets and messages. Checking Facebook or Twitter is probably the opposite of meditation, but even the Dalai Lama uses Twitter. I wonder how Buddha (or Mohammed, or Jesus) himself would have evaluated different web sites and services today. I suspect not many would be to his liking. Personally, I am not religious and do not have an elaborate philosophy on what one should do in life. I will keep it simple. In life, we can try to maximize money, knowledge, power, or reputation. Depending on what we try to maximize, leading a virtuous life may mean different things. But what is the point of doing any of that if we are doing it alone by ourselves ? What will be the value we are getting from all the other people and beings in nature ? So I think leading a virtuous life means cultivating deep friendships. It is on this premise that I will discuss whether virtual reality can lead us to a virtuous life i.e, whether it can lead us to deep and fulfilling friendships.
1) VR will imprison humans into isolated sensory bubbles.Most people today are already hooked to their mobile phones. It is not uncommon to see a family spending time together, but each of them typing furiously into their smartphones. This will only get worse in the future with immersive displays. But people may not even be seeing the same world anymore. This is apparent on the websites which collect massive amounts of user data and offer tailor-made services that better fit to the user profiles. By using services like Google, Facebook or Amazon, users might be getting a very biased view of the world. In the future, we can expect these virtual services to encroach into real world spaces using augmented reality. An empty billboard or a QR-code might be replaced by user-specific visual information. Noise-cancelling headphones might be equipped with computer chips that filter out specific audio patterns and add other context-specific information. In this scenario, can we still say that we share a common world ?
2) VR will destroy our privacy.
We are already living in an age of huge data trawling, where government spying agencies and corporate services are collecting every single byte of data that comes out of everybody, similar to how large fishing ships trawl the ocean-floor sweeping the entire marine life into extinction. The most important effect of this massive data collection is that the spying agencies are able to model not only our conscious actions, but also our sub-conscious, to a degree that we are not even aware of. This dramatically reduces the amount of freedom that we can have as free citizens in a republic. Firstly, the vast majority of people voluntarily silence themselves, avoiding behavior patterns that may be construed by the others as problematic. Secondly, even the few who are noisy and adventurous will not be aware of how deeply their choices of action are restricted. With VR, every single sensory input that comes into the window of the user's perception can be spied upon. With sensors attached to the user's body, many subtle readings about temperature and electro-chemical activity in the body can be spied upon, without the user even being conscious of it. Unlike the philosopher kings favored by Plato and Socrates, the powers that spy on us and make decisions about us will be computer programs that have extreme prejudice and zero wisdom. This is a recipe for death and stagnation of our society and culture.
3) VR will destroy intimacy with the physicality of the real world.
The problem with VR is that it doesn't have to be very good (virtually indistinguishable from the real world) in order to monopolize 100% of our attention. At present, VR technology cannot handle touch, taste and smell, even though our body has fine-scale touch, taste and smell receptors. Touch may be the most fundamental of all our senses. It is known that babies who lack a loving touch in their early infancy will suffer from serious developmental problems. Our brains are highly adaptable organs and are constantly rewiring themselves to cater to the various sensory processing needs. If we spend more time in VR, the sensory information that is still incapable of being reproduced by technology will lose out in our brains. It is known that children who spend a lot of time indoors, reading books in a dim light, will develop myopia. Similarly, people spending time looking at computer screens or head-mounted displays will have their visual receptors compromised. One of the problems with current VR displays is that they don't offer accommodation cues, this creates a type of nausea in people. But with repeated use, the users' brains will adapt and rewire themselves. Similar losses can happen with other senses such as proprioception and balance. Our bodies' multiple senses and motor activation are coupled. Hearing affects smell, touch affects vision and so on. These important cross-sensory couplings will be damaged by the use of VR. It is possible that existing digital technologies may have already massively rewired our brains.
4) VR will destroy a continuous sense of time.When sensory information can be modulated and controlled in VR, it can also be presented in an achronistic manner i.e, different events that happen together in time can be presented at different times to the user. This is already the case when we read news or twitter-feeds. Due to information overload, the computer will make decisions for us on where to prioritize our attention. Depending on the type of digital services we use (whether we pay for them or advertisers pay for them), these decisions may not even be in our best interests. Our brains have evolved to modulate their attention to process different events in time. The notion of internal mental time is fundamental to our cognitive skills. When this is destroyed or usurped by a computer, we become incapacitated in responding to our social and emotional priorities. For example, a friend or a family member might need our attention at a specific point in time, but we may not be available to them immediately. Essentially with VR, in addition to isolated data bubbles, we may also be living in isolated temporal bubbles.
5) VR will inhibit sacrifice and charity.It is known to psychologists that people value a virtual sacrifice in a very similar way to a real sacrifice involving their time or money. For example, after users like the Facebook page of a cause, they are seen to be donating less actual money to the very same cause. This will be a problem if the users have to allocate a limited budget of time and resources to a set of real world people and causes. They will be unable to make these decisions in a conscious manner, without a clear accounting of how their virtual time and money is transferred to their real time and money. Thus, they might be fooled into thinking that they sacrificed something to the virtual persona of a friend, while their real friend is left cold and dry. This is currently the case for people subscribing to music services like Spotify or Apple Music. It is not clear how much the artists profit from the involvement of the users. With further virtualization, these channels of communication will become more opaque.
6) VR will become a hate-amplifying machine.We are currently living in the golden age of internet shaming. Gossip is a fundamental means of human communication. In fact, our very language may have evolved as a means of social gossip. We gossip primarily about other people, especially if we perceive the others to be cheating or doing something bad. This is a human tendency that has evolved to maintain social cohesion, when we were living in small groups. But now on the internet, this has become a source of massive social witch-hunts, where a negative message is amplified by a vast social horde in a matter of seconds. People feeling self-righteous and vindicated rush in to destroy the supposed culprit for whatever perceived offense (which is often incorrectly perceived, because of the lack of context). Women and young girls, as well as sexual minorities, are typically the target of this hate-amplifying machine of social media. I dread what new types of shaming await us in VR. People have greater propensity to behave nastily in certain social conditions, which may be unwittingly recreated in the virtual world. Anonymity breeds asocial behavior. Impatience leads to frustration and anger. Stripping things out of their context and presenting them in isolated chunks lead to quick judgmental behavior. In fact, peaceful and empathic behavior is the result of slow processes in the brain, that need a long time to consolidate memories and ideas in the prefrontal cortex. Instinctive behavior is typically the result of the so-called reptilian brains, which are responsible for fight-or-flight decisions. It is easier to design a virtual world that engages the instinctive behavior patterns of people, but which ultimately leads to a hate-amplifying machine.
6) VR will destroy cultural diversity.In nature, there is a give and take relationship between different species in an ecosystem. Different species find ecological niches to cater to specific needs and adapt to the others in their surroundings. Due to biodiversity, even if the competition in nature is intense, every plant and animal has the possibility for specialization. This creates a virtuous feedback loop, with greater biodiversity bringing even more opportunities. However, we human beings don't like biodiversity. We have been singularly responsible for the most dramatic biodiversity loss in recent ecological times. We are by far the most adaptable species on the planet, and we eat into many ecological niches that have been historically filled by other animals. Understanding this is important, because the current technological evolution through the internet is nothing but an extension of our own biological evolution. With internet and virtual reality, there is limited possibility for building cultural ecological niches. When everything becomes convertible to digital information openly tradable on the internet, network effects dictate that only few actors will remain. This will be the death for a vast number of human cultural offshoots.
7) VR will create social pressures for confirmative bias.When we humans are conscious that we are being watched, especially by people in power, our behavior changes dramatically. We not only avoid talking about unusual opinions, but also actively look to the crowd to spot patterns of majority behavior and confirm to them. This is particularly true in moments of uncertainty and crisis. With VR, the social pressures for confirmation will be far greater, as we will be watched not only for our speech but also for our body language and subconscious thoughts.
8) VR will create a mistaken notion of beauty and happiness in the world.With VR, we all have the possibility to maintain a clean persona, something that removes all of our warts and unique idiosyncrasies. Most people will use this opportunity to showcase an idealistic version of themselves. We can already see this today on Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. With virtual reality, we may have virtual humans that are impossibly good-looking and cleverer than any real person. Natural processes of aging, getting fat, or making socially inappropriate mistakes will be profiled and corrected in the virtual persona. Good friends are like mirrors to our true selves, and when we can successfully hide our true selves, we can never make any true friends.
9) VR will create a pseudo-flat world where anybody can speak, but nobody will listen.One of the greatest hopes about the internet was that it would flatten all the hierarchies of power and enable anybody with an idea to come forward and share it with the others. In reality, this flatness on the network has resulted in a rapid monopolization of user attention. Established news outlets, commercial agencies and celebrities keep getting attention, but it is still extremely hard for novices to find an audience. The social rewards on the network tend to follow a power law distribution, with a very long tail. With VR, when all the senses are controlled by technological gadgetry on an individual user specific manner, it will be even harder to have an ambient social space, where it is possible to bump into new artists and cultivate new tastes. In due time, people will stop publishing and expressing themselves creatively or emotionally. This will be particularly true for elderly people who will suffer from an even greater sense of isolation.
10) VR will pit the living against the dead.
Through VR, it is possible to reanimate dead actors and celebrities. Unlike living people, who need to support themselves physically for food and shelter, the dead have no such obligations. Consequently, the media created by dead actors and artists, which are managed by their estates, will be able to out-sell the living artists and actors. Thus, the living artists, even those who are extremely talented and who would normally fall under the 1% who succeed in a long-tail distribution, may not find any audience at all. This is extremely discouraging and most people will not even bother expressing anything. Instead, a combination of dead artists and computer programs will control the attention of people. Nothing is more horrific than living people having a relationship with dead people in VR. This is a scary thought that I had in 2003 and this spurred me to write the very first post in this blog.
Arguments for Virtual Reality:
1) VR will become an empathy machine, helping us understand the perspectives of the others.
VR can be used to record the entire world as seen from a person's eyes, and thus, it offers the possibility to crawl into her skin and step into her shoes. This will give us an opportunity to see the world from the perspective of a child, a woman, a transgender person, a refugee etc. This will help us build a greater awareness of the terrors of famine, war and poverty. Recently, a movie shot with a panoramic camera rig inside a Syrian refugee camp has been made for the Oculus Rift. How do we ensure that such media will keep getting made and keep catching the attention of people ? I don't think it is straightforward that using VR will make us more empathic, but it definitely has a potential.
2) VR has infinite space for everyone. This reduces tensions for space and ownership.Most disputes we have in the real world are due to limited space and property. In VR, every human being can be provided with an infinite estate of space and property. This abundance will reduce the potential for conflict. But we should not be fooled into thinking that everything will be abundant. Human attention will remain scarce, so this will become a sacred resource that will be hoarded. Even if the users are not completely pulled into the virtual world, virtualization of real resources such as houses and cars can increase space. This is the principle behind the so-called sharing economy. But the current economic models of virtualization of resources, as visible in websites such as Uber and Airbnb, do not actually encourage sharing. Instead, they are a form of monopolization of resources and labour. Unless it is the users themselves who are sharing virtual resources (or virtualizations of real resources) in a peer-to-peer manner, without anybody being the middle-man and hoarding data, the benefits of increased space will not be felt. This is because, from the narrow perspective of the middle-man, scarcity is more profitable than abundance.
3) VR can accommodate minority languages and cultures, alternative narratives of history.
Human history is a series of genocides and mass extinctions. Many cultures have disappeared over the tide of time. This process of cultural extinction is ongoing, many human languages today are at the risk of extinction. This is particularly true of poor countries and traditional societies in tribal organizations. If you are a member of a minority language or group, what obligation do you have to preserve this language ? Would you not be reducing your potential opportunities by not learning the majority language and picking up the majority-approved skills for taking up a job ? These are questions that many human beings are facing today. But with VR, it is possible for us to create virtual worlds with alternative narratives of history, where everybody speaks a different language or participates in a different culture. It will be possible for individuals to check in into these virtual worlds to pick up their lost crafts and languages.
4) VR can build a new powerful language to reason about the world, our past history and motivations.When we can record our past in intimate detail, we can reason about it in a scientific manner. When we face a tough choice or decision, for example, on a large investment of money, it will be possible to systematically evaluate all the possible alternatives and tally them with our motivations. This is a tool that is currently available only to large corporations with huge data repositories. With VR, it will be possible for individual human beings to reason about their world experiences in a data-driven manner. Each human being will potentially develop his own personal language of visualization.
5) VR helps connect friends and family with people at a distance or with a physical handicap.Communication technologies have already made it possible for us to talk to distant friends and relatives. With VR, it will be possible to share personal spaces and directly be in their presence. People with a physical handicap will also find it beneficial to communicate through VR than in the real world. It will be possible to walk or move their limbs in a manner that suits to their own personal expression than how they are limited by the handicap. People with extreme handicaps such as motor-neuron diseases, can also benefit from computerized input to interact naturally in VR.
6) VR can help overcome prejudice, we can take up avatars that neutralize our bias on gender, race etc.We all suffer from a set of prejudices and biases owing to our cultural upbringing. For example, people listen to men more attentively than to women. People also have stronger bias against a woman speaking in a strong and forthcoming manner. Most often, these biases are subconscious, even if we do not admit them consciously. With VR, it will be possible to train us to overcome these biases. It will be possible to assign a common gender or race for all the participants in a virtual discussion room. Important decisions on politics, economics or ethics can be taken by separating the physical charisma of the speaker from the actual comport of his speech.
7) VR can help us imagine counterfactuals, understand opportunity costs of actions, and plan large development projects.Little children spend a lot of time making up fantasy worlds. This is now accepted in child psychology as an important process of growing up, as they construct elaborate models of alternative possibilities known as counterfactuals. Even after we grow up as adults, we require a strong imaginative capacity to reason about counterfactuals in order to build elaborate plans. VR will provide a powerful tool to reason about counterfactuals. For example, if we are planning a large development project, we can visualize it in VR before we commence the construction. We can undertake democratic debate where different participants design alternative possibilities of this project and finer details are discussed. It will be possible to run complex simulations of the project, understand the opportunity costs with respect to the alternatives and continuously improve the design.
8) VR can help overcome deficiencies of sensory perception by modulating and amplifying input.We are extremely limited in our sensory perception by a narrow band of visual spectrum and auditory bandwidth. We are even more limited in our sense of smell. Further, our vision is limited by opaque objects and occlusions. Most importantly, we do not see many aspects of the real world, because contextual knowledge plays a key role in how we focus our attention. With VR, we will be able to modulate sensory input, recognize important objects and activities and direct user attention to them by amplifying certain aspects of the input. For example, a doctor will be able to visualize the inner physiology of a patient. An electric technician will be able to visualize the corona around a high tension electric cable. A student of paleontology will be able to visualize an extinct species of animals while studying their bones and fossils. Further, it will be possible to combine multiple sensory inputs and translate them from one modality to another. Completely new signals that are aggregated from large data sets, such as the results of a complex physics experiment or activity on the stock market, can be directly fed into one of the sensory modalities in VR.
9) VR can help us appreciate the natural world and preserve it better.
With VR, we will be able to visualize the natural world and be in presence of magnificent animals and ecosystems. This active sense of presence is important for many people to help appreciate the wonders of the natural world and thus politically organize to better preserve them. At present, VR is limited in outdoor capture of wild ecosystems, but this is changing very rapidly. It will be possible in the future to appreciate the wonders of coral reefs or deep ocean beds, without actually setting foot on them. This will also help preserve these sensitive ecosystems from tourism.
10) VR can integrate multiple human inputs into one grand social brain.
One of the grand dreams of the internet was that it would help us integrate multiple human expertises into a grand social brain. Unfortunately, instead of bringing out the best in each of us, it has often reduced us to the least common denominator. However, this race to the bottom is not a given. It is possible that VR will help us overcome our prejudices and limitations, and accept the worthiness of the viewpoints of the others. It may even bring in a more effective democracy. It is still early days, so we can keep hoping for the best.
Drugs, obesity and cyberspace:
Love and slavery:
So you protected yourself and loved small. Picked the tiniest stars out of the sky to own; lay down with head twisted in order to see the loved one over the rim of the trench before you slept. Stole shy glances at her between the trees at chain-up. Glass blades, salamanders, spiders, woodpeckers, beetles, a kingdom of ants. Anything bigger wouldn't do. A woman, a child, a brother - a big love like that would split you wide open in Alfred, Georgia. ....
For a used-to-be-slave woman to love anything that much was dangerous, especially if it was her children she had settled on to love. The best thing, he knew, was to love just a little bit; everything, just a little bit, so when they broke its back or shoved it into a croaker sack, well, may be you'd have a little love left for the next one.
These are heart-breaking passages, and the novelist really captures the essence of slavery in this abject giving up on love. But in the very same novel, the female character Sethe says.
Love is or it ain't. Thin love ain't love at all.
When I look at the positives and negative aspects of virtual reality, one common issue stands out - the agency of human users to navigate virtual worlds and create virtual worlds by themselves. At present, virtual worlds (and computing services in general) are opaque to most users. We humans are used to the communication medium of language, which gives us ample opportunities to express ourselves. Even novice speakers can express basic emotions through language, while expert speakers can formulate long and precise arguments. Most people are not aware of it, but language also binds us in chains, preventing the easy germination of certain thoughts and ideas. This is why speaking multiple languages becomes a key cognitive skill that helps us understand the limits of linguistic expression.
With virtual reality, we need a mode of interaction that is similar to language. We are currently far from this, but developing such a language was the original goal of personal computing pioneer Alan Kay. He was instrumental in developing the object oriented language paradigm through Smalltalk, which he hoped would be accessible to young children in schools. Building a framework of computational thinking by virtual reality will be a new medium of human communication. When today's children grow up speaking in such a medium, they will have greater thoughts and dreams than we can even imagine. If we build it right, it will become a powerful tool for human expression. If not, it will be an instrument of human slavery. Children who grow up being used to virtual slavery will accept real world tyranny. This is something we should protect them from. The key developer of Smalltalk, Dan Ingalls, has a precious quote about the nature of computing languages.
An operating system is the collection of things that don't fit into a language. There shouldn't be one.In fact, with virtual reality, we are currently building tyrannical operating systems, but extremely poor languages for user expression. This needs to be reversed, until we gradually eliminate the operating system itself.
I would like to leave the readers with the art work of Alex Grey, known as "Net of being". Here, the artist is expressing the subconscious mental state of our society, the dreamer Vishnu, in whom all our internal mental states are connected in an interwoven manner. We need to realize this common consciousness, which is the only way to fix our society's problems. Art and virtual reality are a means towards that end.