I hate reality, but it is still the only place
where I can get a decent steak.
– Woody Allen
Last year was dubbed the year that VR would take off. And what a year to pick. With the election of a populist, reality television showman followed quickly by a cascading effect on world governments. Subsequently, many nations followed suit and fell, like sad dominoes one after another. Hackers reportedly being used by state agencies to help swing elections, when they weren’t stealing secrets, plundering bank accounts or extorting unsuspecting victims. Who wouldn’t want to substitute one reality for another, albeit for a temporary period of time?
Admittedly, 2016 wasn’t all terrible. It also happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the greatest television show ever created by humans – Star Trek. When things go south, I find myself heading to the closest emergency escape pod in my home, cleverly disguised as a rather plain looking blue couch. It’s fun to go back in time to re-live some of the most memorable episodes of my personal favourite Trek; The Next Generation. Sometimes, in order to achieve some semblance of sanity, it is imperative to hope for a future where the planet not only remains intact, but we get to venture to the stars in comfort and style.
There’s an episode in the second season titled Elementary, Dear Data, that I keep thinking about. Much of the episode takes place on the holodeck. If you’re not familiar with that terminology, a holodeck is a room located on the starship Enterprise which simulates an environment or experience to whatever the user programs into it. What the user sees, touches, hears or interacts with is indistinguishable to real life itself. Think fully interactive VR experiences, minus the dorky headgear. During the course of the Sherlock Holmes themed episode, Holmes’ arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty discovers he is part of a program on a ship. In effect, Moriarty becomes self-aware.
The episode highlights not only the inherent risks that Artificial Intelligence might one day become sentient and/or smarter than us, a la Skynet, but it also makes one consider if we might be in a simulation ourselves; living our lives completely oblivious that we might be mere avatars like in a game of The Sims.
It is a running talking point that tech guru Elon Musk often brings up. He argues that 45 years ago, we had the rather primitive programming and graphics of Pong – Atari’s first game launched in 1972, featuring two dimensional table tennis. Now we have fully immersive VR technology across several platforms in High Definition and 4K. The technology and graphical interface seems to get better and better with time, the hypothesis concluding that technology might conceivably get to the point where real life and a computer simulation may indeed become indistinguishable.
The Sims, the groundbreaking game that allows users to build their own universes; recently made it’s debut in virtual reality. One of the other anticipated (and most recently; widely panned) games from 2016, No Man’s Sky, a game that allows the user access to a procedurally generated infinite number of planets, is also technically playable on VR systems, although much work needs to be done, according to some reviewers. When the game first came out, some reviewers weren’t just writing the standard one or two paragraph review blurbs; they composed daily diaries of their experiences with the game.
While there are some that will mourn the monotony that surfaces in playing either game, others will see the beauty in building something and having the illusion of control. And in real life; isn’t that what we are all looking for? To build, to grow and to revel in our accomplishments?
“Reality is frequently inaccurate.”
― Douglas Adams,
Like any television show, video game, or book, they all provide escape from one’s own reality. They present an opportunity to live vicariously through characters that often make bold decisions. They overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Sometimes they have supernatural abilities. But even when the show or game comes to an end, everyone still likes to imagine they are similarly unique, special, one of a kind. But as Chuck Palahniuk coined the term in Fight Club, before the right wing trolls cherry picked it, “You are not special. You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same organic, decaying matter as anything else.”
Whether you’re a punk rocker, a banker or a baker, there are more than one of you out there, as much as we’d like to think we are individuals. The hardest part of this self-realization is that maybe our thoughts, hopes and dreams aren’t really our own at all. And even worse than that, maybe it’s a pimply faced teenager stuffing his face with Cosmos Redshift 7 pizza pockets (they’re out of this world!), in his mom’s basement, in another galaxy, or may be in the future, at the controls. We could all be Professor Moriartys, trapped in our very own holodeck for the amusement or scientific research of some unseen being.
I just hope my avatar is winning. Or at least that it will lead a safe, long life. With good quality sandwiches, free of tainted cold cuts. I am also deathly afraid of bad haircuts. So, you know, I hope to avoid those as well.
Roughly two decades ago on this timeline, it would have been difficult to imagine our current state of socio-political affairs. The Berlin Wall had fallen. The Second Summer of Love was in full swing. The end of the cold war had arrived with infinite possibilities for an entire region. On a fundamental level, it almost felt as though we were coming together as a species. Anything was possible.
Shortly after those early, blissful acid house years, a new invention would transform our lives. The dawn of the internet had arrived. For the first time in our brief history, we had access to the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. More importantly, we were connected. Email meant we could reach anyone in the world, at anytime. That newfound feeling of optimism and connectivity would continue for some time. Whether you were in a warehouse jumping up and down to techno, or at home on the family’s IBM 286 clone, chatting with like minded souls a thousand miles away.
Eventually, the love parade got rained out. The clouds of hate, protectionism and suspicion have moved in. Now one of our major concerns is cyber security. The same tech we were so enamoured with has made us vulnerable to our enemies and hackers looking to get rich quick. Remember when hackers were cool in the 80s?
In the 1983 film WarGames, the worst thing a hacker did was get free long distance calls from a public payphone or change their grade in biology class. Sure, there was the whole thermonuclear missile strike on NORAD, but that could never happen, right? And what about that other movie with the hackers? I think it was called…Hackers. Did you know Angelina Jolie was in it? True story, bro. I think she wore rollerblades. Rollerblades and payphones, now almost all at near extinction levels. I just watched the trailer for Hackers, for research purposes. It did not age well. Anyhow, where was I?
Oh yes, 2016 sucked. And 2017 is sucking harder. Refugees still streaming out of war zones in the millions. If the situation were reversed, you’d kind of hope that people would help out. Instead, neighbours still trying to arrest them, deport them, or keep them out. What the hell happened to us?
As private citizens living in the age of distraction,we seem to have all but given up on thoughtful discourse. Remember at dinner parties, after the second bottle of Merlot got popped and poured, while the potato salad got passed along, one might venture something like, “So how would you solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” Now it’s more likely, “So whut picture stories are y’all watchin’ on the Netflix?” (Seriously though, have you seen the new Twin Peaks? It’s so cool. But like our current reality, I have no idea what’s really going on.)
Hey, look – I get it. I’m just as guilty as the next guy. I need and frequently use fictionalized stories for escapism. But I worry sometimes that everyone has kind of stopped caring about everything, thanks to a steady pattern of exhausting, rapid cycling news stories, all more terrifying than the next. We’re overwhelmed and de-sensitized.
Our military budgets keep climbing to obscene amounts, while education, the environment, space exploration, scientific research, health and child care often take a back seat. How, in any truly advanced, civilized society does that make sense? In many ways, we have become our own worst enemies, instead of our own greatest assets.
The world’s largest super power just pulled out of the biggest climate change deal in history. Even as temperatures soar so high that planes can’t take off. So what are our options, to escape our present day madness?
- Look up. If you live in an area relatively free of light pollution, buy a telescope. Dream of other worlds without Trump, or that annoying neighbour with the loud motorcycle that rides up and down your street. Thankfully, NASA still has lots of innovative missions producing groundbreaking results. One of which is the Kepler program, which just uncovered 219 possible planets, with 10 of them possibly life sustaining.
- Keep looking up. The privately funded Mars One project aims to put humans on Mars in 2032. If we don’t presently have the resources to make it to one of those exoplanets, we can surely get to the fourth planet from the sun. Start saving your pennies for the next transport ship, once we colonize it.
- Don’t worry, it’s all just a simulation anyway. So relax, nothing really matters. Or, everything matters. Your pick. You should probably try to be nice to people though, just in case.
- Go virtual. Although many of the graphics aren’t quite up to snuff, some of the hardware is nearly accessible to the average consumer. If you look past the inevitable violent and horror themed games (why are those always the bestsellers, I wonder?), there are some fascinating applications.
- Wait for Augmented reality. Another fascinating application with lots of possibility. Beyond the banality of Pokemon, there are a host of innovative ideas in terms of research, transportation and education that may help shape our future with A.R. But let’s face it, most people are going to use it to make snarky remarks on Facebook or take creepy pictures of you while you look out the bus window, as you gaze out on to the street, wondering what has happened to society.
- Buy a Hot tub. If you can’t afford to buy one, find the nearest and hop in with a friend and some bevvies. This is because of a law that Elon Musk came up with. Musk, along with his brother had realized that they were talking about whether they were all living in a simulation almost all the time. So they invented a rule, that whenever they found themselves in a hot tub, they would cease and desist all such conversation. Try to stop thinking about the things you can’t control.
Incidentally, if you start feeling guilty about being in the hot tub, going virtual, or for mere stargazing, don’t. That myth about us being way lazier than our hunter-gatherer ancestors? It’s false. Providing you currently have a full time job, our hunter-gatherers had more leisure time than we currently do. So, chill dude. Make your next drink a piña colada.
If none of these appeal to you, not to worry. The latest Ken Doll has a man bun. When that’s the news headline of the day, it’s probably time to clock out. See you on Mars.
“Computer, End Program.”
Middle photo courtesy of Colin Foran, a digital illustrator and concept artist currently working for HBO.