There will be reality simulators in cyberspace...
A fully-developed reality simulator will not be anything like an arcade, or a theater you pay to enter, or a box that you crawl into, or a helmet you put over your head, or anything else of the kind, but will be a device capable of direct stimulation of the neurons of the central nervous system. Genetic engineers will have produced "cable ready" central nervous systems able to gracefully accept the new sorts of inputs, and to create sensory spaces out of that information in a manner similar to that in which we presently "make a world" out of the inputs we receive from our eyes, ears, and other bodily data sensors.
User outputs back to the machine, representing their choices, will pass through the same interface, be computed by the machine within the context of available rules, or algorithms, and will produce new inputs to the user which will be perceived as changes in the cyberspace environment.
Such latter-day reality simulators, networked together, will produce for a potentially unlimited number of subjects, or "players," perceptual experiences in cyberspace indistinguishable from those which they would have enjoyed under normal circumstances in the "real" world, and hence, alternative, fully interactive, cyberspatial lives— lived out in alternative, "virtual" realities.
Operating in "non-default" modes, the machines will generate alternative realities which may ressemble the "real" world very little, if at all.
Entry into and exit from cyberspace environments— synthetic environments as we have called them— may or may not be at the option of the player. In any case, there will be no indicators from within the synthetic environment, such as a give-away lack of visual resolution, or "beeps" every thirty seconds, which would identify the cyberspace environment as such, and hence no inclination based upon any perceived deficiency of that environment which might induce us to jump out of it, and back into the parent environment. Players will be as happy as clams within cyberspace, indefinitely.
The truth of the matter is that players will prefer cyberspace. We see this in the ten-year-old who refuses supper while in the midst of a game of Dungeons and Dragons. The latter is urgent, compelling and captivating; the former is not.
We see this in the "chat" participant on an electronic Bulletin Board System (BBS)— let's say his name is John Abrams— who affirmatively re-fashions his identity and personality within the "chat" using a surrogate name such as "john138," or more tellingly still, "sweetie." Bye, bye, John Abrams; hello, john138. Hello, sweetie.
Operators of BBSs will confirm that it is the interactive applications such as "chat," or real-time conferences, or on-line games, which draw the users like lemmings. Interactive computer applications are like mirrors held up before the user in which the user looks good, or can be made to look good with a little tweaking. They "call" to the user in seductive voices. The users respond by jumping in.
As the sophistication of the computer interface increases, together with the refinement or "resolution" within the cyberspace environment, the felt need to enter that environment and to redefine oneself within it seems to soar as well. A step up from the computer "chat" session on Compuserve or America-On-Line brings us to the level of the now-trendy MUDs, or MOOs, which are multi-user adventures, or social forums, in which the players are encouraged to take on new identities, and to animate these surrogate forms by typing text onto a computer keyboard.
The level of fanaticism exhibited by players in these cyberspaces, and the level of devotion shown by the players to their game personalities, ignoring by choice their "real world" identities, is well known, and has already become the subject of professional study and, in some cases, concern.1
For Narcissus, the machine interface was the surface of a quiet pond; for us it's a computer cursor blinking just to the right of our chosen name in the game. In both cases, the human response is identical. We are clearly fascinated by our cyberspatial reflections, and are powerfully drawn to them. Only, unlike Narcissus, we have our hands on a working joystick, allowing us to manipulate and re-work the reflected image in accordance with our preferences. The joystick is the gasoline on the fire.
Cyberspace emits a siren call which we choose not to resist. Instead, our response to that siren call is instinctual, affirmative, and compliant. We focus happily on our reflected image, immobilized in all other respects. We identify with it. This is a most basic, compulsive and essentially erotic sort of human behavior designed to extend, duplicate and propagate a view of ourselves into the great black beyond. The god of cyberspace is Eros.2
If it is Eros that beckons us inside the machine, it is a far more results-oriented, pragmatic god that urges us to stay there. Mainly, you can domore things in cyberspace. Once our central nervous systems are put in direct contact with digital renditions of the universe— with the universe understood as information, not substance and laws— what's possible and what's not is determined by computer programmers alone.
Travel to distant locations at the speed of light becomes possible. So does time travel into the past, and into the future.3 All plausible reasons for spending some "quality time" in a machine, and not on a beach.
There's absolute freedom and privacy in cyberspace, assuming that the First Amendment holds up, that the cybercops keep the hackers under control, and that the passwords are not compromised.
Lovers, for example, will need no longer to seek out the secluded park bench, but will tryst in comfortable, electronic love nests instead. This may have the effect of preserving certain real-world marriages against otherwise discoverable infidelities.
Mafiosi will no longer need to meet in fenced-off Catskills resorts to contemplate their next mischief, but will smoke their Cuban cigars and sip their aqua minerale in private, three-dimensional conference spaces guarded by infallible Bot lieutenants.
Seats of government will no longer have geographical coordinates, but URL locators within a computer matrix instead.
There will be a lot more room to do things.
All these features notwithstanding, the prospect of compulsive, headlong dashes into machine space by a great number of citizens, and the apparent galaxy of pragmatic reasons for their anticipated refusals for leaving it, once inside, have got a lot of people worried. The underlying sentiment seems to be this: that life in the machine— any machine, no matter how advanced— will inevitably be impoverished and debased by comparisons to life outside the machine in respect of the ineffables of human existence. Aboriginal instincts, unconscious drives and motivations, melancholy, existential despair, romantic love, gumption, spiritual enlightenment, and so forth, are all examples of perhaps non-programmable yet quintessential features of what it means to be a human being. Absent these, you have a society in a downward spiral of self-willed decline— gorgeous human beings satisfied with the stainless steel life of a Cyborg, saints replaced by mechanical Wizards, and God reduced to the status of the owner of a computer server.
These people may in fact have something to worry about. If by "an ineffable" we mean something that cannot exist inside a machine, and if there are such things as ineffables, then we're in deep trouble. We're headed for a hollowed-out, desiccated and dehumanized form of human existence which will make the Dark Ages appear glorious by comparison.
The question is, of course, whether or not we have any right to define "an ineffable" as something that cannot exist in a machine. There may be no such things. To do so begs the very question we're trying to answer.
However, this sort of anxiety is groundless in any event. It assumes that any argument in favor of expanded (and inevitable) life experiences in cyberspace depends upon the truth of a claim which is not being made; namely, that all there is in cyberspace worlds is information— numbers, cyphers, and computers. Why anybody, with the exception of a few notable science fiction writers and their over-zealous glamorizers, would want to make such a claim after several hundred years of disappointing haggling over the mind-body problem and the clear irreducibility of consciousness to any one set of reductionist terms, is beyond me. In any case, no such claim is being made.4 We are prepared to encounter all the imponderables, ambiguities and old chestnuts in cyberspace. (If we don't, the algorithms are incomplete, and the whole mess goes back to the programmers for improvement.)
Certainly, for those of us who may be animating characters in a machine, as players, whatever it is that now leads us to react in such and such a way to certain sensations will impact us identically if the only difference is that the sensations are delivered by a machine, and not in the usual manner.
Provide me with a machine-generated onslaught of sensations which, in the normal course, would make me feel melancholy, and I'll feel melancholy in the machine. Ineffably melancholy, to boot.
Produce a sensorium in cyberspace similar to those which make me feel creative in the "real world," and I'll create something for you in cyberspace, crediting the creative instinct and the mysteries of creative activity in the usual, inconclusive philosophical terms.
Give me the opportunity to define my self image further within the machine (as for example playing an interactive game within the game), and I will exhibit the same old compulsive erotic behavior anew, and want to play more deeply still. Yes, there will be reality simulators in cyberspace, and synthetic people lined up to jump into them. Eros will exist in cyberspace, as certifiably as anywhere else, provided only that the requisite sensations are provided to the players.
Whether the Bots and the Cyborgs in the machine are animated in like manner— by ineffable drives, compulsive behaviors and the like— is probably an unanswerable question, although we will certainly be able to make it appear that they are. As for Eros, simply render the state of the central nervous system of an entranced Narcissus in digital form, and, using this information, impose that state of the central nervous system upon the Bot or Cyborg in all those instances where visible signs of the entranced erotic response are required. The machine-driven constructs will save the template information in a buffer, and, through heuristic programming techniques, "learn" to exhibit the required responses in the appropriate circumstances. Are Bots and Cyborgs erotic creatures? Are they aware of themselves as erotic creatures, or aware of themselves at all? That's just another old chestnut, as annoying here within the machine as it was when it was referred to in the "real world" as the "problem of other minds." We'll live with it.
I'm not so sure that it matters that much. If, to beg the question in the opposite direction, it's a machine we're in now, we may already have Bots, Cyborgs and Wizards in our very midst in the form of angels saints, saviors, gurus, and miracle-workers, and if due to their exalted, other-worldly status they are not in fact given to lusts, uncontrollable instincts, existential despair and the other ineffables, it makes the place no less human for the rest of us. More interesting, instead.
Likewise for all other cyberspaces.
1 Cf., McRae, Shannon, Coming Apart at the Seams: Sex, Text and the Virtual Body. 1995.
2 Michael Heim, who I think originated this insight, warns us that this compulsive preference for cyberspatial existence is dehumanizing, and poses obvious threats to the society in which we live. He goes on to suggest that it involves a paradox, or contradiction in terms, since there is in his view no room for Eros in cyberspace, but only numbers, information, and computers. Cf., The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace.
3 Cf., Being-there, now, Being-there, then, and Being-there, later, in this volume.
4 Nor would it work. The old galling mysteries are inevitably rediscovered within the new view of things, in drag. In his hilarious attack on the new info-reductionists, who he calls "zombies," cyber-guru Jaron Lanier asks, knowing the answer, "Could `information' just be a shell game that hides the nut of old-style consciousness?" Cf., You Can't Argue with a Zombie,
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.