Sex in the machine may work, even when sex outside the machine doesn't.
I've had enough discussions with people about Virtual Reality to know that many of them are very uncomfortable with the notion that we may shortly be able to create sensorial spaces— cyberspaces—which will pass as real, and which will be substitutable in all respects for life in the really-Real world. It's the "in all respects" which gets people nervous
We can fool ourselves about some things, these people would say, but there are some other very special events and occurrences which have to take place in the real world only—not in some network of machines—if life as we know it on planet Earth is to continue. We all know what they're talking about. They're talking about sex. Not just mutual masturbatory sessions over a phone line, as Windows icons are moused about with one hand on a computer screen—that's happening already—but serious procreational sex—the activity that creates babies and future generations. This happens in bedrooms only, and not on the World Wide Web.
It's one thing, these people would say, to give John Abrams (login handle "john138") who lives in California every reason to think that he's having sex with Mary Felice (login handle "mary23"), who lives in New Jersey, and moreover to give Mary every reason to think that John's right, but—good sex or not— nothing will come of it. No babies. Orgasms maybe, but no procreation. And that's the difference between real sex and virtual sex. Sex in the machine is barren.
"I refute you thusly," goes my friend and critic, now sitting back in the armchair—smug, satisfied and arms akimbo. "How do you answer to that?" The "VR knockout punch" has been thrown. Discussion over.
My friend's correct about some things, of course. Sex in the machine is not the same thing as sex in the parent environment. My friend's also correct in maintaining that if procreational sex falls off dramatically in the parent environment because half of the world's population prefers to mess around in a machine, then there will be some chilling consequences in store for us all.
There will be fewer babies in the parent environment, for a start. That will mean fewer farmers to grow the food we all require, and fewer people to animate characters in the machine-driven Lifegames. Also, fewer computer programmers to make the Lifegames go.
It get's worse. There's good reason to think, together with any current Darwinian philosopher, that the class of creatures choosing mainly to animate personalities in machine-created environments may, after a long period of time, find itself retrospectively identified as a flash-in-the-pan splinter species, properly extinguished in accordance with the law of Natural Selection. They weren't spending enough time in a "real world" mating bed, these cyberspatial travelers, and so their natural progeny became less and less numerous, as did inevitably the number of future cyberspatial travelers, with the result, many, many generations later, that "Virtual Reality" shut itself down—with the exception of flight simulator training for pilots and so forth—with the once-fanatical players in machine-driven, multi-user Lifegames remembered, if at all, as a group of self-indulgent Philistines seemingly bent upon their own destruction as a group.
Considerations such as there are almost certain to be cited sooner or later in defense of quotas which would limit how many persons are to be be allowed into reality chambers at any one time, and how long they can stay there. Something like ration cards will be issued by the authorities, as in war time, for the stated purpose of moderating the behavior and thus ensuring the survival of our most eclectic brothers and sisters—those of us who, out of boredom or out of impassioned design, might choose one day soon, and by and large thereafter, to animate Narcissus-like reflections in other worlds, instead of their own personalities in the here and now.
These authorities will give voice to the wishes of tomorrow's "law and order" crowd, which will consist of the remaining religious fundamentalists, political conservatives, and philosophical vitalists, among others. Let it never come to pass, they'll insist, that there may be one day a last man on Earth —an Omega-man—not hooked up to a machine, as is contemplated only half-seriously elsewhere in this book.1
However, none of these practical considerations having to do with the protection and propagation of the species Homo sapiens in the "real" world has anything to do with the possibility of procreational sex in cyberspace. There will be as much of it there as our computer programmers allow—perhaps even more of it than ordinarily transpires outside of the machine. There will be the act of sex itself, conception, swelling tummies, the anguish and joy of childbirth, babies, diapers, and all the rest. How remiss would it be on the part of our computer programmers to leave this sort of thing out!
It will be no more difficult to provide inputs to a central nervous system out of which presence in a maternity ward would be inferred—complete with newly born babes and their wan, recently delivered mothers—than it would be to "create" presence in any other sort of place. Fatherhood, motherhood and infants are all programmable.
The babies will grow up in cyberspace, too. For the first year or two, it will not be necessary to find animation for them emanating from the parent environment. During this age of innocence, they will be "little angels." The machine will make them work. Only later will we face the choice of finding persons in the parent environment to animate there characters in theLifegame, or to kill them off in the Lifegame (just like we write parts out of soap opera scripts in cases where the actors have become petulant, uncooperative, or simply tiresome), or make full-grown angels out of them, assigning to the machine the responsibility for their actions in cyberspace until further notice.
One way or the other, these babies will mature—the joyous fruit of sexual union between two other players. They will undoubtedly choose to have sex themselves, to the extent foreseen and enabled by the writers and programmers. They will have babies of their own, creating family trees in cyberspace, and inevitably requiring characters in the Lifegame who, for a fee, will help trace such trees back to their synthetic roots.
Not without comment will these services be rendered. Given family trees tall enough, and enough time, there will arise the justifiable claim that members of these family trees have evolved over the generations—and that they may be seen in retrospect as having "adapted" themselves to the rigors and challenges of cyberspace, leaving other, less-fit synthetic personalities to fall by the wayside as computer algorithms which simply happened not to get copied forward by the machine. Since it is the machine that takes care of the "cut" between winners and losers, injecting contingency into the mix in the form of randomly-generated numbers, there would clearly be no need for any sort of intervention from the outside the machine— as from a well-meaning Sysop hoping to give one group of players a leg up—in order that the selection process go forward. In this sense, the notion of Natural Selection is perhaps more of a "natural" in cyberspace than it is in the "real" world.2
I concede that none of this will be of any interest to those who continue to have difficulty conceiving of sex and procreation in the machine to begin with. To them, let me suggest anew that they distinguish insufficiently between the cyberspace and the parent environments, and are assuming that for something (e.g., sex, babies, etc.) to happen in the daughter environment, it would have to be first possible, and also actually happen in the parent environment, in order that it count anywhere else. Since intercourse at a distance is impossible in the parent environment and thus never occurs, so, reasoning through modus tollens, it must be impossible in cyberspace, too.3
However, we are dealing with two different worlds whenever we envision parent and daughter environments, and these worlds are inhabited by different creatures. John Abrams—a parent environment personality playing at being a character in a Lifegame using the moniker "john128"—is not that Lifegame character. John128 is. Abrams only animates john128. And so the Lifegame character is not necessarily limited in its actions to the actions performable by Abrams in the parent environment. This is precisely the point and allure of life in the chamber. You can do special things there; like, have functioning, growing babies even though your personality in the parent environment is hopelessly sterile.
Sex in the machine may work, even when sex outside the machine doesn't.
What this means, in more general terms, is that there is no necessary isomorphism between parent and splinter-cyberspatial environments—no required parallel structure between events happening in the former, and events happening in the latter. The two worlds will evolve forward in time independently, featuring different life-choices, different forks-in-the-road, different possible events and processes, and correspondingly different end results.
A holocaust may be inevitable in one, for example, but not in the other. Likewise for any Second Coming(s) of saviors, tranquil millennia, or angry Armageddons. They will occur, or not occur, depending on the choices made by the players in the respective and different environments, and depending on the algorithms provided by the computer programmers. One place may be a far more agreeable place to inhabit than another.4
None of this rules out the special cases envisioned by the science fiction writers, in which a cowboy "surfing the interface" between real and machine worlds may well want to "jack into the matrix" to settle a score, do a deal, or make a threat, and then "jack back out" in order to report results achieved and to plot further mischief with his cohorts.5
To the extent that the machines are used in this manner, there will be in fact a certain parallel structure preserved between parent and cyberspatial events and occurrences. Events in one may "have an effect" on events in the other in the sense that we might have acted differently had it not been for our recent adventures on the other side of the cyberwall.
However, to emphasize this particular use of virtual realities— featuring them only as convenient side-car structures into which one retreats from time to time only in order to confront an annoying counter-intelligence agent or to do some other variety of dirty work—is to trivialize what cyberspace is all about. It fails to convey the far more exciting conclusion that daughter environments are entirely capable of cutting themselves away from their parents in one stroke—in function of the choices of their player inhabitants and the computer algorithms provided— and spiraling off into the future in fulfillment of altogether different and novel destinies featuring personalities, monsters, values and new human emotions which may not exist at all in the "real world."
Those destinies will involve sex in the machine, and more, unless we are all to be short-changed.
1Cf.,Last Man on Earth.
2Cf., Daniel Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which champions the still-controversial notion of unaided, "natural" selection outside the machine. Also, Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life, which would urge any serious Lifegame computer programmer to insinuate something like chance, or happenstance, into any and all alternate worlds.
3Not just "my friend," but serious writers on the topic of Virtual Reality have missed this point as well. One of them goes so far as to contemplate something like FedEx deliveries of semen from male to female in the parent environment, in order to appropriately "echo" the event of sexual congress in cyberspace. That we simply don't need. Mary will get pregnant enough in cyberspace if the programmers want her to.
4"I would seriously advise against Ronald's World," cautions the cyber-librarian, in solemn tones. "They've made a real mess of things in there ever since they brought back the Bomb. They really didn't have to do that, but they did. They woulda' got shut down last November, `cept for the ACLU."
"How about Looser Grip, instead? Animated by many of the same players, I'm told, but they made different choices at the turn of the century. People come back raving about it in there. Maybe it's the eye-zoom they've got. It's also a bit cheaper if you take the five-year package."
"Or, maybe you just want to stick it out here?"
5This is the world of William Gibson's Neuromancer.
© 1993, Gilbert Scott Markle.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.