Value, in Virtuality

Something remarkable is happening.

“… seems like we’re rushing towards a cliff”, wrote my friend Josh in a text message. He founded and runs a small vertical farm in Queens, and is part of the growing Real Food Movement whose proponents seek to reconnect people with wholesome, unprocessed food and the people who grow it.

But what do we do when our ability to grow wholesome food itself has been hollowed out?

Josh had just sent me this article detailing one mathematician’s efforts to uncover the impact of climate breakdown on the quality (in particular, the nutrient content) of the food that we grow and eat.

What do we do when the ocean has become so hot and acidic that marine ecosystems totally collapse? And when the Earth itself has become so hot as to be all but unlivable for multicellular life?

Perhaps I should say something remarkably unremarkable is happening, for as we continue to live with the constant threat of global nuclear cataclysm, and as it becomes harder to tell if we are still approaching the precipice of global climate breakdown, or if we are — as the memorable 1995 film, La Haine (released in the US simply as Hate), posited — already in free fall and just have not realized it yet, as our collective global reality comes to look (in the wake of the atomic bombings of 1945) increasingly post-apocalyptic, people — at least those who have the luxury — are increasingly taking refuge in virtuality.

What do we do? Select few of us take refuge in the bunkers, of course! Or we colonize Mars, because that’s a much better and more viable solution than directing our immense collective resources and capacity towards averting the destruction of organized human life on earth. Of course it’s a better and more viable solution, which is why smart people, like Elon Musk, are so enthusiastic about it…

Earlier this week, on a beautiful late summer day in New York City, I started across the Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park on my way to work — past the recently-installed placard honoring some civic-minded citizens (who are being credited for the restoration of the Meadow) — and experienced a strange flash, as if, for an instant, I was in present-day Aleppo, or Srinagar, or Sana’a, or Gaza. Probably Gaza, as I would reflect after the fact, realizing that just that morning I’d read an article on the skyrocketing suicide rate in that starving and brutalized Bantustan, now suffering under its twelfth consecutive year of Israeli siege and blockade. The article had been accompanied by an image of people, young and old, picking through rubble — the toppled concrete and twisted rebar of a building no doubt destroyed in one of Israel’s occasional deadly outbursts of “mowing the lawn”, to use the parlance by which the Israeli military establishment describes its regular murderous incursions into the Gaza Strip.

It had been this image of people picking through the wreckage of what one imagines used to be their lives that had flashed before my eyes on a cheerful, sunny afternoon in Manhattan. Perhaps this sounds more like a fictional conceit — and perhaps in time it will become one — and yet, as our hyper-technological reality rushes headlong into a future of virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), this flash also felt simply like a premonition of a nascent form of consciousness even now taking shape within and around us. Already, VR has been used in attempts to discourage male people from committing sexual assault, and to report on the predicament of Syrians in refugee camps (among a wide variety of other socially-minded applications); however, not surprisingly, VR is also already being employed in the next generation of pornography and pornographically-escapist hyper-violent first-person-shooter games.

There is a case to be made that, generally speaking, technologies themselves are neutral. Their social consequences and ecological impacts, for example, depend on what we make of them. Of course, the atomic bomb is arguably irredeemable from a human standpoint, but making the same claim regarding knowledge of the structure of atoms and the ability to manipulate their nuclei would require a more nuanced analysis (and if one gives any credence to the Ben Affleck-Bruce Willis movie, Armageddon, perhaps even the atomic bomb will have its moment of redemption).

And isn’t it true that visionaries have been harkening to humanity’s virtual future for a long time? One could argue that Platonic, Christian Hermetic, and Sufist traditions, among others, each, in different ways, involve critique of the artificiality (hence virtuality) of civilized human existence. I prefer to focus on more contemporary examples, however; in the work of Ray Bradbury, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, in Meet the President! — Zadie Smith’s brilliant short story — really, in too many (pop) cultural contexts of which to even be able to begin to take account, we see human beings retreating into virtual realities. It is in this sense that The Matrix Trilogy (insufferable as it was, with Keanu Reeves as vapid, post-apocalyptic Christ-figure, its valorization of mass violence in wide release just weeks before Columbine, etc) was a seminal document of our era.

Vampires were the pop trope of a resurgently-savage American imperialism at the dawn of the 21st century; at the same time, a new brand of dystopian YA literature emerged — in the wake of Harry Potter, itself the natural (pop) heir of The Lord of the Rings — in the form of The Hunger Games (and Divergent, and Matched, and The Maze Runner, and too many other derivative books and series to name, all arguably with roots in The Giver). Clearly, the kids were aware that everything wasn’t alright.

But if The Matrix ostensibly celebrated taking the “red pill” and having the courage to live in the Desert of the Real, signs now indicate that most “global citizens” with the resources are, in reality, inclined to make the opposite choice. The very appropriation of the red pill terminology by “men’s rights” activists and virulent white nationalists gives some sense of our current condition. Forthcoming from Steven Spielberg is a film adaptation of Ready Player One, set in a grim and nearly unlivable world where people take refuge in a fantastic virtual universe. This, or something like it, increasingly seems to be the future that we are choosing for ourselves.

For some time now, we have been living in a highly-augmented and increasingly virtual reality — just a shitty one. Soon enough, we will leave behind the low-res, limited-bandwidth virtuality that has thus far been cobbled together all about us. Already, Google Tango and Pokémon Go have put AR on the popular radar. Now, with much fanfare, Apple has released ARKit and Google has released ARCode. The race is clearly on to see which of the major American technology oligopolists can stake out the most virtual territory. Nor do I want to come across as a strict virtual pessimist — after seeing RoVR on Fred Wilson’s A VC, I donated a small amount to the Kickstarter. And from his post, I followed links to the Medium of USV Associate Jacqueline Garavente, whose thoughts on the emerging metaverse I found illuminating.

Working with young people as I do, I have been fascinated and alarmed to see the deep appeal of massively multiplayer online games like Minecraft and Eve Online. The virtual marketplaces for goods on Call of Duty presaged Decentraland “a virtual reality platform powered by the Ethereum blockchain.” For the first time, we now have (crypto)currency native to these virtual universes. The ramifications are, of course, immense. As we leave the physical space of the Earth increasingly ravaged and uninhabitable, and as the Earth itself — in the form of commodified land and resources — is increasingly monopolized by a ravenously-insatiable and world-destroying few, now we can take solace in the fact that using virtual currency (which, at root, all currencies arguably are) we can buy virtual “land” in virtual space.

What are the ramifications for our conception(s) of value(s) of this radical new emergence? Right now, cryptocurrencies — most notably Bitcoin and Ethereum — carry rather astronomical dollar values. Bitcoin has traded around $5,000 per coin in recent months, and although Ethereum has dropped precipitously in the past few days — to a value of around $230 per — it started 2017 around $10, and was trading above $400 until quite recently.

One can imagine hopeful as well as crushing scenarios in view of all these developments. I am rereading The Wretched of the Earth at the moment; it’s been a decade since I first picked it up, and the world has changed a great deal in the interim, as have I. Fanon’s preoccupation with the centrality of land is, in my view, instructive. Anyone who has had to secure a scarce URL knows that digital “real estate” can, at times, be just as hard to come by as actual. Until we do colonize Mars though, it is incumbent upon us to realize that even our sunniest virtual realities depend upon the persistence of our actual (let’s just say, embodied-on-planet-Earth) reality in all its irreplaceable irreducibility.

Thinking about all this, I stand upon a pier that juts out into the Hudson. I see a man approach in a skull, and think how nice it must be to be out on the water with the weather so lovely. Then, he comes abreast of me — rowing with splay-kneed rather ungracefulness — and I take note of his “Trump 2020: Keep America Great” banner flapping in the wind, and feel rather little, other than the immediate withdrawal of the desire to give him a friendly wave. He continues on his row-ly way, and I, slightly saddened, lose myself again in the hazy expanse of New York Harbor.

And that might have been where I left things — myself with a faraway look — restored as a I always feel by water if discouraged by the human element — preparing to walk home and get on with my day — when, from underneath the pier, emerges a cormorant, bobbing on the surface of the brown water, half-regal, half-bedraggled.

Why is the Hudson water always so filthy and littered with plastic detritus? What kind of future as it we’re making if this quizzical bird, and all others like it, may soon vanish from the face of the Earth?

The bird, unperturbed, dives once, and then again, and then a third time, finally so deep that it seems it may never surface, and I wait a long time, in vain, hoping to catch another glimpse of the noble bird’s head cresting the water, wondering just who it is who has been undone by their hunger.

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