Every technologist carries a story, in the back of their mind, about the big arc of history that is being steered by the latest inventions. Steve Jobs used to talk about denting the universe.
These days, the dominant story is one I loathe: The one about how computers and the internet are spawning a new super-brain that will inherit the Earth and the stars, and how people are just a stepping-stone for the glorified new god we are building. That’s what you’ll hear from plenty of tech execs, such as Ray Kurzweil at Google. Many of my young friends who drifted into this sensibility were reading Ayn Rand, while I was watching Star Trek.
When I was young, this gargantuan narrative was already formed, and one of the principal authors also happened to be my kindest mentor, the late, pioneering computer scientist, Marvin Minsky. Long ago, when I was very young indeed, we’d argue about it. I hated it upon first hearing, but boy, was it effective in getting grants. Marvin would tell the tale to the funding agencies and they quickly capitulated. No one wanted to risk being left out of the creation of the new technology that would inherit the world. It’s a narrative that has risen to ever higher planes of influence as its adherents approach the infinite wealth one gains through information supremacy.
I recently was at an event for gifted high school students; they had collaborated on questions to ask me. The first one was, I’m paraphrasing, “If A.I. will surpass humanity soon, and there will be no need for us to do jobs, why did our parents have us? Why are we here?”
It’s the darkest question I’ve ever heard from a young person. It’s based on nonsense. Any program that can be thought of as an A.I. program can also be thought of as just a program people wrote, generally using data stolen from other people to manipulate those other people. If you think that’s too cynical an interpretation, then put the rhetoric aside and look at what A.I. programs are actually being deployed in the real world today.
The argument about the true nature of A.I. is beyond the scope of this piece, but you can read my take on it in my book, You Are Not a Gadget. At any rate, many of us who tended VR’s cradle thought we were launching an alternative to the dreadful nerd eschatology of A.I. and the Singularity. The obvious counter-narrative is that technologists should be creating capabilities in the service of mankind, not to control or replace mankind. But even that seemingly sensible formulation is not so simple when you try to embrace it in practice.
When technologists create more powerful tools for mankind, these tools are often misused. Railroads unquestionably increased human capability, for instance, and yet, in practice, they were often used to effectively monopolize access to areas which were cruelly taken from whoever had been living there before the railroad arrived. Even when we don’t realize there’s a problem with the way we’re using a new technology, we learn more as we go, and sometimes find ourselves invested in destructive patterns. We didn’t know about the link between fossil fuels and climate change until after we had already created a fortress of wealth and influence around fossil fuels.
New tech is always needed to improve upon and fix the old tech.
But in the biggest picture, surely, adding new technologies to the mix creates new options for people, which means more options for decency and kindness. In the bad old days, before antibiotics and covered sewers, infant mortality was astonishingly high. In that context, it was harder to nurture each person born into this world. When I went to school in Mexico as a child, people didn’t treat a baby as being fully born for the first six months, because the odds of survival were still low. Technology creates a context in which we can and must think more compassionately.
If you try to articulate this sensibility, it comes out something like this: Without tech progress, people would have a much higher degree of suffering and no hope of improvement. The idea that things were better in the past is almost always a cruel illusion. The further back you go, the sicker and more miserable were people. Thus, we must push tech.
However, each innovation brings side effects, often due to unwise or corrupt uses. Therefore, new tech is always needed to improve upon and fix the old tech. We can’t go backwards. We have entered into a contract with the future in which we will perpetually fix the mistakes created by previous fixes, and yet overall, in the biggest picture, we will give mankind more comfort, safety, and options to be decent. It’s a clunky but functional picture of an unbounded future.
And yet, and yet… the acceleration of innovation would seem to pull the picture out of focus. If the progress of more and more tech, coming along faster and faster continues, can our compassion possibly get sophisticated quickly enough to keep up? So far, we have avoided nuclear Armageddon, but will we also avoid biotech catastrophe, the decentralized production of cheap personal killer drones, and on and on?
In facing this conundrum, I, and some of the other early VR-heads, came up with a different way to think about the cosmic ramp of progress.
To us, the ultimate problem of the human situation seemed to be: boredom. We had the young hackers’ version of attention deficit disorder and we projected our complaint onto everyone else. If only humanity had something creative and compelling to do, we imagined, something that made conflict boring in comparison. That’s what would “fix” people so that they didn’t keep on taking what ought to be earthly paradise and turning into hell over and over.
From this perspective, humanity exists in a perpetual collective toddlerhood, the terrible twos multiplied by billions. Human rage comes to the fore whenever the latest fascinating distraction dwindles. Therefore, one of the technologist’s duties, beyond extending safety, health, and comfort, is to prepare an infinite train of new fascinations: The Wild West, space travel, virtual reality.
I formed this sensibility early on, as a child. Messaging about the space program in the 1960s often invoked the Wild West. We were told we needed a new frontier to have a healthy society. I loved Star Trek, which portrayed space exploration that way. The Earth of the future was peaceful, but earthlings were out there kicking Klingon butt. The original Star Trek looks oppressively hokey and small-minded to me now, especially the fist fights and women who only serve the most clichéd male imagination, but when I was a kid, it felt like liberation. Space would never run out, and it was filled with spectacular alien civilizations, so people would never be bored or unwillingly stuck with each other again.
Virtual reality was supposed to be like that. The original idea, for me at least, was that it would be a giant new space opening up that people would use to either build new bridges between each other with fabulous “post-symbolic” forms of waking state, shared dreams — or to avoid each other, as if we were in deep space, where there was plenty of room for everyone. It was to be an infinite new theater in which people could expend energies, be inventive, and find variegated glories without having to resort to violence. Violence is a “finite game,” while VR would be an “infinite game,” in the formulation of James P. Carse.
The idea wasn’t really about VR. Since the whole point was to address civilization’s ADD, we should expect any school of technology to get too familiar, after a while. Yes, it’s true; even VR can become boring. Maybe humanity will become obsessed with sharing waking state dreams in VR for a century, and then spend another century emphasizing technologically implemented “telepathy,” and then another hundred pushing a psychedelic take on nanotechnology. After a thousand years of creative peace, no one will even remember what the order had been, any more than we are quite sure these days which Chinese dynasty was ascendant during the Byzantine empire. It would be an SAT question for Martian colonists.
Is there any evidence that this strategy works for getting people to be less horrible to one another? Did landing on the moon make it easier for the U.S. to end its war in southeast Asia? Maybe.