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January 18, 2008

an interesting pair of short readings

begin with Geoffrey Miller's answer to last year's edge.org question "what is your dangerous idea?" (about one third of the way down the page)

then take a look at this BBC article from today: Nasa investigates virtual space.

and tell me what it makes you think of.

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Comments (13)

Posted by: Farris at January 18, 2008 10:46 AM

That's pretty scary really. I hope he's wrong.

Posted by: Annabelle at January 18, 2008 12:54 PM

Surprising to me how much of Mr. Miller's somewhat apocalyptic vision of our future I share. I think it's more of a luddite view where the established fears the unfamiliar.

Yes, we do lose our friends like PirateBoy to the World of Warcraft Online. There is an ever increasing amount of insular pockets where we all can squirrel away our free time. It is not static. It is not binary.

Just because I go off line and spend the next 9 months raising my daughter does not mean I will never return. Heck, I'll even check my voice mail and email during that time. Families, tribes, clans were the first self limiting social structures.

A family or tribe must stick together because of shared values and need for survival. Individuals also venture forth to seek out new ideas and new blood, keeping the tribe healthy. Indirect cues of biological fitness are not ignored or abandoned just because an individual has voluntarily sequestered herself in a specific clan.

Inbreeding, physical or intellectual will cause extinction. There are social taboos that prevent this sort of activity. Just as there are pressures and tendencies that return the limited individual back into the world at large.

Real guitar virtuosos play Guitar Hero. Real professional football players play Madden video games. The flow goes in the other direction as well. Knitters on ravelry.com see cool new patterns and make one for themselves or a friend. A weepy teenager video taping himself in a pillowcase on YouTube gets a network reality tv show.

Whether it is towards our inner-selves or outer space the human drive always asks "why". While we may find satisfactory answers most of the time within our hand-picked group of friends, there's always going to be another why that can only be answered by going forth.

Posted by: Awed Job at January 18, 2008 3:41 PM

While Miller struck me as an overly cynical luddite, the two articles together made a rather striking point.
If we invest too much time in trifles, in what is essentially technological masturbation, we create a very real threat to our species.
Perhaps the real problem is that while technological development comes easily for humans, humans, as a species, have hardly developed psychologically or intellectually. Why devote yourself to NASA when you can devote yourself to World of Spacecraft? Once again, we see our institutions pandering to the least common denominator.
But enough time on this blog. I'm gonna go paint.

Posted by: Trip at January 18, 2008 3:49 PM

It's easy to see one connection between Miller's musings and this research because many may want to see it. That being he is a more handsome soothsayer than ever existed and possibly an oracle. (OK the first was just me.)I think he is right on with his self-loathing ideas about the species; however, he neglects a world that exists beyond his hypothesis. Ironic. His own self loathing blinds perhaps.

It is only here in the ether such ideas are made manifest in my world. It is only here in a virtual place where one actually can rise into the world of forms and explore it.

His sacred nursery could easily be Plato's cave given a different daily experience.

NASA's new virtual space games, instead of bolstering his idea of eventual extinction, gives me a little hope. There is an attempt to use that which drives us to expand the mind. Now, to what real time ends, that remains to be answered just as it does for everything here for most people. Practical purpose. People are so resistant to it. Miller is right that they would prefer to play rather than find purpose for the play.

But that is only because they have not been given one. People rankle at that but it is necessary. That sacred nursery does not nurture in pretty ways. It's poopy. Restrictions, objectives and purpose are necessary for most people to shine and feel productive and included and meaningful. But we devalue that which is not brilliant! in some way. We do like shiny things it is a wonder that we do not choose to be them.

These technologies some have become addicted to can be used to practical ends but it is a fight on both sides. The sophisticate knows his psychology and child development and isn't interested in prescriptions. The dedicated parent is less so in the exclusivity of the virtual world. Very few attempts have been made to bridge this gap. It's just not cool enough on one end nor tolerant enough on the other.

Until we can as a species limber up both inside out heads and out of them I suspect we will be ignored by any extraterrestrial species more advanced than ourselves. We are a cancer until we can learn to use to the benefits of each world we create to respect and love one another. I would put us on mute and have use caller id to avoid us in an effort at self protection. But I would watch, because there is hope and we actually don't suck all that much when we are given a task, a purpose.

Those giving purpose, they may be the religions or the governments on the surface, but that's just for those who are without direction. IMO. When it comes to that nursery, it's a quick "hold this and wipe that" with an understanding that we are allowed to and should really love it. All of it. Even in our matrix worlds.

But then again I am dreamer. Self-hate is dangerous idea, Miller is right about that. It has destroyed and will destroy better dreamers than I. But it doesn't silence them. That's hopeful.

It made me think of that. Verbose. Sorry.

Posted by: Boo at January 18, 2008 4:17 PM

The Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper on a four-track reel-to-reel.

Today, any teenager or twenty-something with GarageBand can have an infinite number of tracks at their disposal. More technology and power than John Lennon or Shostakovitch or Woodie Guthrie could have ever imagined. Yet myspace is filled with gigabyte after gigabyte of total shit.

Posted by: joshua gardner at January 18, 2008 4:51 PM

Wow. The bulk of Miller's article is fodder enough for argument, but the ending just blows me the heck away. He spends all that time lamenting that society is falling into a comfortable, self-indulgent fantasy rather than preparing for reality... and then he says RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISTS are the ones who have it right?!?

Whiskey tango f*cking foxtrot.

Posted by: Aaron at January 18, 2008 6:06 PM

It makes me think about the following news story about a man who administered first aid to injured motor accident victims using knowledge he had gained from... America's Army - the video game. This game is mentioned in the previous article. It's another massive-multiplayer online game; this one was created on behalf of the real US Army as a recruiting tool.

From Gaming Industry News: Gamer uses virtual medic training to help save a life - http://gamernode.com/news/5647-gamer-uses-virtual-medic-training-to-help-save-a-life/index.html

Posted by: Nomad at January 18, 2008 7:09 PM

First I asked, why does this gentlemen seem so cynical and angry? Then I Googled him up. Evolutionary Psychologist in Hippyville, New Mexico. Boing! Red Flag! So I dug a bit deeper and found he is the new flavor of the day in our narcissistic-over-analyzed-looking-to-make-a-splash culture. The cover on his latest book is psychologically provocative, which in light of this article I found rather ironic and worthy of a snicker. So is he right? I don’t think he is telling us anything that the Greeks hadn’t contemplated through allegory; the rehashing in a familiar and modern language. But I will try and scare him one better. All those sedentary beings will join together into one large mass, they will lose their minds and individualism and as they meld tighter and tighter they will begin to reflect only one color, like Bose Einstein Theory of Condensation. Left behind, and always near death their only active ability will be to squeak. As their mass accumulates they will become the imagined walls of a black hole. Those who, on the other hand, chose to participate in an active and balance manner will float to the top like cream, they will rise freely and evolve, for as Pandora found, due to her quick reaction, once the shock wore off, there is always hope. NASA’s new program could be a ray of that. The God or the Devil is always in the details.

the answer to your question,

Posted by: the greeks at January 19, 2008 4:16 AM

I saw a documentary once, which involved a re-enactment of the only time that an airplane has been hijacked by a member of the crew. (It was a fedex plane, so no passengers.)

The story was gripping. It almost literally had me on the edge of my seat.

But it occurred to me at the end of it, that less happened on that flight than you'd find in the teaser of an Arnold Schwartzenegger or Sylvester Stallone film. Bruce Willis characters do more heroic things in their lunch breaks than the pilot and co-pilot of that flight did.

But regardless, the knowledge that I was watching (re-enacted) real events really did heighten it for me.

I had a similar experience when the Beaconsfield mine rescue was taking place. The fact that it was "played out" in real time over the course of several weeks might have helped draw out the tension a bit.

That's why I'm optimistic. People will always prefer real to fake.

What makes me pessimistic is that the OPPOSITE might be true: People desensitised to fiction might think of real events as taking place in a fictional universe. Anna Nicole Smith and Britney Spears are cases in point. They play out in the public consciousness like a soap opera. We may lose sight of the fact that real lives are at stake.

Posted by: Pseudonym at January 19, 2008 6:20 AM

Living in a virtual reality relies heavily on vision. It cannot recreate what it feels like to have someone gently take a piece of one’s hair and twirl it through his fingers. It cannot recreate the burst of scent that comes from breaking the peel of an orange or releasing the oils from a garlic clove by smashing it with the flat side of a steel knife. It cannot recreate the sun warming your face on a spring day when the world is waking itself up again and the wind is lightly perfumed by the burgeoning flora. The sounds of the virtual world are advanced and well done in many instances but it lacks the warmth and depth of a congregation rapt in a singer’s expert tones reverberating in the perfect acoustics of a cavernous church.

It is easy to think that the world will turn itself off and escape to a place where one’s decisions can be rewritten and undone. However, it doesn’t take bravery to experience life as it presents itself. After all, the virtual world takes its cue from the real one and in order to progress and correct, one will need to inform the other.

Posted by: Meghan at January 21, 2008 10:01 AM

He builds up this monolithic virtual world but he forgets to mention the instability of this place. I mean, look at Atari in the early eighties. If humanity becomes so lazy that it can do nothing else but play video games, the first victim will be the video games themselves. The entire industry will suck balls. Consumerism demands a constant stream of new, flashy, titillating stuff. It will eat itself before it eats our genitalia.

Posted by: John at January 22, 2008 1:11 PM

In short I think it is fairly specious to present the radio silence of the galaxy as evidence for his evo-psych musings. The NASA article if anything made me less inclined to agree with his dangerous idea. I can't put this more eloquently than boo's comment above: "It is only here in a virtual place where one actually can rise into the world of forms and explore it."

I do agree with & enjoyed much of what he said, just not the overall argument. I'd be fascinated to know what Dawkins would make of it.

Posted by: Monkfish XVI at January 22, 2008 6:45 PM

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