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August 24, 2009

an article that continues to have an impact on me

why aliens haven't contacted us :: not as concerned about the existence of aliens, but how the article makes me think about the increasing importance of the virtual in my own life. I think i will try and write a longer post on this :: but first you should read it (it's short)!

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Comments (36)

This article, circa 1700, would be declaiming the evils of novels and the popularity of technologies relating to music, extravagant foods (ice cream, tea, coffee), and useless things like theoretical chemistry.

Each generation is terrified that the pasttimes and priorities of the next one will lead to a slovenly, useless society. However, new forms of entertainment enhance social structures and families rather than isolating individuals, and entertainment technology is one of the strongest driving forces for invention in general.

I'm probably preaching to the choir, but I felt like a bit of a rant.

Posted by: Gregory Weir at August 24, 2009 10:55 AM

i think he is hitting on some important issues, like the virtual, but he approaches it from one side...

yeah, virtual can be a thing for bad. artless entertainment (pornography is a good example that everyone can agree, while it probably isn't "evil", isn't a force for good in the world haha) pretty much just wastes our time, evolutionarily.

but his own argument shows the insanity of itself...he equates "virtual" with non-real...without these "virtual" creations of zeroes and ones like computational software & hardware, of which the next generation will be written by kids immersed in Internet since childhood, how will this magical space technology exist? how will the two alien races contact each other? signal processors don't get made by good baby-bearing techniques.

the bad virtual is the tempations w/o benifits: coke, pornography, etc. but you can't go and say everything non-physical is bad virtual.

with the years of the great temptation has come the years of the internet, the most powerful tool for being honest and propagating meaningful ideas since the beginning of time.

every generation says the next one will suck and ruin the world. the 50's thought the 60's would ruin it with drugs, the 60's thought the 70's would ruin it with sex, the 70's thought the 80's would bore us to death, the 80's thought the 90's whined too much, now the 90's think the 2000's are vain. right.

Posted by: zach blume at August 24, 2009 11:10 AM

year's ago I read a short SF story, named "Wang's Carpets" by Greg Egan

in this fictional future humans (actually, posthumans) are divided by two main philosophies: solipsists (live only in their virtual word) and realists (thinks there are other form of live in the universe and travel to find them)

in the story a spacecraft finally found a planet with another form of life, but it has a brilliant, unexpected ending..

Posted by: Valentino at August 24, 2009 12:36 PM

The "fitness-faking" is very thought-provoking. His view of the virtual is a very dark one though. I share some of the criticisms but I don't think online interaction is the harbinger of partial extinction. I think we may be in the awkward adolescent stage of connected life, not in our dotage. I suspect a scholar on the opposite side of the discussion could make an equally compelling argument in favor of social technology, because at the end of the day, that's how they make a living in their corner of a very complex world.

Posted by: Paxoctopoda at August 24, 2009 1:07 PM

Truth has a ring like a bell. You hear it and you wake up.

Posted by: Daniel Ari at August 24, 2009 3:37 PM

Do you know when this was written? It looks to be a few years old (based on the EverQuest references.)

If you're interested in this subject you should pick up some books by Vernor Vinge - he talks about humanity's technological singularity that will eventually make the race disappear (though maybe it won't be extinct - it will just go to another place.)

"The Peace War" and "Marooned in Realtime" deal with this concept in a very interesting way (and they're great books!)

Posted by: David Cunningham at August 24, 2009 4:01 PM

.....yikes that is so creepily true!!!!

i have had businesses for years in the ren-faire business in a few states, and many us have always found it ironic that the segment of the population that is the most hardcore SCA into 'living the fantasy' [ie: buying and wearing all the costume crap and also knowing and caring about the historical or fantasy facts of it all]...well these people ~ who stride about faking the life of warriors. wizards, wenches, etc etc ~ are the exact people who most likely would have been seen as too weird, physically weak, iconoclastic and not 'normal' enough to ever have the lives they seem to have the most mental affinity for/romantic view of....to live as a happy healthy nerd with eccentricities and possibly not a whole lotta physical prowess is just SUCH a modern luxury if you look at it closely...

Ze: does it not just make you bug in amazement that in our lifetimes this whole internet deal has literally arisen??? i mean damn CELL phones did not exist when i was in high school in the mid 80s. i swore not to have one till only 5 or so years ago!!!
it freaks me out how much tech has arisen since the 70s, and that it is now something that has trickled and wedged it's way into every class and level of society and is a currency between people in very un-equal footings [social, financial,etc]

I think that addiction to the virtual and fantastic and to 'narrow-casting' [hello evile fbook!] will def weaken MANY otherwise amazing people...'creative-class' is a huge trembling bubble.
and I akso suspect that fetishizing the victorian era and the whole current 'steampunk' thing is just a reaction to acknowledging that.

as for aliens i am firmly on the fence on that one.
we can all define and agree on the existence of aliens when we can all agree an the definition and existence of consensual reality, which will be [as my mom loves to say] the twelfth of never.

thanks for this. I have people to send this to!

~ S

Posted by: sssliskaaa at August 24, 2009 4:26 PM

So this guy is saying that the id, consumerism, and the information age are slowing actual (real) progress? The apocalypse isn't the bomb, it's xbox? It seems to me that there's some pretty impressive engineering going into the creation of some of these technologies, that could possibly be used for more than just making pretty pictures on the TV/monitor. I think the best and the brightest are still committed to solving interesting problems. And people will settle into the niche that fits them the best, for some it's psychology, other's computer science, and others physics. That could be a pretty cool scifi story, a dystopia fueled by hedonistic videogame playing. But are we really living that right now?

Posted by: Rob at August 24, 2009 6:31 PM

Not very scientific, more like a rant. A crazy rant.

Posted by: Oskar at August 24, 2009 7:25 PM

I remember when you first linked to this. There are some interesting reads there. It still strikes me as funny with these types of things that the tendency is to see/think that everything is like us. (And his "us" is such a small segment of people given all people that are and have been.) It makes sense because it is all we know and have evidence for, but it doesn't make sense given all we don't know and cannot even begin to comprehend if we know or not.

Activism is back in vogue and has been. Doing things is still a growing trend. Places like Etsy prove that the virtual doesn't always reflect a fake anything. There's proof in the puddin and there's puddin all over. ha!

Aliens. Like soul mates maybe. The chances of them ever finding each other are so slim. There's a universe of distraction.

Hey, I read in your tweets that you are doing Amsterdam? I hope you have a blast!

Posted by: boo at August 24, 2009 7:59 PM

I remember when you first posted this a long time ago it blew my mind. Though the last paragraph is utter nonsense I can easily envision a not so distant future where our minds can be stored on flash drives and emotional and "physical" stimulation becomes nothing more than a sequence of 0's and 1's. Pretty fascinating and frightening stuff.

Posted by: Thomas at August 24, 2009 8:19 PM

So how come the wonderbra falls into the physical reality and not the virtual entertainment category?

Posted by: hmmm at August 24, 2009 9:02 PM

I found that rang quite true instead of sounding like a rant.

I find myself straddling worlds because I'm connected to young children and struggling to help them engage in the "real" world for their minds and our future, I'm connected to individuals who do "real" work like farming and teaching but people I love live in the virtual world much of the time. Some make their livings selling pictures of things to people on the internet, or "packaging" bits of money and stocks which are only as real as the people buying and selling them believe them to be. (As we recently discovered.)

As somebody trying to "wake up" through yoga, but in love with somebody trying to "level up" I find the paradox that Miller describes very challenging. I marveled during the last election at how many cynical, ironic friends of mine popped their heads above their monitors in order to go to caucuses, phone banks and canvas.

Obviously, because I'm commenting on a blog belonging to somebody who's famous because of his beautiful use of the same technologies that can seduce us into nihilism, you can tell that I'm not a complete luddite. Or enlightened yet. But I am very, very curious.

Posted by: K at August 24, 2009 9:57 PM

I'm having goosebumps about some writer talking about humanity's technological singularity that will eventually make the race disappear. Is this really happening?

Posted by: Alex at August 25, 2009 12:26 AM

The physical will to survive is strong and if I thought like Mr. Miller all the time I'd probably resort to xbox, porn and drugs to escape his future distopia.

In his modern day ghost story at the end he brings us to a very cold and dark place then leaves us there while disregarding all other agents of fortune, hope, and even love.

He infers that the brightest, but wounded will either self-destruct or be eliminated and the righteous will be over taken by sinister forces left to rule the hive. An argument that could be made for the world we live in today. He disregards the three dimensional world.

Fortunately, his prediction is only a prediction and probably about as accurate as the weatherman predicting the weather.

The earth took millions of years to sustain the life we live and since I started to think I still haven't been able to prove how and why good ideas pop into my head, where luck comes from, and if all coincidences are really all coincidences and sometimes, just sometimes I can't help, but wonder maybe the aliens are already here.

Posted by: nader at August 25, 2009 2:41 AM

i suspect that i am not one of the surviving "practical minded breeders". ;)

it recently occurred to me how few real survival skills i have wrt actually growing, building or making objects that directly impact my survival or someone else's.

the reality is that a lot of us spend more time interacting with the virtual world than the real one. i take occasional (and far too infrequent) five-senses days where i shut off my virtual world and venture out. these days are inevitably more satisfying and real than my virtual world.

last thing: i thought that the article was written with far too much of a western perspective and that if you take into account vast populations elsewhere in the world who still do make things directly for survival, i'm not sure that this virtual world decline is as imminent as he conveyed.

sure the article is a bit of a rant, but more extreme views/dangerous ideas are clearly great at provoking response, reflection and conversation.

Posted by: ingrid at August 25, 2009 8:56 AM

Sounds to me like a big rationalization of "family values" - reproduction is all that counts (why?), the youth is lazy (a complaint as old as mankind), etc. It's all dressed up in fancy Scientific terms. This is quite typical of evolutionary psychology as a field.

If you ask me, the biggest risk to the survival of mankind is clinging to reproduction as a priority. We don't need so many humans to develop as a species; we need to perpetuate and develop our knowledge, which is what we are doing rather well at the moment. The world has hundreds of excellent universities, and dozens of excellent research centers, etc. etc. The demand of education and the development of skills is increasing. We are doing well.

Posted by: michael at August 25, 2009 11:42 AM

1.First of all, that essay should have been exclusively about the virtual vs real debate - not aliens. That was lame.

2.Video Games...although I'm aware he was speaking broadly about entertainment, I am inclined to argue that an active mind can also benefit from games. Video games may be seen as more intense on the senses as, say, chess. But it's the same idea. Games can be used as a form of healthy recreation and are proven to help thought-development. Also, I think he completely under-estimated video games potential as an art form (that might be a little specific - but he did not indicate an awareness of anything positive on the subject)

3. It was difficult to take the entire essay seriously when he did not really propose a realistic solution (besides crazy fundamentalists ruling the world...as if). There were always two types of people in the world and technology does not chance this, it merely accentuates it;

Lazy people and Non-Lazy people. Simple.

Posted by: moira at August 25, 2009 12:09 PM

Picture this scene-- it's not hard to, you may even be somewhere that you can just look over and see it now:

You're at a cafe or bar, and see a table full of people engaged in lively conversation. But they're not talking with each other, they're all talking on cell phones to people who are not there. I always wonder if they'd be talking with someone at the table if the person on the phone were there instead.

But beside this, the point is that cell phones, TV, computers, what ever technology is not evil... they can all have negative and positive impacts.
We just very often have yet to learn to use them appropriately.

I think the first comment by G. Weir is also key.

Posted by: Steven Rhodes at August 25, 2009 1:02 PM

I can imagine you elucidating the ironic in Miller's article. He presumes the aliens would be as narcissistic as we are. Miller is onto something, but his focus on video games is simply too literal and consumerist.

As for your questions about the virtual in our own lives, if this article makes you think about that, I'd love to read your grasp of this near-tangible. Giant bug creatures from the planet Lucifurious are merely red herrings. Our explorations in the virtual seem to extend us toward a collective experience of the realms of daydreams and imagination.

By the way, I can't play the more sophisticated video games, they make me seasick, but I'm very much alive in the virtual. And I'm wondering what happened with your and Jane Mc's exploration of the people who dream up tubes, tunnels and wiggly lines.


Posted by: jeano at August 25, 2009 1:07 PM

Maybe they haven't contacted us because they don't want to get shot at.

Posted by: nick at August 25, 2009 3:31 PM

Good article. Reminds me of the TV show ALF.

Posted by: Peter at August 25, 2009 10:52 PM

the ancient greeks had a concept called "arete" which one of my old profs translated as "the right stuff." the concept was that of a balanced life that included physical and athletic endeavors in addition to intellectual achievement and mastery of a craft. i would point to this article in support of an argument for a balanced life where the fast & easy gratifications of the virtual are balanced with the slower, more pains-taking rewards of the real.

Posted by: ergo at August 25, 2009 11:39 PM

I like his thoughts on dating in the modern world and the fact that the young don't approach this confusing physical drive with quite the same visceral mistake-laden approach the thirty-somethings who saw the dawn of the digital age did. The lessons learned through a social-networking faux pas can never replace the lessons learned while touching a boob, and without the computer to cover your tracks.

About alien life: I agree that perhaps there is a self-destructing law in the universe that negates the possibility of inter-stellar travel. Perhaps laws are laws, and we are we, and they are they, and that is it. The scientific way, or God, if you will, keeps us bound to our planets.

The thing that shoots holes in his theory: radio waves.
Unless we totally misunderstand the longevity of waves in space, we would have picked up signals by now. This leaves me thinking that we still don't understand how physics work out in space. My outside theory (which I don't even believe, but want science to consider) is that our canopy is a highly developed illusion. Outer space and stars are nothing but a fabrication - it could be true, could it not?

Posted by: Ben at August 26, 2009 2:47 AM

Well, it's an interesting idea, but I think it's a little too tightly focussed. Perhaps the issue isn't strictly runaway consumerism, but a combination of fear, apathy, and tunnel vision.

More than one eminent scientist (including, for example, Stephen Hawking) has suggested that any efforts on the part of humanity to make our presence known to extraterrestrials would be tantamount to racial suicide, because really, if a more advanced civilization exists, why would they not want to come here and use their technological superiority to subjugate us? This is an only mildly pragmatic expression of pure xenophobia.

Fear-based obstacles aside, apathy and tunnel vision can explain a lot, too. In order for a civilization to make the effort to spread beyond their own planetary (or, perhaps, star systemic) borders, they'd need to not only overcome the fear of the unknown, they'd need to have the drive and desire to make such an expansion possible. Let's face it- just getting to the moon was a huge undertaking, not just from a technological standpoint, but from an emotional one. The only thing that made it happen was that our planet happened to be in the middle of an intense ideological conflict, and one of the two major leaders involved in that conflict decided to set his nation's sights on a target that would be an undisputed victory of epic proportions in that conflict.

Maybe it's not that they can't come here...perhaps they just don't have the gumption. I can only hope that we, as a race, will rise to the occasion and make our way outward.

Posted by: ccd at August 26, 2009 7:18 AM

I wonder if his article was published in hardcopy. Or does it only exist in the virtual? Kind of ironic.

Also I love that the wonder bra is somehow grouped in with all of those reality based inventions like cars and planes. Really? You think that what the wonder bra is an invention that's based in reality? I'm pretty sure it was designed very specifically for deception. Just seemed really silly for him to have thrown that in there for seemingly no good reason.

Posted by: Drew Gobrecht at August 26, 2009 7:58 PM

Hmph. This article, while interesting, feels to me not only like a parental blow-out á la "GO OUTSIDE AND PLAY, CHILDREN!" but also a super-religious rant against the generally sad state of modern society. Basically, his conclusion is that humanity belongs to the religious, that - if you believe - you can escape the rapture... Or is it just me seeing this?

He's conveniently ignoring the FACT that many people who rejoice in virtual entertainment on a daily basis also do good in the world and work toward productive things. It has become more visible since he wrote the article, too. The Nerdfighter movement, the Penny Arcade Childsplay project, Folding@Home, they're all fuelled by the decadent consumers of virtuality that mr Miller is so worried will be the demise of humanity.

Of course, the people I'm talking about are to some degree people who've grown up living almost entirely within both a physical and a virtual reality. The people I see binging on virtual pleasures and not doing anything productive are usually people who are new to it and people who just switched TVs with computers, laughing sheepishly at cute kitten videos, fapping at porn and doing nothing else. As society moves on, so will our relationship to virtual realities develop to such a degree that it becomes the tool for "good" it was always destined to be... as WELL as a tool for pleasure.

Posted by: Magnulus at August 27, 2009 11:51 AM

From one of the final entries in the work experience journal of one of my year 10 students, who got a placement working at a university's centre for astrophysics and supercomputing:

'This work exp probably won't be inspiring enough to change my opinion at all. Of course, this is a possibility but I was never intended or expected to work at this kind of place. It;s my dream to work for Blizzard (the awesome gaming company), my pride to work for the gaming industries. And this won't sway me from my goal nor my dream.'

Posted by: English Teacher at August 29, 2009 7:32 PM

That said, I distrust the theory. I'd like it a lot more if it said 'the singularity is a great unknown that may totally pwn us in many ways' instead of 'entertainment is bad, you guys!'

Posted by: English Teacher at August 29, 2009 7:37 PM

This article and all the comments here set my mind going, so the virtual world can't be all bad.

I'm pretty sure that Geoffrey Miller has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek as he posits that the virtual world and the faked fitness is the reason we haven't been contacted by aliens. On the other hand, technology has grown faster than the rate of new courtesies we need to develop to handle it. Miss Manners lived most of her life pre-personal computer,much less video games, i-phone, blah blah blah 00100011.

Part of my response the article was that i wrote a short story in grade school that touched on some of the same things Miller hits on, albeit from a pre-teen pre-internet perspective. My story revolved around the notion that current humans were spending so much time with TV let alone books and the like (thanks Gregory Weir!) that they had been rendered unfit to confront an impending alien invasion. Surely we in our weaknesses would fall to the superior alien race(s)! I'm not sure if I got into writing this because of reading all the Vonnegut my brothers brought home, of if Vonnegut took me away from all of that.

Woody Allen's *Sleeper* hit a similar note with the ball addiction. No drug, no sex, so personal contact, but oh the ball was soooo intoxicating!

Also to G Weir - isn'nt it part of each generation's job to piss off their elders?

ergo, I thought your reference to "arete" was also interesting. As a musician, I came across something by Plato (I THINK) that said (basically) He who balances gymnastics with mathematics can be called the true musician. This gave birth to the quadrivium and trivium that evolved into the educational system we have today. So, are we on a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Also, "arete" en francais means "stop" or "halt." Just pondering there.

In concordance with boo and jeano, we humans have a very narrow view of what an alien being is/would be. We make imagine them in our image, or in the image of other things on our planet. While it is necessary to have a planetary atmosphere like earth's to develop life *as we know it* other atmospheres may develop life forms that we are unable to detect or communicate with for the moment. Even if the life form resembled ours, who's to say that they thing like us? They live somewhere else, for FSM's sake! If you consider viruses and bacteria as life forms, we have already been contacted and observed. Other non-detected life forms may have already been our way. (I take no stock in Thetans, btw.) Then again, we ARE light years away from so many places....ugh. This discussion was supposed to revolve around how the virtual world affects us. By i could not resist this tangent.

So back around to manners - everyone who responded on this page has some connection to the virtual world as we know it. Our big brains dreamed up this stuff at an amazing rate. This is a populous planet brimming with ideas for technology/fake fitness as well as actual fitness. If we give a damn, we'll figure out the balance by and large. Strive for the balance now. Now and 2006 are just too early to have it all figured out.

Posted by: gypsy sister at August 29, 2009 8:31 PM

in response to a comment made in my longer post: to be pickier with the language pondering, the french is "arret" (infinitive "arreter"), with an accent circonflex over the "e", making it related to "arrest." Ah, if there wre only an edit function.

Posted by: gypsy sister at August 29, 2009 9:45 PM

This Article reminds me of this interview with David Brin.

He's been pretty good at predicting the future in his books and there is even a website dedicated to the accuracy of his predictions.


In this interview though, he points out that when new technology is developed, it takes people some time to figure out how to properly use it. For example, after the printing press was developed, tyrants used it to launch the 30 years war. The radio was used by Hitler to mobilize the Arian race, and more recently (and what Cass Sunstein pointed out in his book Republic.com) Americans are using the web to disperse myths which only reinforce one kind of point of view over and over again. He calls these cybercascades.

So, I think we just need to figure out how to use this stuff we have- or as Einstein said, "Our technology has surpassed our humanity"- and we might be in trouble.

Posted by: Russell at August 30, 2009 6:06 PM

i'm hungry for more ze creative juice yummy. it's been a little while.

pls feed tummy.

Posted by: hungry at August 31, 2009 1:50 AM

Don't astronauts spend lots of time in simulators?
To get places we would need ships.
A ship is a high tech computer with massive rockets attached to it.
Who better than a high tech gamer to pilot one of these vessels out into the deep reaches of space?
Let us go!!! We'll find them.
Why doesn't Blizzard and NASA team up together?
Training through technology?

Aww screw it... I'm getting some lunch.

Posted by: David at August 31, 2009 3:07 AM

Aliens!!!Do they really exist?
It might be possible but why don’t they communicate or no existence sign....we often imagine the image... I think it's not right to create a virtual image of something that we don’t even see...we need some solid evidence for Alien existence...If we cannot we should stop talking this nonsense...Isn’t it?

Posted by: Evan at September 1, 2009 5:48 AM

Rockets are too slow. For interstellar travel, we need to find worm holes, which we can be sucked into and spit out on the other side of the galaxy (in minutes). This would make finding intelligent life much easier. And they haven't contacted us yet, perhaps, because it would be unethical for them to interfere with our evolutionary development. They have to wait until we figure more things out and evolve to become more civil, less insane. For them to contact us it would be like sticking one's hand into a hornet's nest. Laissez faire!

Posted by: m.j. devlin at September 11, 2009 11:14 AM

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