Caprica's Daniel Greystone is an alternate reality version of Jaron Lanier and vice versa. For those of you who don't remember, Lanier- like Greystone- became a techno-celebrity in the early 90s selling an idea without an application. "Virtual Reality" was nowhere near the application stage- not really- in those heady days of 80 MB hard drives and 2400 bps modems. There were a few attempts- lame arcade stalls and neck-breaking helmet/headset devices that no one in their right mind wanted to wear. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict that we'll probably bypass the headgear stage entirely and phase into some kind of neural interface with all of this technology.
But Lanier was not like Greystone in that Lanier was/is a hippie idealist who is horrified by the current state of the Internet and the rest. Just as the Diggers were by the zit-faced sheep who bused themselves to Haight-Asbury in the wake of the Summer of Love, and turned an elite Bohemian enclave into a hellish pit of exploitation- commercial, sexual, pharmaceutical, you name it. You see, too many of those star children that went to find themselves (wearing flowers in their hair) wound up raped, ripped off and strung out before The White Album was even released.
Same thing happened in the wake of the Summer of Digital Love, and the flotsam of the past two decades has soured Lanier (and others) on the techno-idealism they helped sell in the first place. Lanier has written a book (You Are Not a Gadget) shouting down techno-Babylon:
Well, that's exactly what Caprica is about, isn't it?
Lanier’s critique of the free-culture movement is trenchant, and it’s especially biting when he calls out the extreme Internet Pollyannaism of many Silicon Valley luminaries and ivory-tower cyber-law scholars. Lanier castigates the quixotic techno-utopianism (which he labels “cybernetic totalism”) of extreme digital-age futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly, who enthuse that a beneficent “hive mind,” technological “singularity,” or “noosphere“ is approaching. Theirs is a vision of the Net as an organism powered by the wisdom of crowds, coming together in a single, collective consciousness.
Lanier argues that such thinking is largely bunk, but he fears it could have dangerous ramifications for humanity anyway. He wants to refocus the inquiry about the Internet’s impact on society and culture around the question of whether it has bettered the lot of individual human beings, not collectives or crowds. The early cyberspace dream, he laments, was guided by “a sweet faith in human nature,” but this “has been superseded by a different faith in the centrality of imaginary entities epitomized by the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature.”Referring to these thinkers as “digital Maoists,” Lanier argues that their movement “starts to look like a religion rather quickly.”
Caprica is Rome with fedoras and Ford Fairlanes, as well. It's perfect casting that Polly Walker is the pivotal character in the evolution of the Cylons- because we're seeing a replay of Imperial Rome here. The confusion and chaos of Empire gave rise to the simple certainties of monotheism, which was a revelation in the babel of syncretism and religious deviation that cosmopolitanism gave birth to. Of course, it would take cold, hard steel- the "grey stone"- to finally settle the differences between all of the monotheisms (Jewish, Christian, Solar, etc.) vying for power and position in Rome (along with some typically Italian concession-making). By the time it was over it was all a world away from the ecstatic visions of Paul the Apostle, one of history's epochal visionaries.
Pity the poor visionary. They usually suffer and scrape to bring liberating, transcendent new visions to the world, but the world doesn't want liberation or transcendence. It wants money, sex and the satisfaction that only taking someone else's happiness away from them can offer the primordial reptilian mind within us. Unfortunately, religion is all too often the facilitator of this process. Social movements like religions always become what they set out to replace, because the world always ends up making the rules.
And the rules have it that virtual reality offers unlimited license- which we see in the very first scenes of the Caprica pilot. The Internet has done the same, which people like Lanier are beginning to rail against. And so it is that killing grounds like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty are the chosen environment for young males today. There's an eternity of information out there to immerse yourself in instead, but ringing those limbic, almost autonomic bells is what we're seeing in our emerging Virtuality. Hearing the rage that Call of Duty inspires coming from across the hall here sounds more like the Coliseum- or the Rubicon- than the Academy, certainly.
And we see it in Caprica- New Cap City is a free-for-all of testosteronic aggression and die-you -die finality. It's hypnotically gorgeous and arbitrarily lethal- just like the planet Earth in its natural state. Which is why civilization requires unnatural behavior- the suppression of urges and impulses, to be exact. Video game technology has heretofore offered an acceptable outlet for those urges, which is exactly why crime rates have fallen as resolutions and bitrates have increased.
But what happens as that digital-free-for-all and consensus reality continue to merge? I'm not sure Caprica- which ends up as Battlestar Galactica, after all- can necessarily tell us. The level of surveillance on Caprica seems miniscule to our own, for instance. I still think William Gibson has more to tell us than Ronald Moore, but there are any number of surprises lurking around corners that none of us are privy to as yet. Not even the visionaries.
But maybe the visionary's problem is that he's always trying to offer us shortcuts and surefire bets, in a world that will tolerate no such thing. Maybe only constant struggle is the answer.
Maybe that's the object of this holographic virtual reality game we're all stuck in.
Non-US readers, try TVDuck.com, as always.