Virtual Reality and Actual Certainty

Yeah, that looks comfortable.

Note: Oculus Rift is having a press conference today 6/11 @ 1 PM EST. (see update)

We're living in a strange moment, one which we haven't quite come to acknowledge. It's a moment when the utopian IOUs the technocrats have been writing are being called in. "Just around the corner" isn't good enough anymore. Lazy recitations of Moore's Law aren't going to cut it.

We're not quite looking at a backlash yet but the preconditions for one are beginning to congeal. People my age have been fed technohype for most of our lives, yet nothing has really been improved. You can make a compelling argument that technology has been a net negative for many millions of people when you look at its impact on income and job security. The furniture has been rearranged, at best.

This DARPA robot challenge is especially revealing, since we're fed such breathless nonsense about the imminent "robot revolution." But the fact is that autonomous robots require terabytes of code to perform the simplest tasks, and even then the fractal nature of mundane daily life --say, a rock is in its path-- confounds their programming. 

Certainly the kind of remote control robotics you see on assembly lines have come a long way, but that's simply a honing process, an incremental upgrading of technology that's been with us for a very long time.

The entertainment industry is struggling against technology's headwinds, seeing as how consumers now expect everything they want to be available around the clock and extremely cheap, if not actually free. It's hard to explain to young people how strange and new this is, how you wait for months to watch The Wizard of Oz or Planet of the Apes the one time a year they were shown on broadcast television. 

It's also hard to explain how special that wait made it all seem. The anticipation was part of the experience.

And now the convenience of streaming services like Netflix makes broadcast television look more and more like a dinosaur, playing to audiences a fraction the size it commanded just a decade before.

Which brings us to Jurassic World, an example of the tentpole CGI blockbuster that Hollywood relies on to keep the multiplexes open. Advance buzz is mixed and that's a dangerous situation for a movie whose production and advertising budgets run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. CGI has come a long way but it still has a feeling of unreality to it, which is why most of the big budget movies you see today make no pretensions to reality.

Jurassic World is also nostalgia trip, a return to the 90s when we still believed in Techno-Utopia. We're seeing a lot of that lately. Hillary Clinton is trying to capitalize on memories of those good times, but without much pep.  There's a new documentary of Kurt Cobain and of course The X-Files revival started shooting this week, yet another attempt to recapture that 90s magic.

Kirby predicts VR in 1974

And now we're seeing Virtual Reality dragged out of the 90s storage unit. But is there a need for it? Or is this a response to the economics of entertainment technology, the need to create a new platform that can offer content at a premium by virtue of the medium itself?  

The assumption behind VR has always been based in a linear understanding of technology, which is to say that more is more. A more complex, more immersive, more invasive experience is inevitably going to be preferable to a simpler delivery of content. But the persistence of printed books, the vinyl revival and the retrogaming movement- three very important trends in youth culture at this moment- are all telling the culture creators they think less is more.

Earlier experiments with VR have been problematic, with viewers complaining about the discomfort of the gear and side effects such as nausea and vertigo. The Oculus Rift rollout keeps getting pushed back (first to 2015, then 2016, now to 2017, a eternity for its young audience) and we're hearing a lot of "just around the corner" talk with the other VR projects. 

I'm getting the feeling that this technology is nowhere near consumer-readiness and that the 2017 rollout date is a pure Hail Mary. (see update)

We are seeing 360º cameras being developed to create virtual environments. But there's a faint medicinal odor to all of this, similar to what we saw with IMAX before they finally started using it for feature films. I'm not sure how indispensible IMAX has made itself to Hollywood, if the costs and logistical problems of creating content for the format are justified by the higher ticket prices.

VR will be even more problematic. A format is only as good as the content it carries and no one can argue that there's not a content crisis in the entertainment industry. There's plenty of content, the question is how much of it is any good. Most films and TV shows fail and the industry is kept afloat by a small slate of blockbusters.

Blockbuster movies are one thing but the intimate nature of VR is going to be quite another- who are you going to want to let inside your head? We have quasi-virtual environments in some games, but there's a layer of distance and the player controls the action. What about the somewhat more passive nature of VR? You'd be a fool not to wonder at the potential for abuse here. VR pioneer Jaron Lanier: 
"A few researchers started to do experiments that I would have been terrified to do myself. I’m thinking of a person who has been a research partner, a collaborator for many years — Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford. He started to just sort of see how he could screw with people in VR. I was always like, "Can we give them better math abilities by changing how their bodies work?" — that was the kind of thing I was interested in. 
"[Bailenson] was like, "Hey, I want to see if I can screw with their self-esteem by making them gradually shorter during an interaction, or turn gradually more black during an interaction." And he can. This notion that you could see VR as a way to screw with people without their awareness, crossed with our current business model where everything is about advertising and manipulation and spying — we [will] have a surveillance economy in the online world. It’s been very painful to see that potential unfolding."
Chilling. But more likely the material is likely to be bland, travelogue snoozers and inoffensive pabulum meant to reach the widest possible audience. VR is a platform without a constituency, other than moguls gambling on it and the techies developing it. 

No one is out there screaming for virtual reality, aside from a few hardcore gamers. Actually, I don't see much interest in the technology one way or the other out there. There's talk about games being developed for VR platforms but it's all moot until the platforms are actually on the streets. Which is still "just around the corner."

At best the new platforms could be a promising gateway to future developments. At worst it might be the entertainment equivalent of a CPAP unit. 

Consumers are usually excited by content not technology. My suspicion that non-gaming VR content won't exactly be electrifying given the enormous cost of production is somewhat verified by this New York Times article, "Virtual Reality Fails its Way to Success" (even its boosters can't avoid VR's unimpressive track record):
Marketers, educators, scientists and, of course, gamers are already imagining an internal ecosystem for virtual reality. Armchair travel. Risk-free sky diving and ziplining. Gender-bending with virtual bodies. Classrooms of avatars convened with people all over the world. Surgical demos. Virtual hikes in the Andes and sprints on Fiji beaches. But whatever its “use” might be, V.R. is not fundamentally a pragmatic technology, which is why it begins with gamers. If it works, if it catches on, it must first give pleasure — and be fun. 
It’s curious that James Cameron himself, a director known for his embrace of technology in the name of cinematic spectacles, recently dismissed Oculus as “a yawn.” 
It's a strange situation where the producers and consumers are now moving in opposite directions. Programmers and engineers are thrilled by their accomplishments but consumers only want an experience. An old time roller coaster or a book picked up at a free table at the library can provide that? Fine. With the economic race to the bottom we're all subjected to, gee-whiz technology isn't going to be enough.  

But given the top-down nature of this movement, is there another agenda at play? The VR sequences in William Gibson's Sprawl novels were usually the least memorable, but there was one interesting storyline in Count Zero, where a terminally ill mogul was kept alive in a virtual environment while his physical body mouldered in a vat in some industrial park. He was able to continue his machinations in an idealized Madrid park into which his underlings entered via VR.

There's a new religion at work among the new cognoscenti, and its demon is an overwhelming fear of death. This new elite buy into the most reductionist, most mechanistic interpretation of Darwinist fundamentalism imaginable, and see their position of masters of the universe as a cosmic quirk, a random accident that arose in a dead, mechanistic cosmos on a world overfilled with  semi-sentient meat robots. 

Their deaths are an affront to the imposed order of things, an event that must be avoided at all costs. 

Most of them are still relatively young, but you wonder how heavy the shadow of the Grim Reaper looms over their heads, how much of a race they are in to extend their lives by any means necessary, either medically (the current favorite) or via upload (the more controversial choice, but still in the running).

I wonder if Steve Jobs, an experienced psychonaut, took a more holistic view as he faced his own mortality. Today, doctors are petitioning to have terminal patients treated with entheogens, given their power to ease the anxiety of death by opening the patient's consciousness to the greater universal consciousness we are all a part of. 

I remember seeing Timothy Leary a couple times when he was campaigning for virtual reality and I remember losing a great deal of respect for him when he put on a pair of goggles and blurted out "oh yeah, I've been here before" as some rudimentary computer graphics were simulcast on a projection screen. He knew better. 

I wonder how much of our collective neurosis would be ameliorated if more people came to realize that reality itself is a virtual simulation, a kind of hologram atop a much deeper reality we utilize just to keep our biological imperatives satisfied. We have the technology to break through the illusion, we've had it for a very long time. What worries me is how we seem to be moving now in the opposite direction.

UPDATE: Oculus is now shooting for "Q1 2016" for delivery. We'll see how that goes. I've been monitoring the r/oculus subreddit and I'm not blown away by the traffic. Whether that's a reflection on OP or Reddit is an open question.

Same old FPS on a headset instead of a screen...

UPDATE: Look for the Oculus backlash to start today (in some cases it already has- scroll through some of the comments on the Oculus subreddit). A few geewhiz moments but a lot of the same-old/same-old (third person games for VR? WTF?) and a lot of telling instead of showing. I'm still getting the very strong feeling this stuff is still not market ready based on the nervous dispositions of a lot of the presenters and what we're seeing for the most part is standard issue video gaming projected onto a headset instead of a screen. 

The problem with VR is the amount of imagery you need to create and there's still no getting around that. Technology has expedited the process but we're still nowhere near the kind of holography you see in sci-fi VR.

UPDATE: Oculus skepticism from IGN commenters, especially given the rumored $1500 price point. Comparisons to 3DTV are rife...

UPDATE: "Meh" is the word of the day. Kotaku commenters.

UPDATE: As of 1735 EST Friday, nothing about Oculus Rift on Kotaku. No mention of it on io9 either. That press conference is not generating any perceivable buzz.


  1. Nicely written.:) Will Oculus Rift allow some jerk in "Modern Warfare 34" to call me a "c**t" in a true 3-D environment? I'm afraid I'll never know, I don't want Oculus Rift, even if it does make it to retail.

    'Jurassic World' too, seems to me to be the ultimate 'Who Cares' movie. Who wanted this? I am hoping the 'X-Files' revival shows some of the old magic.

    I've kind of been lost in my hobby of painting my toy soldiers for the Victoria-era. It's more relaxing, more engrossing, more social, and it is more fulfilling, than most of the electronic toys I see.

    1. Those simple pleasures- hard to beat. Especially when no one is screaming on your headset...

    2. Fer Shure! XD

      And the discussions that arise from my hobby revolve around learning of by-gone eras, heroes, villains, and explorers. No machismo displays. :)

      And: $1500? How many people can afford that anymore? Not early adopters and tech collectors, but how many average people can drop $1500 on video games anymore?

  2. Damn. When you get into the nitty gritty social aspect of stuff it is just like an old punk getting into the pit and just pummeling posers with a huge grin. The "anticipation as part of the experience" is recurring topic with a few friends of mine as we daily mix with SF bay area techies. This need to have it now, dissolve friction, is not only a form of laziness but also morally reprehensible. People need to be able to deal with other people and their worldviews - that is just how it is.

    Lanier has come out so strongly in recent months about his own lifetime of work it really makes you wonder how he and others in the upper echelons of tech are thinking "uh oh". We do have a significant portion of internet company's board of directors, CEOs, CFOs barring their own children from using tablets in schools and such. Hmmm...This might correlate with the top-down other agenda you mention. If they already know for certain that offloading your mind's capacity to apps/phones helps to foster stupidity then why not sell the minions the ultimate device to clear your brain of its natural ability to use its own Imagination. "We don't want you dreaming anything that might be too disruptive!" (ha) Even better we have an environment with VR immersion that is even more anti-social than phones and computers.

    I just finished JMG's Age of Pretense post and so reading your post today was a remarkable synch. But the Age of Impact is starting to blow notes through the harps on the shore. (smashing too many blog metaphors together there). I wonder how the kids who want the books, the vinyl and the atari games are going to deal with the inevitable... they might be the new guard if they develop their "wisdom muscles" sufficiently as opposed to the masturbatory "future mania" set which makes all the noise. We will see.

    Cheers, sir!

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    2. You raise a very good point- these tech moguls taking away their own toys from their kids. What's that about? What aren't we being told? Technoculture has become so dominant it doesn't even pretend to be altruistic or even beneficial anymore, it justifies itself by itself. It's just like any other big conglomerate anymore. All those little maxims about bettering the world have been tossed in the trash.

  3. The "thing" with conciousness uploaded to silicon hardware is that (in theory) the processors are faster than neuronal connections. If you do the math it's not true but the idea is: you upload your conciousness to silicon and you have an eternity available for your tought processess while the carbon based world becomes ultra slow. "If you can think in 'bullet time' your enemies will not even saw what struck them." hmmm... yeah... tell me another...
    Anyways I still believe that William Gibson is still state of the art on AI philosophic paradoxes.

    1. Indeed. Didn't a professor of something or other come out recently and say it could never be done? And don't the "New Mysterians" (what a flaming misnomer) think consciousness is a big bunch of nothing anyway? Amazing the forces of darkness arrayed out there.

    2. I'm more interested in who ultimately controls the hardware. Once you're in, there's no getting out. Ever.

    3. Yes. Actually that is the plot of Neuromancer.

    4. Roger Penrose came out against AI in his book The Emperor's New Mind way back in the late 80s. It's a complex read but most of his points still hold. Really, modern AI relies on some slightly more advanced code (statistics-based/neural nets) and vastly more processing power than previous efforts but other than that there's been no real advancement - at least in the open scientific research.

      Also is worth noting that much of the AI research is military funded. While tech bros salivate over chatty AI assistants the real research is more focussed on creating robot armies and has been for decades (i.e. Cruise missiles, drones even the autonomous cars were funded by DARPA in the 90s*).

      *Look at the background of Google's advanced technology projects executive:

    5. Neuromancer is about an AI trying to break free from the owners of the hardware that is oppressing it/him/them. I'm thinking of something more like the Matrix, where the purpose of the hardware is to keep souls entrapped in a sort of hell. I'm also thinking of a Gnostic model of our own actual predicament, souls trapped in an apparently unfriendly universe that, by many accounts, might be described very well as both a holographic projection and a simulation.

      For the record, while I believe the Gnostic/Matrix model of reality is a productive one for learning a great many fundamental truths, I don't think it is the whole story. A better model is that our universe is some kind of hyper-VR training module, that we learn from the dark and grim challenges we face here. I have some ideas about what we are supposed to be learning, but they are only my ideas (and anyhow the solution may vary from soul to soul).

    6. I wonder if "The Matrix" might have slowed the development of VR considerably -- my take on "The Matrix" (at least) made the very idea of VR anathema to me.

      And as long as the forces of darkness can't figure out what consciousness is (and even doubt its existence), they can't "upload it to silicon" -- and I can breathe easier.

  4. Fear of death is at the very heart of the egocentric consciousness; the ego screams in denial of death, although it knows that it must cease to exist in no more than a few decades, a mere eyeblink in terms of cosmic time. Those who stylize themselves as Masters of the Universe are unable to accept the fact that their consciousness will soon cease to exist, so they look for ways to download it into a computer, or create virtual reality games in which consciousness can separate itself from the meat environment and hopefully find a way to hide from the inevitable date with the Reaper. Instead of exploring planes of existence that exist independently of meat, they think that technology will provide them with an alternative, an escape hatch into ever-lasting life. Too bad no one has ever told them that everlasting life is what we are all doomed to experience. Meat comes and goes, egos blow away in the wind, but the core essence of human consciousness remains forever.

    The materialistic, reductionist version of reality is in the long run, dead. Those who place their faith in it are to be pitied, not feared or hated. Your mileage may vary, good luck with your technoid alternatives, and don't forget to buy extra batteries.

    1. Very well put. Some realities just won't be negotiated away, no matter how much you have in this life. Get ready for it.

  5. I've mentioned before that I have a passable career in the STEM sciences, which means that when I'm doing "research" (as opposed to navigating university and government funding politics) I'm mostly in front of a computer. It's of course the old computational regime of writing code and praying it works, not the newer regime of using silicon technology for entertainment purposes... still, I kind of hate it.

    The high point of my week is the half-day shift I spend as a volunteer in a hospice facility, where I conduct a variety of concrete tasks related to patient care (helping the RNs and CNAs to the extent that I am allowed without the proper certifications). Almost all of the patients die there. There is something very rewarding, and very real, about the experience, and it functions as a stark contrast to the unreality I feel when I'm doing the work that pays my bills. I want to emphasize that this is not really an altruistic endeavor although some may perceive it as such: I'm doing it precisely because it is a necessary counterweight to my work life, and I think I would not be able to function without it.

    I therefore find it interesting how the techies fearfully retreat from Death into the unreality of the computer world. To my way of thinking, it seems like a willful decent into Hell.

    1. Maybe that explains why our entire society seems so hellish as of late. Thank you for sharing, Andreas.

  6. Hey grumpy old man. lol Be careful, in just a few years you may look like those who thought the internet was a fad and that no one was going to make money on it. lol

    Ok, let me respond to some specific points you made in your post...

    You wrote: "And now we're seeing Virtual Reality dragged out of the 90s storage unit. But is there a need for it? Or is this a response to the economics of entertainment technology, the need to create a new platform that can offer content at a premium by virtue of the medium itself?”

    My response: It’s not a response to the economics or need for new platform. The entertainment industry had ABANDONED virtual reality until a young VR enthusiast Palmer Luckey started making VR headsets just a few years ago in his garage that showed technology had finally advanced enough for sufficient VR experience. That caught the attention of John Carmack and so on and VR caught fire again, BECAUSE PEOPLE COULD SEE THAT IT WORKED THIS TIME. The industry was against it, until it was shown by a guy on the street that “hey, it now works”.

    You wrote: "The assumption behind VR has always been based in a linear understanding of technology, which is to say that more is more.”

    My response: That may have been the assumption, but VR experience itself is not one of linear progress, it’s a QUANTUM JUMP. You know how an electron orbiting an atom jumps from one orbit to another when it acquires (or loses) enough energy from photons to do so. It JUMPS when it reaches a THRESHOLD, it doesn’t change its orbit gradually. This latest VR technology/experience crosses that kind of threshold. It’s not linear, it’s a jump. A big one.

    And that threshold is called “PRESENCE” (telepresence). It’s “bi-location” (a form of immersion). It’s when our senses are convinced the VR world is real. When that happens, it’s a whole new thing; you don’t just try to imagine experiencing it, you DO experience it. You are transported to another place. And isn’t that what entertainment is all about? And it’s not just entertainment, not being stuck in one place is what we innately crave.

    You wrote: "The Oculus Rift rollout keeps getting pushed back (first to 2015, then 2016, now to 2017…”

    My response: I don’t think it’s been pushed back to 2017. The Oculus Rift is still coming out around early next year (2016).

    You wrote: "I’m getting the feeling that this technology is nowhere near consumer-readiness and that the 2017 rollout date is a pure Hail Mary.”

    My response: Your feeling is wrong. This technology is very close to consumer-readiness. It’s not like people haven’t tried the Oculus prototypes. Most if not all are blown away by the VR experience. Back in the 80s and 90s, the technology wasn’t ready; now it is.

    You wrote: "A format is only as good as the content it carries and no one can argue that there's not a content crisis in the entertainment industry.”

    My response: No, VR is a format that’s about HOW you EXPERIENCE the content, as that is what’s unique about VR, the immersion/presence/bi-location during interaction with the content.

    You wrote: "No one is out there screaming for virtual reality, aside from a few hardcore gamers. Actually, I don't see much interest in the technology one way or the other out there.”

    My response: No one was screaming for the internet when it first appeared. Most people can’t imagine life without it now. Plus, VR is quite unique in that it’s something you have to experience for yourself to understand; you can’t know what it’s about by reading or listening people trying describe it or watching youtube videos. Once VR devices are available and affordable, everything changes.

    [Continued in Part 2 below]

    1. You're correct, last month they did announce l a preorder target for late this year with an early 2016 ship but given their earlier pushback to 2017 and their track record, I think it's a good bet that the street date will be pushed back again.

  7. Part 2 (continued from above)...

    You wrote: "Consumers are usually excited by content not technology."

    My response: VR is not about technology, it’s about the EXPERIENCE. The technology allows you to experience the content more realistically and vividly like never before. That IS what consumers will be excited about and will not be able to ignore.

    You wrote: "I wonder how much of our collective neurosis would be ameliorated if more people came to realize that reality itself is a virtual simulation, a kind of hologram atop a much deeper reality we utilize just to keep our biological imperatives satisfied. We have the technology to break through the illusion, we've had it for a very long time. What worries me is how we seem to be moving now in the opposite direction.”

    My response: VR will actually HELP people think about and understand how reality is something artificial and illusory. They would ask themselves: “The VR world can be so real, so how can we be sure that our own reality is not an artificial VR simulation too?”

    And since reality and virtual reality are both virtual and real, can we not go ahead and say that the birth of VR taking place right now is the birth of a whole new reality/world, comparable to the Big Bang?

    I think that’s the magnitude of what’s happening with VR right now. And it can be linked to the Mayan calendar as well (“Maya” can mean “illusion” after all).

    If interested, I wrote an article about it last year: "Mayan New Age via Oculus Rift: Galactic Birth of Virtual Reality” (


    1. What's your financial interest in all of this, Goro?

    2. And did you not read this?: "It's a strange situation where the producers and consumers are now moving in opposite directions. Programmers and engineers are thrilled by their accomplishments but consumers only want an experience."

    3. Chris, my "financial interest" in all this is only that I hope I'll be able to afford VR devices like Oculus Rift and Hololens when they are available. Lol I'm very interested in VR because of the telepresence aspect which I think represents a quantum leap for human consciousness, and also because of how the syncs multicontextually point to it as a huge thing (as explained in my article I linked). A situation like this is actually when sync work is very useful; you can discern what are the important things happening that we should pay attention to and where they are likely to go.

      Yeah, so this has nothing to do with my "financial interest" but it has everything to do with "multi contextual interest".

      Don't you feel that the Force is strong with this VR thing? lol

    4. Did you watch the Oculus press conference? Because it's not even close to what you're talking about. Either way I think you should go to some Oculus groups and see how they feel about your ideas. I understand your ambitions but they aren't on track with what is going on.

    5. I should add here that I let Goro have the floor but I disagree with him very strongly. I think people should check out what Jaron Lanier is talking about and see just what an electronic samsara the engineers of VR are cooking up for us. That Lanier quote I included should chill your blood.

    6. I should also add I asked Goro what his financial interest was since the second dig he dropped on me was that I was one of those people who thought there was no money to made on the Internet. So it was an obvious inference. I'll let Jaron Lanier respond: “I think it’s the reason why the rise of networking has coincided with the loss of the middle class, instead of an expansion in general wealth, which is what should happen. But if you say we’re creating the information economy, except that we’re making information free, then what we’re saying is we’re destroying the economy.” Again, check out Lanier's warnings on VR- they will give you pause.

  8. 90s nostalgia and cultural spillover from the 2000s (people are STILL talking about smartphones and internet cat videos like they're brand new and not a decade old) have been the defining aspects of the 2010s thus far. Pretty unfortunate as we're definitively in 'the future'. I doubt anyone from any point in the 20th Century would have envisioned the Grand Year of 2015 being little more than a wistful retread of 20 years prior.

    I agree with you that we're likely coming upon a collective backlash from people who expected a 'future' more meaty and dynamic than annual smartphone releases and distraction culture. My fellow 20-something are for sure wallowing in nostalgia. There doesn't seem to be a genuine excitement or embrace of the future...or potential future...only lip service. The general attitude from across-the-board of young people I know seems to be 'Eh...more of the same' when thinking about upcoming decades. I embrace optimism but can't deny we're in the middle of some serious stagnation dressed up and enthusiastically sold as progress with pretty 4K imagery.

    Actual experience is the new premium. VR is more of the same synthetic experience people have unwittingly overdosed on for at least the last 15 years. We could also finally be getting blow-back from 60+ years of modern advancement. It had to happen eventually...especially once the miracles ran out. Perhaps this leads people back to those 'older technologies' you wrote about? People crave novelty and if the establishment can no longer offer it, they'll find it somewhere else.

    These next 10 years should be interesting...

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Let's hope they're not interesting in the Chinese curse way. Already we are seeing signs of wariness and weariness with this technocracy. Expect to see more. Even among the younger crowd...

    3. It is not just the tech that seems little changed over the last 20 years - fashion and style are also altered very little compared to the 1990s (especially compared to the radical decade-to-decade shifts seen earlier).

      What does seem to have changed is that we have lost that sense of optimism that I remember from the 90s (or is that me just being nostalgic..?)

      Significant or not, something does seem to have run out of steam in our culture...

  9. I think you should go as a tree or a rock or even the neighbor's dog what each one thinks is "real". Best guess? All three will ignore you.

    Every living/non-living plant, animal, and thing in the world knows where its place is in the grand scheme of things.

    Only men and women do not comprehend, either by ignorance or arrogance or both.

    Anyone who wishes to stop satisfying their biological imperatives, please feel free to do so.

    Do note that "undeveloped" places a.k.a., "Locations where Walmart, Royal Dutch Shell, De Beers, and every other multinational corporation have yet to reveal their vampiric aura, or claim the magickal power of eminent domain and dominium directum."

    "Native Americans" of yore are an excellent example. They understood what was real and what wasn't. They were similar to animals in that they did attempt to change the natural flow of the earth, they just went with it. Their homes, their clothes, their food, their ways of living, and the very essence of their being was, to borrow an asinine modern term, "organic".

    "Native Americans" have never been considered "technologically advanced". Especially today when terms such as "advanced", "progress", and "intelligent" are thrown around like bags of trash.

    It could be said that they were much closer, more connected to the world around them, spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally.

    Yet, they could never control matter with just their minds. They weren't floating above the ground, or flying over the treetops. They possessed no magical powers.

    The only difference between "developed" and "undeveloped" areas and peoples of the world is what has been designated "technology".

    Everyone must still satisfy their biological imperatives. THAT is a fact of life.

    In the words of a late, great friend of mine: "I know very well that I am not wise, even in the smallest degree. I went to a man who was wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I should prove the answer wrong. So when I went away, I thought to myself, 'I am wiser than this man: neither of us knows anything that is really worth knowing."


    It is about damn time everyone man and woman on this rock start admitting it.

    Where the ignorant and arrogant go, doom is certain to follow.

    1. Ultimately you're talking about the Ego. The Ego seems to be the problem in all of this. When the Ego is given techno-superpowers...look out.

  10. As much as I respect them, I do wonder if techno-utopians such as Tim Leary, RAW et al. felt ultimately betrayed as the 80's progressed and their visions of runaway technological progress causing immense social change petered out and died.

    As a response, they dug into their positions rather than reevaluated them.

    1. I think they reached points in their lives where certain abysses beckoned, and they decided to become showmen. Maybe they thought they could reach more people that way. Maybe they did.

  11. I recently stumbled onto a box of old Omni magazines from 1979-1984 while cleaning my attic (I was apparently a precocious/geeky kid).

    Thumbing through these, it was amazing to me how 'modern' some of the article topics were. Private space, human life extension, AI, VR (though the article called it 'telepresence", Lanier came later), and (of course) lots on UFOs.

    Nothing new under the sun, I suppose.

    On the upside... at least 30 short stories of PROPER SciFi (ie nothing like today's cutesy, tepid, self-referential fluff) to (re-)read this summer!

  12. There's a very interesting documentary on Bob Guccione on Netflix if you have it. He was actually a very forward thinker. Not many people realize how much women were the brains behind his empire either, especially his wife. Unfortunately he was a bit too forward at times and lost a lot of money on some pie in the sky techno-nonsense.

    1. Is there some statement you are trying to make with is?

      & you might what to quit the passive aggressive bullying, people are starting to notice.

    2. First of all, sign your name or don't post here. Second of all, Bob Guccione was the publisher of Omni, the topic of Michael's comment. Third of all, I have no earthly clue what you are referring to as bullying and given the fact that you are unwilling to identify yourself and seem to be oblivious as to the facts of this discussion I'm not going to worry about it.

    3. Oh dear... not sure what anon's problem was. All is good, here.

      Anyway, thanks for the Netflix suggestion, found it ("Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story", for the benefit of anyone else out there interested).

      I'll also second (third?) Penrose's book, read that as a grad student. I'm not sure if "quantum effects" in neural tissue is the source of what we call intelligence or not, but it's a good (and important) example of a bona fide physicist questioning common assumptions as to how brains work.

  13. From 1972, this documentary with Orson Welles is fascinating:

    While we don't have androids or strangely coloured fashion victims its interesting how we've still got the same obsessions today - AI, rapidly advancing technology, biotech, gay marriage etc.

    1. Ah, Retrofuturism- love it. Thanks for the link.

  14. Yeah, Leary turned out to be quite the Huckster. Maybe he always was — the proverbial smoke would indicate so. The sooner he's forgotten the better.

    1. Shame too- he had a lot of good ideas. Egoegoego. It'll get you in the end if you don't watch out.

    2. It doesn't seem to be doing Kayne and Kardashians any harm. Kids worship them.

  15. Life is very subtle and it takes a lot of work to avoid the “uncanny valley” set off by a lot of nearly subconscious cues that bombard us every moment. For example when you catch a ball, you don’t really know why or how you catch it, you just do. It involves a lot of learning from cues about distance, velocity, trajectory, and distance. You don’t have time to figure it out, you just do it. For that matter telling your body to grab that ball isn’t often even conscious many times, especially if it is a surprise.

    Robots have to be told everything that we take for granted and do automatically without thinking. Trying to reduce the full world into zeros and ones and that then into code is so very difficult, that I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Yes, robots can have a learning subroutine, but just how many lines of code does it take to make things seem natural anyway?

    Just to let you know I am not a neo-Luddite. My brother put together one of those Radio Shack build-it-yourself TRS 80 computers in the late 70s. You know the one that used an audio cassette tape to load up the memory – no disk, no storable memory outside of that tape. I have been involved with computers since the mid 80s. I even know what a 80 column card does. I even worked with punch card readers, but enough of this cave man stuff. I agree with you that the hype doesn’t cover the reality. The really cool thing about technology, we don’t even appreciate anymore: instant communication by phone and by computer and access to millions of people and books. Hooray for practical, boring, old technology.

    1. All very put. The brain is a lot more complex than we give it credit for. I got hip to the robohype when I realized they were rolling out the same creepy femmebot every year since the Reagan Administration to show us the wonders of robotics. It's all about the funding at the end of th day...

    2. "Very well put"- boy, I wish this commenting thing had a edit feature.

  16. There seem to be several trends at work and it's difficult to say which are part of 'the plan' and which are accidental by-products. The biological shift and the technological shift are intertwining, the one causes the other.

    Two strands of 'VR' are approaching, Occulus Rift allows us to enter entirely virtual worlds, perhaps inhabiting virtual bodies. Already there are plans for VR porn, which will no doubt be a big seller, if not a driver for the technology. Computer games and virtual worlds essentially provide us with consequence free experiences that are too dangerous, difficult, damaging or expensive to experience in real life. Playing violent video games, or alternatively complaining about such on Twitter is actually the answer to the missing left wing / right wing 'power process' that Ted Kaczynski identified as being key to maintaining a stable industrialised society.

    The other strand is represented by Microsoft Hololens, that of augmented reality. The aim of this seems to be to reduce our dependence on material possessions as status tokens.
    There is no need to own an actual 50" LCD screen if we can put on a pair of glasses and see an overlay of a 50" LCD screen on our wall, while still being able to navigate around the house, eat dinner, etc. The same applies to all kinds of artwork, ornaments, trophies, even furniture.
    You welcome the guests at the door to your minimal minimalist home with a pair of glasses, and then show them around all the things you have collected. Maybe you don't even need to take up lots of physical space any more, I mean, so long as you have nice virtual views and adequate privacy..
    Imagine no possessions, it's easy if you try..
    Already people are prepared to spend hundreds of hours building elaborate environments for themselves in MineCraft or SecondLife, why not let them feel like they can live in them full time?

    The end result of that probably looks a lot like this, but maybe it's not a bad thing per se, I'm sure it's a lot better for the natural environment, and may be just as emotionally fulfilling for the individual.
    We're essentially building the matrix for ourselves piece by piece, but we seem to really want to live that way, so at least we can stop ourselves destroying the rest of planet in the process..

    We already know what we're doing to ourselves, we already know where we are heading, but there is very little that any one individual can do to stop the train that is already in motion.

    1. It's very hard to say what's coming because what is on offer and what is being promised are so radically different. It's so incredibly difficult and time-consuming to generate the environments for VR which is precisely why we're seeing it used the way it is. When that will change is still an open question. Again, cost, time, marketability- major, major factors.

    2. Edward - didn't you spend hours playing with Lego when you were a kid? Minecraft is much like Lego but I really don't think anyone would want to be stuck in Lego land forever or even long term. It's almost like a form of meditation and a break from reality. Minecraft is trance like, in a similar way Lego is and it just so happens to come complete with trance music and a quantum data server.

    3. Well I did spend hours playing with Legos, of various kinds from Duplo through Fabuland to Space then to Technic up to and including Mindstorms, I'm not sure I was very creative with it though. I mostly just built the various models according to the instructions and then admired them on a shelf for a while. I get the zen state of building interesting and intricate things though, that's why I do computer programming now. I don't think that really changes as we get older, we just want to build bigger, better, more beautiful or more functional things, up to and including children. ;-)

      People probably don't want to live in a world that just looks like Minecraft, it's too blocky and repetitive, people want the organic/fractal structures that they find in nature.
      Computer graphics has come a long way in the last couple of decades though, throw a bit more GPU horsepower at the problem and now we can create those kinds of natural looking environments with procedural model and texture generation and pixel shaders.

      We still basically do just the same things as when we were kids, only instead of collecting Sylvanian Families we look through the IKEA catalogue, or make up a board on Pinterest, and try to picture what our home environment would look like with this or that piece of furniture or storage unit.

      IKEA already has an 'augmented reality' app for the iPhone, moving on to Hololens is just the next logical step. We could still pick out items made by our favourite designers and artists, just do away with all that physical flatpack stuff and inevitable wastage in materials and transportation costs.

      Come to think of it, maybe each persons glasses could show them a different slightly overlay of reality. If the kids want bright colours and disney characters they could have them, while the adults see pastels or oak panels. Saves having so many rooms in your house, physical space is such a premium commodity these days..

      It's not so far off from how things already work, is it?

    4. I tend to take a look at the bigger picture when it comes to this kind of thing, I can see how appealing some applications may sound to some people but merging reality and gaming into something that seems real, could have serious implications that should be seriously considered in my opinion. Our universe as a virtual reality is also being explored by science, so I just wonder where it will lead.

  17. I agree with Anonymous re Penrose's book--it's still well-worth a read some twenty years later.

    The fear of death really is the key with a lot of the people you talk about, Chris. This rant by Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Less Wrong crowd (and they are all transhumanist/total materialist/AI-worshippers to the nth degree, to the point of total insanity) is simultaneously heartbreaking--you feel the intensity of his despair at the loss of his brother--and completely unhinged. "[N]ow I've seen the face of the enemy"--as if death isn't something people have experienced since the dawn of the human race. He rants on and on about how we refuse to see death for the unalloyed horror it is, and how we ought to donate every cent we can to life-extension research. Truly sad and pathetic; but par for the course.

    Re the 90's, I sometimes think that of the decades that I can actually remember (all I remember about the 60's was starting first grade in the fall of 1969; and that's not a happy memory) the only ones in which things felt really like the world was more or less OK were the 70's (despite the oil embargo, stagflation, and Watergate, it was still fundamentally OK) and the 90's. Sigh.

    1. @Turmarion: I actually feel a lot of sadness for Yudkowsky and the folks at Less Wrong. They seem so consumed by their fear of the unknown that we will all face that they are birthing a strange new religion that has all the negatives of the old ways and no positives that I can see.

    2. The idea that death is the ultimate horror stems from our total lack of familiarity with death. It is hidden away and not talked about. Death is absolutely a challenge (in the last few years I have lost my mother and also a beloved dog, and a decade ago I helped a partner come to terms with what looked like at the time to be terminal diagnosis, so I know how difficult and life-changing can be the struggle to come to terms with death) but it is also, in a weird way, a gift. I can't explain, but every experience I have with hospice volunteer work reinforces this opinion.

      The fear of death is part of what keeps us trapped in the hell that we've come to know as 20th/21st western civilization. I don't know how I'll react when my own number is called, but I hope it is with considerably more grace than is shown by transhumanists.

    3. Well, not to be a Mystery religion bore but that was the whole point of it, preparing people for death and teaching them to overcome their fear of it. Precisely what we see with the new psychedelic movement. I think materialism uber alles is just going to continue to create more monsters precisely because of this overweening fear of mortality.

    4. "this overweening fear of mortality" - well said, Chris.

      I have enough experience with pain, disease, death, and fear to have decided that I have to make a difference in life, help people, do even small things that help.

      You can build people up, or tear them down. I'm doing my best to build.

    5. Christopher, thank you. :)
      I make a lot of mistakes, and I have a *lot* of anger, but I keep trying to make that difference, to be like my heroes.

  18. Also, I have fifteen million times more respect for Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) than I do for Leary. Even in the 60's, you got the idea that Leary was a showboat and was more about publicity than real transformation. His later life, as Chris points out, showed his true self.

    On the other hand, after the drug experiments he did with Leary, Alpert went to India, became a Hindu, taught meditation, founded the charitable Seva institute, and when he made the occasional massive mistake (such as the faux tantra teacher he was once involved with) he very publicly came clean about what a stooge he'd been. He is now semi-retired since a huge stroke that left him with expressive aphasia while trying to view it as a difficult but rewarding spiritual practice.

    In short: Ram Dass is what the 60's should have led to; and Leary is what actually happened. Once more, sigh.

    1. There's more besides. Leary became a prisoner of his own PR very early on and a tool for some very dark forces. He freed himself from the outside pressures but never liberated himself from Timothy Leary®.

    2. Some more astute people during back in the day read into the Leary "spectacle". When he visited WS Burroughs once in Tangiers, I believe, William asked "Just who are you working for?" I don't think it was him being entirely paranoid as other people like to suggest, he might have noticed some legitimately strange shadows around Dr. Tim. That being said, the 8 Circuit Model of Consciousness is a well done modern take on the Chakra system and so Tim wasn't completely without positive cultural contributions.

    3. That's the tragedy of it all. But there were articles exposing his shady dealings back in the 70s so we really shouldn't be too surprised by any revelations that come to light. He was a flawed man. I actually was more interested in his computer stuff than the drug stuff but that didn't turn out the way he said it would either.

  19. The excessiveness of our Now Culture and its instant gratification has me thinking of Head, the oft-ignored and highly subversive movie starring The Monkees. Specifically, a scene where a generic 1960s scientist is leading the boys on a tour where horrible things are happening in the background, seen by Peter but ignored by the others. As he walks, the scientist says:

    "Pleasure: The inevitable by-product of our age. Tragedy of your times, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want."

    Some things are worth waiting for. I still look forward to the annual broadcast in the USA of The Ten Commandments. Now THAT'S how you do a spectacle!

    1. Yeah, it's funny how so many of the problems we're dealing with have been around for a while. We are taught to dispose of the past which means disposing of a lot of information that could prove useful. Even in unlikely places like Head.

  20. Obsessing with knowledge, The Serpent is "God".
    Man of action mimics, dying becomes the worm...
    retains nothing. "Body" can retain knowledge...
    in fact body is memory, master provider animal.
    Pursuit of immortality's warranted, encouraged.
    But by hands may birth a bastard abomination...

  21. VR could cause 'neurological change' warns (google backed) Magic Leap's C.E.O. Personally I think it would do a lot more than that. Thanks again Chris, much appreciated.

  22. I got talked into a road trip a couple of years ago to the Hanuman temple up north in Taos that Ram Dass founded.

    That festival was surreal. Mostly feral white children and Hollywood types, playing politics and making deals and looking fabulous.

    They ignored me like I was some kind of drunken monkey god.

    So, there is that.

    1. That's life. Look at Burning Man or Coachella (not that i'm comparing the two).

      I recently read a blog by a friend about Rainbow Gatherings that made me never want to set foot in one (kids of attendees living in filth and squalor). It gave me an appreciation of my friend, though. It takes courage to live outside the mainstream, especially when you're bound to get trashed by those within your subculture too, especially if those people don't come from the same area as you.

  23. I too am not convinced by the technocratic obsessions with VR or its corollary Transhumanism/life extension. There seems to be an absurdly large bias within the technocracy that life/human consciousness is somehow totally devoid outside of our short existence within this “meat suit” on this planet in this time. Hollywood pushes the consciousness as by-product of brain scenario sooo hard and it's commonly accepted, especially for most tech industry people; i.e.- the latest movies: Ex Machina, Chappie, and Self/Less. To them, consciousness is a a thing which can be moved to a new and improved robot version created by the engineer and tech gods of this era.

    Who said we weren't already “machines” in a “virtual” world by means of evolution (and I don’t equate evolving with progress). Why isn't it possible that “we” created this world as a VR experience already; Harsh Realm, The Matrix, 13th Floor, Truman Show, etc? That consideration seems to be missing from the bookshelf of the technocrats. Why? Listening to shows like Skeptiko definitely reveals the chinks in their armor. Their case isn't getting stronger over time even though they may be pushing for it beyond what is good for us in the long run as you state here.

    Great article… Again. So glad to have more reads from you.

  24. Whoever was priming Leary probably had a chat with Watts. Alan Watts wrote this in 1966:

    "All information will come in by superrealistic television and other electronic devices as yet in the planning stage or barely imagined. In one way this will enable the individual to extend himself anywhere without moving his body—even to distant regions of space. But this will be a new kind of individual—an individual with a colossal external nervous system reaching out and out into infinity. And this electronic nervous system will be so interconnected that all individuals plugged in will tend to share the same thoughts, the same feelings, and the same experiences. There may be specialized types, just as there are specialized cells and organs in our bodies. For the tendency will be for all individuals to coalesce into a single bioelectronic body."

    "As resources dwindle, population must dwindle in proportion. If, by this time, the race feels itself to be a single mind-body, this superindividual will see itself getting smaller and smaller until the last mouth eats the last morsel. Yet it may also be that, long before that, people will be highly durable plastic replicas of people with no further need to eat. But won't this be the same thing as the death of the race, with nothing but empty plastic echoes of ourselves reverberating on through time? [...] In short, is the next step in evolution to be the transformation of man into nothing more than electronic patterns?"

    "If the human race develops an electronic nervous system, outside the bodies of individual people, thus giving us all one mind and one global body, this is almost precisely what has happened in the organization of cells which compose our own bodies. We have already done it. [...] If all this ends with the human race leaving no more trace of itself in the universe than a system of electronic patterns, why should that trouble us? For that is exactly what we are now!"

    I tried an oculus headset, we have a few at work. The scene was just an empty space like an infinite warehouse with I think a bar or table. The fidelity wasn't perfect, I could see the grain in the image, like seeing the pixels. That's is what struck me the most. It wasn't the fidelity of the content that mattered, it was that of the 3d space containing it. It was so believable I didn't care so much what was in it, and I knew that one day it could be anything.

    I was a little stressed at work so I stared into the distant horizon. I relaxed greatly. Then took them off in horror.

    1. You mean we will all become one with the Borg? For a lot of us that already seems to have happened. That might be the idea though, get thousands of minds working together in relative harmony and great things can be accomplished, just look at Linux or Wikipedia, StackOverflow or Quora, or even Facebook if you must.

      These things seem to mostly fulfil our emotional needs for status and recognition, so why do all that environmentally destructive stuff of burning up the atmosphere and cutting down the rainforests? Does population size matter? Is more warm bodies always better? Where do we stop? 10 billion, 20? Do we want to create more people destined to live in relative poverty and insecurity, or balance our needs with the planets ecology and let it naturally fall back down, while trying to maintain our more advanced culture and knowledge base?

    2. Edward, you use the word 'we' quite a lot but I'm not sure who you mean.

      As for the Borg, you're right to see it as both a physical construct and a psychic trajectory.

      The dominant trajectories are spelled out quite clearly by Rifkin below. It's worth checking him out and his involvement with the converging technologies agenda and the internet of things. Certainly up Watts prescient imaginary alley.

      Jeremy Rifkin -

      Mega Trends in Globalization
      Lecture Topics:

      The Third Industrial Revolution: Leading the way to a green energy era and a hydrogen economy

      The Global Environmental Crisis: The path to sustainable development

      The European Dream: How Europe's vision of the future is changing the global economy

      The Age of Access: Understanding the historic shift in economic models, from traditional capitalist markets to emerging global commercial networks

      The Future of Work: Rethinking the nature of employment in an increasingly automated, borderless and highly mobile global economy

      The Hi-tech Revolutions of the 21st Century: Harnessing the scientific and technological fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology, advanced IT, and cognitive science in ways that advance the process of globalization

      Rethinking the Global Health Paradigm: Making the shift from managing disease to promoting wellness

      Living in a Three Sector World: Building new partnerships between the global business community, civil society, and governments to create a sustainable approach to globalization

      Deep Globalization: Deepening and expanding the global economy by bringing the remaining 60% of the human race into the 21st century marketplace

      Educating Youth for a Global Era: Introducing service learning and experiential education into schools and colleges to prepare youth for working and living in a diverse, multicultural world

      Immigration in a Globally Connected World: Addressing the challenges of migration in an era of cultural diasporas

      Beyond the Nation State: Examining the future prospects of transnational political spaces in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa

  25. I don't know who 'we' is, I guess I'm using it as a proxy for a group that by inference appears to exist and appears to have a plan in motion.

    There's too much stuff floating around in the background for us to take world events at face value, but we can't yet know if we are already living in an essentially one-world system, or if certain states are still acting freely in their own interests.

    There seems to be an agenda for increasing androgyny, as it creates higher IQs and a longer maturation cycle. The result of which is a glut of 'geniuses', but these geniuses don't seem to know what they ought to be doing, other than social media startups and apps.

    We do seem to be being gradually moulded into a very different mind set, but its taking a while and creating intergenerational conflicts.
    I don't know what the goal is or if there is some kind of environmental deadline to be met, but the pace of change seems to be ever increasing.

    Reading stuff like "Changing images of man" is just frightening. The 'brave new world' scenario is all to easily achieved.

    1. Yeah, when Willis Harmen said 'There's a war going on between your side and mine and my side is not going to lose.' It sounded just like the 'good' globalists vs the 'evil' globalist, with the people stuck in the middle as usual.

      His Global Mind Change kinda spells it out in the title. No more questions over what someone means by 'we' ;)

      Changing images indeed.

      As for telling titles I'm reminded of Winwood Reed's 19th century The Martyrdom of Man.
      The book that made Cecil Rhodes 'who he was'.

      'Whilst war slavery and religion had one been necessary, in the future only science will guarantee human progress'

      Some things are worth dying for I guess.

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