Monday, January 09, 2017

Virtual Reality: The Future is Not a Straight Line

Since Darwin, the ruling class of the West has clung on to a new myth to replace traditional Christianity; the myth of linear progress.

History was rewritten, not as a series of events revealing an omnipotent god playing out his master plan, but as the story of the genius of Nature, whose mechanistic processes evolved over millions of years of trial and error and conspired to produce a master class of priest-kings, whose church was the Cathedral of Science.

A vast and impossibly well-funded infrastructure spread out across the entire world, preaching this new gospel, promising that perpetual scientific and technological progress was not only inevitable, it was our birthright. Or more accurately, the birthright of those who were lucky enough to be one of the anointed, who the reliably-invidious Richard Dawkins calls the "Brights."

The system has been radically weighted in favor of the new episcopacy, and any challenge to its full-spectrum dominance has been effectively starved-out and silenced. Most people seemed to be OK with all this, since up until very recently they bought into the hype that the rising tide would lift all boats, that all that gravy just had to trickle down to everyone else's plate, that the ruling class really did have their best interests at heart, all evidence to the contrary.

And they believed that scientific progress was indeed running on a straight line, on an ever-upward arc, forever and ever, amen

But have we in fact sacrificed too much when we offered up our spiritual lives to the tophets of Technology?

There has to be another way.

People are finally waking up to the fact that Silicon Valley's primary function- if not its actual mission statement-  is eliminating jobs and destroying communities.

Waking up to the fact the most scientifically-advanced cultures have the most catastrophic collapses in birthrates and family formations, that the witches' brew of plastics, chemicals and toxins cooked up in industrial laboratories is very possibly doing irreparable damage to the environment and to the human genome itself.

And where we will go to escape it?

The promise of space exploration is running into the brick wall of the incompatibility of the human body with the rigors of space. And the other frontier science promised- the virtual frontier- is turning out to be no frontier at all. Just as I've been saying all along.

From the New York Times:
SEATTLE — For a technology to crack the mainstream, there is an unspoken understanding: It shouldn’t make the people who use it want to throw up. 
And yet there was a reminder, at last week’s International CES trade show in Las Vegas, of how far virtual reality has to go until everyone is ready to fasten 3-D goggles to their faces. At a news conference, Intel, the chip maker, provided virtual reality headsets to about 250 attendees so they could watch a 3-D video from the perspective of sky divers hurtling out of a helicopter in wingsuits. 
Intel also passed out motion sickness bags to everyone, in case anybody felt inclined to vomit, an unfortunate side effect of turbulent virtual reality experiences for some people. 
Laura Anderson, an Intel spokeswoman, said the company had provided the bags “out of an abundance of caution and to be tongue in cheek about our immersive experience.” No one used the bags, she said. 
It is time for a reality check for virtual reality, one of the most hyped technologies of last year. Sales of the most capable headsets have been sluggish by most estimates, held back by high costs, a lack of must-have content, and the complexity and awkwardness of the products. Less expensive mobile headsets that use smartphones as their screens are selling better, but are far more limited in what they can do.
VR sickness is a nut that has yet to be cracked. And that's not even counting the other discomforts users report from the experience, such as ergonomic problems with the handsets. 

So let's be clear about what we're talking about here: almost 30 years after this technology was first introduced it's still not ready for the prime time. Compare this to every other medium you can name: radio, phonographs, TV, computers. Would any of them have survived with VR's failure rate?

And yet Valley pashas just won't let go of the dream:

“This is going to be a long slog, as the technology continues to improve, more content becomes available and awareness increases,” said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Jackdaw Research. 
Virtual reality now appears to be headed for a phase in the evolution of new technologies known as the “trough of disillusionment,” said Sunny Dhillon, a venture capitalist at Signia Venture Partners, which has invested in virtual reality start-ups. According to the technology research firm Gartner, this stage of the hype cycle for new technologies comes after a period of inflated expectations, but before a phase in which their benefits become commonly accepted.
The problem isn't just the technology. Or maybe in a way it is- the technology just doesn't seem to inspire anyone to produce anything exciting for it:
Virtually boring: VR really disappoints at CES this year 
Call it a virtual disappointment. Or virtually unsurprising. I'll just say I was virtually underwhelmed. 
Whatever pun you choose, the virtual reality industry has some explaining to do after this year's Consumer Electronics Show, during which the biggest product announcements can largely be categorized as "more of the same." 
Even Intel, the world's largest chipmaker, which is developing its own VR headset, gave a presentation using nearly year-old devices from Facebook's Oculus. 
If you relied on CES to show you the latest in technology, VR was pretty much a no-show. 
"It is concerning that people haven't invented as much cool things to do with VR," said Gartner analyst Brian Blau, on the sidelines of CES next to people checking out gadgets like smart locks with fingerprint sensors and this year's reimagining of the multifunction remote control, which looked suspiciously similar to last year's version. 
Maybe the problem is that we've been gadgeted to our natural limits. Maybe the answer isn't a new killer app or another electro-toy but a return to the things that made people happy and fulfilled for millennia.

Maybe that means rebuilding community and finding another purpose for life other than passive consumerism. Maybe that means learning how to hack our own operating systems once and for all and seeing just how many realities we can access without some silly goggles.

I don't know if you notice but I have a saying in the right hand column of the blog here. It's from the Greek philosopher Strabo and it goes something like this:

"Human beings then act most like the gods when they are doing good to others, yet one might better say, when they are happy; and such happiness consists of rejoicing, celebrating festivals, pursuing philosophy, and engaging in music."  
I was thinking about this quote because I've been watching a lot of documentaries on cults lately. Cults are a fascination of mine, from the ancient Mystery cults to the more modern cults that welled up in the wreckage of the Aquarian Age.

Some of these cults were truly odious things, run by sociopaths and sexual predators. Others have evolved out of pretty dodgy origins and become reasonably decent support systems for people in need.

Cults all seemed to run into the same problem; they could never work their way around the letdown that came after the honeymoon period, the crash after the high. This is remarkably similar to the pattern that drug addicts face- or tech addicts for that matter.

I think VR sickness is a blessing to humanity in this regard because as Jaron Lanier and others have said, the potential for abuse with this technology is immense.

Yet somehow the Mystery cults were able to overcome this pattern and stuck around for a very, very long time. This is why I find them so interesting. They obviously offered a quality product to their customers, a worthwhile experience that kept people coming back for more. The nascent ayahuasca movement seems to be the closest analog we have today, but I don't see the same cultural content at work. Yet.

Another thing that fascinates me in particular is how people cope after leaving certain cults. They go from an environment of belonging and purpose to the dead, empty, meaningless world of modern, secular, technocratic society, in which people are atomized by corporations and governments into easily-manageable, isolated units. Is an iPhone really just compensation for the death of your life's mission?

There has to be another way.