The old men in Beijing, terrified of any challenge to their authority and the possibility of instability, had made all these things impossible. To be a citizen of China was to be constantly reminded of the stark reality of the utter powerlessness of the individual living in a modern, centralized, technocratic state.
—Ken Liu, Byzantine Empathy
Ken Liu in his short story of the near future in which VR and the advanced blockchain technologies play a major part he will ask a simple question: “And wasn’t feeling the entire point of being human?” This sense of past tense as if it had already always been too late to ask such questions, as if we were already or had already past beyond such questions of feeling… or, being human.
In the story a young woman is thrown into the midst of a onlife real time adventure through the use of VR technologies that guide her into the immersive telecosm of civil war. As she experiences the real time gunshots, blood, flesh torn, and the trampling of a young girl she feels disgust and rips the head set from her head. Her first thoughts after returning to her room surrounded by the Shanghai bustle of city life just outside her cell she thinks:
A VR rig was the ultimate empathy machine. How could she truly say she had walked in their shoes without suffering as they did?
The disconnect between one’s affective life, one’s ethical and social/political judgements, and the technological wonders of augmented reality that have brought such triggering feelings to the surface offer her no answers. As she contemplates this she is reminded that it was probably best that she had not spent the extra money for the “olfactory attachment” which would afforded her an even more viral and immediate sense-truth of the VR situation. As she describes it: “The coppery odor of blood, mixed with the fragrance of gunpowder, would have undone her before the end. Smells probed into the deepest part of your brain and stirred up the rawest emotions, like the blade of a hoe breaking up the numbed clods of modernity to reveal the wriggling pink flesh of wounded earthworms.”
This notion that in the near future synthetic sensations will replace one’s authentic life is at the heart of such stories. As we, our children, and our children’s children drift farther and farther from the natural worlds of our ancestral connection to earth what will transpire? As we become immersed in augmented and synthetic realities that merge our sensorium with artificial sensations that for all intents and purposes become our surround, our world, will we even know anymore what it meant to live a natural life without the technological? Or, was this, too, always already a lie we loved to tell ourselves? Were we possibly already living in artificial and augmented worlds from the beginning in which technologies we created in reciprocal remade us in their image? Have we not lived in an oscillating and dialectical world of technological interactions in which neither technology nor the human were autonomous from each other but were always part of a mediated and augmented whole? Have we not been technological and artificial creatures all along?
Eventually she forgets this dilemma and shifts her attention from the war torn streets of Mynamar’s civil war and wipes the memory from her mind, showering and drying her head then returning to her day’s occupation:
She wrapped a towel around herself, padded into her room, and sat down in front of her computer screen. She tapped on the keyboard, trying to distract herself with updates on her mining progress.
She describes the sideline activity of a bitcoin miner as an adventure of another type,
The array of custom-made ASICs in the humming rack along the wall was devoted to one thing: solving cryptographic puzzles. She and other miners around the world used their specialized equipment to discover the nuggets made of special numbers that maintained the integrity of several cryptocurrencies. Although she had a day job as a financial services programmer, this work was where she really felt alive.
The sense of power it gave her – or, it’s illusion, came from being a “part of a global community in rebellion against authority in all its forms: authoritarian governments, democratic-mob statism, central banks that manipulated inflation and value by fiat. It was the closest she could come to being the activist she really yearned to be. Here, only math mattered, and the logic of number theory and elegant programming formed an unbreakable code of trust.” This sense of being a libertarian, of escaping the control worlds of government and its legal nets and enforcers through the power of math, numeracy, and the dark and impenetrable secrecy of code is what drove her and thrilled her. 1
Augemented Reality (AR)
What’s more interesting is Liu’s use of two of the current technologies that seem to be shifting the landscape of the new economy, one that that may break the necks of Silicon Valley Moghuls and the centralized Big Data worlds of social control they represent. AR or Augmented Reality systems such as Oculus Rift are beginning to break down the barrier between VR and our imaginal worlds, allowing users to enter and feel as if they are physically and mentally within the worlds they share on a virtual immanent plane of pure mathematical and calculable action. At the moment such systems are cumbersome and clunky wraparound headgear and bodily supplements, but in the future such technologies will migrate into our flesh ubiquitous and invisible becoming and replacing our natural interfaces with the world and ourselves with artificial and seamless systems. Speaking of the early stages and commercial uses of such technologies one author tells us: “In time, Augmented Reality will integrate with body sensors to monitor our temperature, oxygen level, glucose level, heartrate, EEG, and other important parameters. We will in effect be wearing the equivalent of the tricorder.”2
Up till now the computer revolution has dealt with the 2D worlds of flat surface PC’s, Mobiles, and other surface technologies that are still bound to a separation of user and technology, the promise of AR is to fold the user into the technological environment making the world of artificial numbers (0’s and 1’s) merge with the natural environments around us:
With an augmented reality system, we become part of the computer environment, rather than just an external, detached observer with limited interaction. Some commentators have said we will become the interface. This represents a revolution in computer interfaces and interaction. And because it’s a revolution all the nuances and opportunities are not yet understood, nor will they be for a long time as developers and users experiment with this new way of communicating with a computer. (ibid. 2)
If Derrida and Stiegler are correct in their thesis of originary technicity: the notion that pre-hominids developed tools (technics and technology) that in turn and in a reciprocal recursion re-invented the human – both mentally and physically, then what will such immersive technologies that takeover our natural environments and merge our computer based artificial systems and natural flesh and blood lives do? This notion of stepping through the screen (so to speak), or allowing the Big Data information systems to merge with us and our environments in a seamless unified market of social control seems dubious at best. And, yet, as we become more and more dependent on suggestions, the search and capture algorithms that offer us both technocratic freedom and control, that deliver us both work and play, deciding for us the best paths forward, bringing the worlds of immersive data and information to bare on our outward onlife worlds will we even know this is not natural anymore? As our children and their children grow up in such worlds will they not assume this is natural?
If truth be told we are witnessing an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction. When the migration is complete, we shall increasingly feel deprived, excluded, handicapped, or impoverished to the point of paralysis and psychological trauma whenever we are disconnected from the infosphere, like fish out of water. One day, being an inforg will be so natural that any disruption in our normal flow of information will make us sick.3
In Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge (who first coined the notion of the Singulartiy) wrote a story about augmented reality and its moral implications and consequences. In Vinge’s book, the concept of security in such an increasingly digital/virtual world with ubiquitous computing is imagined. He explores the implications of rapid technological change that empowers both the disgruntled individuals who would threaten to disrupt society and those that would seek to stop them, and the implications for the age-old “who watches the watchers” issue at the interplay between surveillance (oversight) and sousveillance (undersight). 4
This need for security and trust is at the heart of the blockchain revolution and its attendant technologies (Cryptocurrencies, smart contracts, digital wallets, etc.). As a collaborative technology Blockchain – as one journalist put it: “puts the power of verification in the hands of those who use it. It goes further than that… Blockchain is virtually impossible to hack.”5 One imagines the use of blockchain to secure the VR worlds of shared environments in which users will become a part of a participatory market using these immersive and secure systems. And, yet, we should not stop there, with such technologies we should question the legal and cultural ramifications which are undermining age old notions of what it means to be human, what a natural world and life are, and whether this will not only upset the balance of traditional values but do away with them altogether. As one recent article suggests: “Cultural controversies are often struggles for control and a sense of ownership – sometimes of physical sites or artifacts, but often of subtler trappings of identity. Technology has frequently brought with it the end of traditional ways of life. In augmented reality all three come together: the use of connected technologies to blend the physical and digital worlds in ways still weakly understood.”
In my own mind I imagine the technocratic City-States of the future – New York, Singapore, Shanghai, etc. – will be the enclosures of a post-human blend of technology, security, and AR/Blockchain driven marketworlds in which social control and security will be at a premium, sites where the elite and rich of the future globalist hierarchy will live amidst strange dreams while the rest of us are carefully restricted to the environs of depleted and decaying suburbs, slaves of another sort…
The search for an optimal state form continues into the information age—and it should logically be called the “Info-State.” The info-state is an evolution and modification of these earlier models. Whereas Ohmae’s model operated on just-in-time cycles, like Japanese corporations, and Rosecrance’s was disaggregated like a laptop manufacturing supply chain, 21st century info-states don’t fully trust the invisible hand of the free market. Instead the public and private sectors join forces to develop strategic economic master plans to maintain their edge. Switzerland and Singapore are geographically small, but their ability to concentrate and harness flows of money, goods, resources, technology, information and talent makes them gravitationally large. Their economic geography matters as much as their political geography: Indeed, they define their geography by their connectivity rather than just their territory; their supply chains are as important to their map as their location. At the same time, while they are the archetype of open economies, they also have fortress-like elements, always vigilant to control migration and filter out financial contagion, cyber-hackers and terrorists.6
As Parag Khanna puts it Info-states such as Switzerland and Singapore are also the places where we can witness the best efforts at direct technocracy. Rather than governing by staggered electoral mandates alone, they also practice real-time consultation with citizens through plebiscites and petitions, surveys and public workshops. The info-state is thus a postmodern democracy (or “post-democracy”) that combines popular priorities with technocratic management. Experiments in direct technocracy are already visible around the world from Estonia and Israel to the UAE and Rwanda to India and China—across both democracies and non-democracies. Info-state governments therefore don’t toe one agenda; their mandate is to always improve in all areas—no excuses. Their only ideology is pragmatism. (Khanna, 14)
Is technocracy the new progressivism? Pragmatism married to technology in an ever accelerating movement of social and technological progress? For Khanna the mandate for an Infostate is simple:
As with natural selection, governance models evolve over time through adaptation, modification, and imitation. The more the world becomes connected and complex, devolved and data-saturated, the more the info-state model will rise in status. Global political discourse is shifting into a post-ideological terrain where performance—based on citizen satisfaction and international benchmarks—is the arbiter of success. All societies want a balance of prosperity and livability, openness and protection, effective governance and citizen voice, individualism and cohesion, free choice and social welfare. (Khanna, 14)
In a world where transactions are secured by the blockchain and the marketplace is opened up to the infosphere of Augemented Reality what could go wrong? Extrapolating from the present to the near future, trends point toward the possibility of creating distributed experience machines, comprised of interconnected sensor networks and big-data-driven automation of socio-technical systems around, about, on, and in human beings. In the final iteration, the distributed experience machine would be ubiquitous and all-encompassing. In this imagined future, our entire environment would be a host of interconnected experience machines… the Infosphere a holodeck immersion experience built out of Big Data, controlled by the scripts of AI driven suggestions, and born of elite corporations whose only goal is to capture our attention, desires, and pocket books.7
- I don’t want to spoil the story for you any further, which you can enjoy on Breaker: https://breakermag.com/kchain-science-fiction-premiere-byzantine-empathy/
- Peddie, Jon. Augmented Reality: Where We Will Live. Springer; 1st ed. 2017 edition (April 19, 2017)
- Floridi, Luciano. The Ethics of Information (pp. 16-17). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
- Vinge, Vernor. Rainbows End: A Novel with One Foot in the Future. Tor Science Fiction; First edition (April 3, 2007)
- Reed, Jeff. Blockchain: The Essential Guide to Understanding the Blockchain Revolution (Blockchain Technology, Fintech, Investing in Ethereum, Smart Contracts) (p. 4).
- Khanna, Parag. Technocracy in America: Rise of the Info-State (pp. 13-14). CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Kindle Edition.
- Brett Frischmann; Evan Selinger. Re-Engineering Humanity (Kindle Locations 381-384). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.