Sunday, March 31, 2024

#91 / The Authentic Ecstasy Of The Ordinary

Jaron Zepel Lanier (born May 3, 1960) is an American computer scientist, visual artist, computer philosophy writer, technologist, futurist, and composer of contemporary classical music. Considered a founder of the field of virtual reality, Lanier and Thomas G. Zimmerman left Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research, Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and wired gloves. In the late 1990s, Lanier worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s, he was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities. In 2006 he began to work at Microsoft, and from 2009 has worked at Microsoft Research as an Interdisciplinary Scientist...  
In 2005, Foreign Policy named Lanier as one of the top 100 Public Intellectuals. In 2010, Lanier was named to the TIME 100 list of most influential people. In 2014, Prospect named Lanier one of the top 50 World Thinkers. In 2018, Wired named Lanier one of the top 25 most influential people over the last 25 years of technological history.

I am providing a picture of Lanier, below. I have seen him around Santa Cruz, California on at least a couple of occasions - at a performance by the Santa Cruz Baroque Festival, for instance - so keep your eyes peeled. As you can tell from the information provided by Wikipedia, what Lanier has to say about "technology" is worth taking seriously. 

Recently, Lanier wrote an article in The New Yorker in which he talked about "technology," and specifically about so-called "Virtual Reality," or "Mixed Reality," or what Apple Computer is now calling "Spatial Computing." As anyone reading this blog posting probably knows, Apple has begun aggressively marketing its "Vision Pro" headsets as a gateway into a "space" that blends the "real" world into a computer-created world. The initial cost of taking such a trip is $3,500, minimum. The New York Times suggests that you actually need to spend at least $1,000 more.

Is it worth it? Should we jump on the bandwagon? Here is a link to Lanier's article in The New Yorker, "Where Will Virtual Reality Take Us?" Again, I think it is worth paying attention to what Lanier has to say - and it's fair to say that Lanier suggests caution. We may not want to go where Virtual Reality will take us. To translate Lanier's observations into my own words, "Virtual Reality" may remove us from the "real world," and Lanier suggests that it is the "real world" that really counts.

The truth is that living in V.R. makes no sense. Life within a construction is life without a frontier. It is closed, calculated, and pointless. Reality, real reality, the mysterious physical stuff, is open, unknown, and beyond us; we must not lose it....

Infinity is a fake drug, but a powerful one. No one wants to die; everyone wants to fly everywhere in the universe. Young men, especially, get high on infinity; their version of tech culture is the most influential culture of our time. It is the only remaining cultural force that can defy market forces, technological limitations, and the law—at least for a while. The crypto world is an example: it’s a disastrous junk yard of fraud and failure, funding some of the world’s worst actors, and any normal investor community would have soured on it by now. But the dream of infinity propels people forward without bounds.

The dream has many faces. A.I. is often portrayed as a godlike, transcendent project that will take over the fabric of our physical reality, leading to a singularity, meaning nothing that matters now is likely to matter after. But singularities, like the ones we hypothesize in black holes, are the very definition of ignorance. There is no learning that bridges the before and after of a singularity. It is the absolute rejection of intelligence. Virtual reality is sometimes stirred into this mix. But our best understanding of how reality works is entirely bound to finitude. Physics is all about conservation principles. There are no infinities, only S curves. There is no free lunch. Technical culture often longs for freedom from finitude. A profound truth, however, is that the greatest mysteries are found in conserved systems, which can become rich and complex, not in infinite ones, which stretch out like blank white sheets to the edge of the cosmos.

And so another urgent question is whether people can enjoy the storied reality of finitude after coming down from the high of fake infinity. Can being merely human suffice? Can the everyday miracle of the real world be appreciated enough? Or will the future of culture only be viral? Will all markets become Ponzi-like fantasies? Will people reject physics forever, the moment we have technology that’s good enough to allow us to pretend it’s gone? (Emphasis added)

This being a Sunday, let's refresh our understanding of who created the world within which all our human efforts to establish our own world take place. The "everyday miracle" is found in the real world. Our "authentic ecstasy" is found in the "ordinary." Who created that ordinary, everyday world of Nature, the world that sustains our bodies and our spirits. Who created the "real world"?

It wasn't us! 

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