|InterCommunication No.3 1993|
A funny thing happened on the way to Cyberspace, back in the 22nd century. It was 2134, the year of the FREDKIN Bicentenary festivities commemorating the birthdate of late-20th century U.S. scientist Edward Fredkin, the man who first proposed the idea of a "Heaven Machine." That was when the HMC (Heaven Mac Corp) unveiled "the real thing." In marked contrast to the "Mind" project launched in 1995 by the Terra Machine Group of Marvin MINSKY et al., an AI experiment fated to fin de siécle oblivion in the backwaters of post-IT culture, FREDKIN's then-discredited plan was eventually revived like a virus brought back from cryogenic deep-freeze. Who could have predicted that their latter-day efforts would change the very face of the 22nd century? Yet according to HMC records, they'd already been long at work on the HM Exo-Processor in that giant ants' nest of a complex beneath HMC Central near Niebesser on the dark side of the moon. The surprising thing about this complex was that it was burrowed out by descendent generations of an insectoid created by Australian roboticist Robert A. BROOKS to NASA specifications for interplanetary exploration, but which for some malfunction in transport via Lunar Shuttle (some say the little buggers must have already possessed independent thought) they wound up on the moon at Dionysus. Originally earmarked for NASA's Mission IV with the aim being that "one single colony sent to Saturn's moon Enceladus will have in ten thousand years successfully terraformed the entire solar system and in a million years effectively conquered the galaxy," untimely budget cuts curtailed the project and drove the contractor IT Robotics Inc into bankruptcy. The insectoids kept on replicating, however, meanwhile pursuing their own evolutionary offshoots and digging a hivelike social nexus in true micro-critter fashion, so that soon the colony reached upwards of 5,000,000 units population. And it was this base that reportedly came to serve as the heart of our "Heaven Machine." HMC Welcomes You to Eternal Life! Drawn by this hope-filled message, how many thousands from Digital Hollywood--including Shirley MACLAINE's great--grandchildren-and others from all over flocked to the virtual promised land? Multitudes came and disappeared without a trace, so we really don't know whether they took up residence in there, or transponded to Mars--or what? Still, we can hypothesize several scenarios for the goings-on inside HMC. But in order to discuss the relative merits of each, first we must re-examine the premises of the original FREDKIN Plan on which they are all founded.
The second millennium-end 20th century when FREDKIN lived was a time of remarkable change. for it was then that we see those worldview shattering theories of the first part of the century forge ahead into practical application. In particular, the late 1980s saw a boom in Virtual Reality. Sweeping onto the scene like a comet out of nowhere, the "New Media" of early VR must have seemed like some strange new form of bondage in which players were forcibly wedded in ergonomasochistic mechano-harnesses, wirel bristling out everywhere. Just another step further in the "progress" from headphones to Walkman, early-1980s VR gear such as the Eyephone and Dataglove were patched over organs of sight and touch, effectively cutting off the wearer from external observers--which thus, conversely, hailed a "New Age" of non-communication. Then, with the advent of "lifesize" virtual media, thanks to developments in sensing devices and Smart Skin, hi-band digitally linked Q3 Dial-in "Pink Networks" gave rise to teledildonics culture--the world of so-called virtual sex. Not unlike Tommy iron-maidened by the Acid Queen, there you'd be, strapped into your Datasuit, dangled by fibre-optic leads like a marionette--or "puppetchik" in the Cyberian vernacular--plunged into an electronic isolation tank... well, whatever gets you through the Net! (Grateful Dead's Jerry GARCIA reportedly commented about the experience, "They mode LSD illegal. I wonder what they're going to do about this stuff") Predictably, this intentional VR obstruction of direct summa-sensory contact triggered a fragmentation, albeit temporary, in the commutations scene. Thus did the body--"King of Our Senses"--vanish before everyone's eyes.
It was now the Queen's move to consort with this dramatic new realm. for if SHAKESPEARE's verbal media cut up time and space, then the virtual worlds of digitally recomposed sensory space-time ushered us into an unprecedented media theater where an infrastructure of VR tech served to footlight all kinds of weird scenes.
And just as surely as cyberspace dragged the shadowy machine ghost of cybernetics along with it, there were those fellow travelers more than willing to hijack the media for their own subversive ends.
Viewed historically, the media explosion of the 1960s on had reached a turning point, where "big bang" began to shift into "big suck" contraction. Media's expansive push toward outer space had discovered nothing so much as a gigantic mirror of our own body. From the moment we orbited devices generating sense-permeable spaces in the uppermost epiderm of the stratosphere, that virtual threshold brought what appeared to be even further outreach into self-contained creative fusion with the senses. The hour of implosion had arrived for the "Cyber Movement," comparable to the Manhattan Project's testing of the first atom bomb. A critical mass had been reached, the advent of media to unlock the secrets of the human mind and senses set off an implosive chain reaction. Even as this "virtuality" behind the "cyberspace rush" presumed to cultivate humanity in a full-scale artificial nature environment, other changes were impinging upon "reality" itself. Nanotechnology, biosphere systems, artificial life and other developments embarked on the greatest re-conquest of human sensibilities since the Renaissance, endeavoring to discover a new continent on the horizon of the "real." But as in the old adage--When you're holding a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail--the next step meant getting a new hammer to beat down the hammer itself.
The wearable media of Virtual Reality invited comment. In the vernacular of 1992 BCE, they might have likened such media to "a symbol distant as Pharaoh Korfu's Pyramid."
Who knows how it happened? At some paint, these machines once considered extensions of the body loomed like huge presences off in the distance, like figures conjured up in the pristine conventions of Renaissance perspective.
The Megamachine was created by designers-cum-architects in the image of a city situated in a symbol-manipulated geometry, while the dataspace imminent within was constellated like a galaxy whose outlying nodes were like satellite towns liked by commuter buses. Indeed, you could say the whole thing was structured like a cosmos viewed from truckstop earth.
The first small-scale machine, Wes CLARK's LINC built in 1962, was a box an architect might have had a carpenter construct. Installed in one room or another, the machine served as a body-extension device to allow the user visual recognition of as big an area as could be seen in one brief flash. Yet the subversiveness of these compactly designed machine-boxes went undetected by the High Priests, even as they later appeared as mind amplifiers like ALTO, or even more compact personal computers, eventually destroying the Church of Media itself. The dataspace created by the Megamachine was a symbol-centered cosmo-algorithm, a metaphor for society, compared to which the spaces carved out by the minimachines were extremely visual and much closer to everyday body-related experience. The smaller personals provided a near-physicality, and the wearable cybersuits put you literally in touch. We might call this tangible symbol-driven algorithmic existence an extremely powerful method for rendering the fringes of time and space via symbolic extrapolation of abstracted and metrically notated sensory data. Symbolic space also made judgment in higher brain functions switch on and off. The world thus depicted, whether Euclidian or non-Euclidian, registered as an indetectably proper-scaled space, positioned at the furthest reaches of our sensory probes and extremely close to the image we hold to be "objective." The advent of this symbolically externalized mindscape as a standardized exchangeable actuality was hailed with cries of "God is dead" --and certainly the days of monotheism seemed numbered. Still, this space invited visual exploration of ever newer aspects. As humankind labored to hurl these symbolic weapons into the world, our eyes fixed upon nothing so much as ourselves. It looked as if we had come to a parting of the ways with God's creation. The second-person split between nature and self, a clear-cut paradigm dating back to the seventeenth century, effectively systematized the predominance of seeing over hearing as had existed since the invention of writing and printing. Yet time and space had begun to warp under the strain of their singular tethering to the physical confines of eyesight. Witness how early 20th century Cubism toppled mechanical perspective and once again revived interest in volumetric vision, like innumerable times before in history, simultaneously revealing the primacy and limitations of sight.
Visual reprisals in history prior to Virtual Reality appeared throughout the 1950s and 1960s, evidencing a longing for volumetric vision. If the 1950s 3-D movie represented one such spatial extension in wide-screen analog, then the digitally controlled random access videodiscs of the 1970s added a temporal perspective, creating a more active sense of multiaxial space.
On the flipside of this visual predominance, it became obvious that there were no absolutes to these more personal spaces. By the time John BURROUGHS ventured into Virtual Reality cyberspace and wrote his Being in Nothingness, it was clear that we no longer had any criteria for saying what was "here" as opposed to "there." No matter how instaneous the spatial totality conveyed by sight, no orientation based on the physical body could tell you where you were in absolute space.
In this regard, touch as well as the near-skin level senses of taste and smell, though weak in directionality and volumetrics, did provide consensual clues inseparably linked to the body, thus working on the brain to confirm a sense of self-existence. Personal machines inevitably needed to stay with the body.
Considered in this way, the development of media technology might seem to have pursued a devolutionary course opposite to the evolution of the human body. For as we know from our standard developmental psychology, whereas each human individual exhibits a growth in infancy away from touch toward sight, that is, evolving in the direction of symbol-centricity while turning the scope of media ever outward, the twentieth century pursuit of multi-media seemed to point us from the symbolic back toward visual, ultimately returning to the tactile.
Has Virtual Reality succeeded in imaging all human senses within the otherness of the computer? Can reverse-imaging serve as the perfect mirror to reflect us? Will we succumb like Narcissus to the sight of our own image in that mirror. losing ourselves in our swoon?
The cyberpunkdom of the early 1980s would have had us believe that the sensory data of our subjective realities would become fully digitized and exchangeable as legal tender. Even since the first human heart transplant in 1967, developments in artificial organs have acclimated us to the notion of flesh-turned-robotic.
Thereon, your very identity was mapped in dataspace, rendered into interchangeable units, locating your "self" exactly everywhere and nowhere.
Science, with its telescope and microscope, its thermometer and even the very concept of energy, shattered the medieval creationist cosmology shaped by firsthand sensory experience. For as people came to regard nature as an object to be subdued, they abandoned the tenets of once-only creationism for the predictability and reproductibility of scientific results.
Came the 20th century, however, an even bigger jolt was in store. We took notice of media as another even more important "other" to self and nature. Regarding intermediation as an object in itself led "not to invention, but to the necessity of inventing methods of invention." By then it was already clear that no new knowledge would come of "theoretizing about objects." In order to understand the Theory of Relativity, you would need a vantage point outside both self and object; short of that, there was no comprehending the structure of the universe. The discrete natural world discovered through quantum dynamics and the uncertainty of observation as expressed via the corroboration of time and space meant we were already approaching the limits of our dichotomic self/nature paradigm. The observation of objects had long since succumbed to efforts in measuring and modeling on the basis of standardized metrics of our senses. Science and art, you might say, had painted their definitive picture of the model world using these techniques.
The clockwork world created by Virtual Reality by means of digitized models can to some extent be evaluated via such spatial criteria as "presence," its capacity to provide sufficiently detailed data to the senses, and via such temporal criteria as "interaction," its operability in the world. Still, these alone are not enough; these dual factors only obtain for reality expression predicated on interrelationship. Something more is required for artificial worlds to "virtually resemble without actually being." What's needed is that factor of autonomy alerted to otherness. Many researchers from ZELTZER to SHERIDAN have begun to notice that if models fail to show something on the order of an internal necessity, that something cannot "express" that it "exists." A factor indicative of a new third party ontogeny combining spatial presence with temporal interaction. Virtual Reality worked the same as time to spin reality itself. Artificial Life had even greater ambitions to unveil a wholly new reality made up of such independent parts. Of course, this Artificial Life, a life born of mathematical notations from nature seeming to advance a grand plan to fuse the artificial and the natural, had origins in john von NEUMANN's cell automaton. His imagined future machine of 200,000 cells manifesting twenty nine conditions was supposed to begin spinning its own reality and eventually self-reproducing, making it indistinguishable from life, but the vision never shifted into action.
In 1970, British mathematician J. H. CONWAY published in Scientific American his "Life Game," a miniature version of imagination of many readers. Indeed, these cell clusters, formed via simple rules, where the life or death of the next generation was determined by how many other cells were nearby, seemed quite lifelike. But would such thinking actually lead to life?
By posing the eternal question of human history--What is life?--the whole identity of humankind as life was drawn into question. The cell automaton was intended to "describe" life through combining cell-like bits of programming as in Herbert SIMON's artificiality. This was not to be a simulation from variants of rules broken down from reality, but a bottom-up assemblage of until component parts actually found in reality. Then, when these parts reached a critical mass, the microcosm of this automatic machine would have animated as a living non-linear complex system greater than sum of its spatially compounded parts. "Not a description of life," said Artificial Life advocate Christopher G. LANGTON. Where Artificial Intelligence merely talked "about the reality of mind," he claimed "This is life itself." But where was the difference between what is alive and what is not? Amidst the broad spectrum of entities from mineral to human, Artificial Life awaited the angel of data to spread its wonders like gossamer over the lowliest mineral matter.
Czech scientist Hans MORAVEC was even more extreme. He expressed the view that just as carbon-based life took over evolution from the world of crystals, the next stage world be taken over by robots of our own device. According to his scenario, the day would come when the brain-software of mind would be downloaded into replicants, machines created to take over from nature. When that happened and the soul of the king was transplanted into the flesh of the queen, nature would be human. Yet, in 1997, when the machines that nanotechnology built exceeded the Santa Clara Point breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the news that a lifeform created using Artificial Life in a certain Chinese scientist's quarters had passed the "life-proving" Total Turing Test (T3) failed to reach the West.
Within one month after HMC Central started up, testimonies of those involved brought to light a mysterious state of affairs.
The testimonies were all rather vague, but the fact remained that while more than a thousand people had visited the complex, not one was seen to have returned. Inquiries began to pour in from friends and family of the missing, until finally earth police launched an investigation. The incident eventually entailed a huge dragnet operation.
The strange truth became clear when there surfaced a Chinese man who said that an ancestor of his had "meet FREDKIN in late part 20 century." His casual statement that the ducks he raised had been in his family from before his father's time suggested that the fowl were in fact AL ducks. It was only a short while thereafter that genetic biologists conclusively traced the lineage of these ducks back to what seemed to have been a real live bird that narrowly escaped being roasted as a Peking duck. "FREDKIN tell may humble ancestor, he give duck eternal life," the man insisted. Convinced that the same thing was going inside HMC Central, the investigators moved in. What they found was a pyramid-form bed set up in the blinding light of the "Concentration Room," beckoning the seeker to take the plunge into a cybernetic fun center. Guided by the message Welcome to Heaven, the digitized body experienced a floating sensation as it entered cyberspace. As the experience peaked, a smiling angel appeared and asked, "Do you want to copy yourself into eternal life?" As answer YES prompted a complete brain-structure analysis, the results of which were translated to Exo-Processor copy simultaneous with the activation of a body-delete command. HMC sources admitted to a bug in the program, consequently amending the routine to copy only/delete optional.
Still, visitors to HMC continued unfailingly to select it. Of those to visit later on, the only person not to select it, one Johnny DOLPHIN, self-proclaimed descendant of a Biosphere pioneer, held aloft a digital copy of an ancient US$1 bill he'd found inside a clock he'd picked up on the moon and told the reporters: "HMC is the last choice American metaphysical culture has got. Take a gander at this here picture of a pyramid. So long as the body represented by the lower part don't wake up, the spirit part on top ain't gonna float."
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