Our Viral Moment

When will we get back to normal? Never. We’ll achieve a new normal, but it won’t be the old one.

This is our Red Pill viral moment.

In 1999, The Matrix explored our condition metaphorically: the machines would have given us comfort, but human beings need more than comfort; they need work and a sense of purpose. So the mechanical vampires gave us the rat race, a plausible lie, a virtual-reality Veil of Maya. As hard science fiction it was hopeless, but as social commentary, it’s still timely: the Machine is self-serving and self-perpetuating, employing humans as dupes and quislings.

The virus has gotten into the Machine and stopped it. So where do we go now? First, let’s be clear about what we’re looking at. Strong libertarianism is a mushroom-cloud landscape of exploded brains, fissioning with cognitive dissonance. Communism is unlikely to work — the Machine tried that too.

We need to slow down and think, reflect on how we’ve been pawns of this collective, amoral force, and then build a new community that uses its powerful machines rather than lets itself be used by them. The air is briefly clean right now. The Machine treated the air as worthless, but we see it’s priceless. That’s the tragedy of the Machine and its sustaining ethos — it can set a clear price on gilded towers, but not on clean air and water, and society, and sanity.

The Machine has stopped. Let’s take control before it reboots a version of the old program.

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The VR Diaspora

I spend a lot of my time envisioning the future. I’ve been literally invested in it for a long time.

Almost exactly twenty years ago, I started an ebook company, a project based more on speculation than on hard evidence. I thought that by 2010, ebooks would be at least 10% of the publishing market and a normal part of everyone’s reading life. With the help of Lucius Shepard, I contacted and published several of my favorite authors. I learned a lot. I became a computer programmer, for one thing, and I elicited surprise from my father that I could put together and execute a business plan. I put up with ridicule and then I put up with people telling me that they knew ebooks were coming all along.

I learned how true it is that five-year predictions are generally too liberal and ten-year predictions too conservative.

I was half right about ebooks; my timelines and focus were a bit off. I thought that the advent of digital paper would be the catalyst for widespread adoption of ebooks, but it turned out to be a minor factor: wifi, high-speed Internet, and Amazon’s self-publishing infrastructure were all more important.

What I envision is typically more than half creativity/insanity and confirmation bias. But I get a few things right.

Two months ago, the idea we’d be migrating into virtual space was more fantastic than it probably seems to you now, sitting there at your keyboards, many of you wondering when you’ll work again. Just as I was broadly right about ebooks but skewed in my view of the specific drivers of the technology, I think I’m broadly correct in thinking that we will be inverting our relationship between the physical world and virtual worlds, to the point that in the next few decades we inhabit virtual countries and in the next few hundred years we even speciate in our virtual worlds.

I will write a long paper for a publisher on this soon, but here are a few short observations and ideas:

1. The limits on visually immersive social-networking will be lifted within the next decade. Visually, though not physically, you will have the complete illusion of being in a virtual space with other people. We already have commercial technology to do the necessary laser eye-tracking and retina painting, and to time visual presentation to brain-processing lag. Watch this HoloLens 2 engineering presentation on YouTube if you doubt me (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0fEh4UdtT8).

2. Thanks to computers and automation, generation of wealth is driven toward knowledge industries and can be conducted in virtual space. Virtual gold is competing with real gold, literally (check out virtual-world currency exchanges). The whole West Coast tech scene testifies to that. It’s not that physical industry isn’t vitally important. It would be crazy to think so. But even physical work will be overwhelmingly performed through automation and telepresence (see below).

3. Sourcing income for tax revenue is going to be increasingly hard for physical countries, empowering virtual countries that implement various economic strategies. It is not multinational corporations that will have hegemonic control over nations as in the typical cyberpunk scenario so much as ideological virtual countries. The physical world will be a neutral zone with strong Interpol and infrastructure owned by virtual-world corporations. It is likely to be simultaneously far more libertarian and far more socialist than anything we have seen yet. (I’ve had this idea for a while, and thought it improbable, but in a world where the Republicans champion guaranteed income during a pandemic ahead of Democrats, I’m coming around.)

4. Pandemics, terrorism, and ideological, religious, and romantic relationships will drive people into a nested array of arbitrary virtual worlds and AR telepresence vacations.

5. We have met the alien and the alien is us. Interactive entertainment will be bigger and bigger business. Those of us who have read science fiction our whole lives have had our minds blown through a one-dimensional language stream, but it’s going to take immersive three-dimensional experiences for most people to connect with these visions, to bridge the gap between their experience and the experience of minds that do not think like theirs at all. I was watching The Expanse last month, and for a few seconds my suspension of disbelief was so total that I actually felt like I was about to get a glimpse into the culture of an alien intelligence. Then I suddenly said to myself, “Wait, I met the dude who wrote this. He graduated the same workshop I did, a year later.” You can spend your whole life barely scratching the surface of the technologies and human dramas that unfolded during WWII. The impact of the virtual worlds that you will have access to, exploiting the genius and accumulated knowledge of humanity since then, will be overwhelming.

6. Telepresence robots will enable you to inhabit avatar bodies across the globe, for quasi-physical work and play. I was telling the guy who cuts my hair that he will eventually cut hair using a telepresence robot. (He’s already got a sideline business in renting time on robot massage chairs, so maybe he didn’t think I was completely nuts.) Though robots may eventually become lifelike human androids, they will certainly become lifelike to each other’s pilots in computer-mediated space, even if obvious machines to those walking by on the real-world street. Expert systems will merge AR and VR in such a way that you can timeshare on a robot in another country to spend the day with a friend, see that person as they want to be seen, and edit out or focus on any aspect of your environment. You want to meet in a crowded Times Square and then dismiss all the other people? Telepresence, AR, VR, force-feedback, and AI technologies like those in self-driving cars will bring this to pass.

Is this a Utopian future? No. I was just discussing issues with my daughter about the arms-race against hacking telepresence drones, about the problem with programming human compliance into Asimov’s Three Laws. Maybe AI learning can keep you from being stabbed by a robot, but can it prevent a clever operator from figuring out more subtle ways to harm you?

And we already have a big problem with Facebook and other social media driving people into ideological bubbles that are popped only by disaster. (Facebook, by the way, is launching a VR platform this year, called Horizon.)

I call this migration the VR Diaspora, but it isn’t just starting. It’s been going on since at least the seventies. I just hadn’t appreciated how to frame it before.

One big objection to ebooks I encountered circa 2000 was summed up by the statement “I don’t like reading on a computer.” I tried to explain that what constitutes a computer was rapidly changing. This was far before smart phones. Your grandkids will take this stuff for granted, and will probably have to be educated out of the naive idea that the multiverse they inhabit is largely virtual.

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Perfectionism and Internalized Expectations

To generate some grist for exploring the prison-maze of the mind, I’ll relate a few key issues in my life, starting with my ambivalent relationship to self-challenge.

From my teens through my early twenties, I suffered intermittently from depression and, very reluctantly, went on medication. What pulled me out each time was mostly a change in circumstances. In high school, I had my hip wrenched from its socket in a wrestling match, which gave me an excuse to rest and write (honestly, I did not like wrestling). In college, I coasted the last few months, dropping classes that threatened my perfect GPA, deceiving myself that perfect grades would keep my options open so I might avoid getting shunted into some dismal career path.

A few years later, I quit a job I hated after a bout of hypochondria that progressed over months, from strange vision problems, to ear-infection symptoms, to an almost-certainly unnecessary stint in hyperbaric recompression after a not-too-risky dive, to ultimately an MRI, which came up clean and prompted a very irritated neurologist to refer me for psychiatric help. After quitting my job, and going on Prozac (again), my physical symptoms cleared up in weeks. Like I said, I’d been depressed before; I might have realized what was up. But this time hadn’t been like the others: I didn’t feel particularly down or hopeless. The physical symptoms came first. I had become cut off from my feelings and my passion. Rather than regrouping when the symptoms started, I pushed myself harder, taking an evening chemistry class after work, to finish up pre-med requirements. Realizing I was not going to earn an A, I got halfway through the class and quit.

I’ve quit a few things in my life that either rubbed hard against the grain of my personality or that I feared I would not excel at: basketball, a medical track, a couple of jobs. My father observed that I needed to learn how to be a friend to myself, but the advice was equivocal. He didn’t realize it, but I’d taken a stronger lesson from his own example and his selective approval of my activities: if you don’t want to do something, you can only quit with honor if fear or anxiety or pain do not factor into your aversion. You have to beat those first, or you will always be in retreat, living a hounded life, as a coward. What’s more, you must excel, to prove your commitment. He never explicitly formulated his judgement this way. The lessons we take are often not the ones we’re taught. My father was a counselor, and extremely good at reasonable argument, but not so good at separating his own anxiety and frustrated aspirations from what was best for his children. I’m very glad I was not an only child, because I love my sisters, and because I could not have shouldered the full weight of his expectations alone. I am not the most accomplished of my siblings, not by far, and maybe not the most burdened by Dad’s hopes, either.

By my mid-thirties, I finally hit on a different formulation: pursuing the things you love will test your strength enough; beating your head against rocks to satisfy a father complex is being obstinate and self-defeating. My father wanted me to be open to new experience and develop several axes of my personality — physical, emotional, and mental — not to despise myself.

I did not appreciate this fully until just before I lost him.

But to be fair, the idea I had to excel at everything I attempted was a collaboration between my own persona and my construction of my father. I had swallowed a poison pill early in grade school that my father had little to do with: the idea I was smart and would therefore not have to suffer like other people were clearly fated to suffer — unseen, separated from their joys. To explore how I developed the anxieties that gave force to this particular mindset, I’ll need to go very far back, to when I was three or four, in another post.

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Grief and Education (an Aside)

What’s driven my recent posts hasn’t really been a desire to criticize education itself. I’m groping my way toward the topic of despair and suicide, which is really hazardous to talk about, so I’m approaching it from a distance, setting out a few premises. In case you’ve missed my disclaimers, understand that I’m not a professional teacher (though I’ve taught now and then); I’m not a counselor or psychologist (though I’m fairly well read in psychology). I’m doing this for me, and if you get something out of it, I’m glad.

I’m not quite ready to talk about despair. Fortunately, it’s not an urgent personal concern. I haven’t been at the edge of despair for a long time — not since my early twenties. I feel like I should talk about it because on the one hand I have some emotional reserves right now that I can tap, and on the other, I have witnessed despair on Facebook more than once. And this past year one of my Facebook acquaintances was clearly foundering and then committed suicide. I didn’t know him, really, and had just a few interactions with him, so I don’t need you to express condolences. But maybe you appreciate the frustration and sadness his death provoked in me–especially if, like me, you have had people very close to you take their lives.

Right now, I’ll take another step toward the topic by way of discussing grief. When my brother-in-law died, I was shaken to my knees. When my immortal father died of cancer, I fell flat, and a huge crack ran through the foundations of my world. Another shock followed a year later when the son of my friends, himself a friend, was slain at Virginia Tech. (And here I’ll make an aside on guns. I have a few acquaintances who openly worship guns on Facebook, and witnessing it has afforded me a strenuous exercise in forbearance, wrestling against my Shadow and an outrage so dark it would turn my blood to ink if I lost the fight and indulged myself. If I can choke this down, then maybe you — all of you — can deal with the provocations that make you hit that “unfriend” button and that strike me as so, so f’ing petty. If I could go back in time and take away all your guns to prevent these massacres, I would do it, even knowing the reasonable arguments against such action. As one of my friends said here a few posts back, “I sense the darkness in you too,” and yes, if I’ve ever given you the impression that I don’t know how to say “fuck!” or to project and to hate murderously and implacably or have a tantrum, then I’ve probably done both of us a disservice.)

Right now, a few of my friends are dealing with profound grief, the loss of a young-adult child in an accident; the loss of a young spouse to heart attack; the loss of a mother. I can’t speak to their experience. I can’t even look into their grief with fitting imagination and sympathy because it would break me. Watching my father die was like carrying him down to the river Styx, and the years after that were an arduous return journey. My upper back was literally damaged, and it took me two years and the support of my friends at the Alpine Fitness gym to recover–I loved him that deeply. Love is a project that demands all our strength, and then more than our strength when we lose it. As far as I can see, my newly grieving friends are dealing with their challenge heroically, with gratitude for those they loved, extending themselves to friends, seeking help. My friends who lost their son at VT were similarly courageous. I commend their example to you.

Returning to my thread through these recent posts, the prison-maze of the mind and “important things we don’t talk about”: we are here too short a time for bullshit. Pain, horror, and grief will find you. Despair should not. There are forces in our lives separating us from our joy, our dignity, and our wisdom. And our education should equip us to fight them, not to more easily succumb, and as I go deeper into the topic of despair, I’ll try to articulate my best ideas about how it should do this. And when I get political, I’ll say so upfront.

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A Productive Mindset for Education

Education, part two, on the topic of motivation, meaning, and escaping the mental prison-maze.

When I was seventeen, I cried myself to sleep in the dorm at Lewis & Clark College. I wanted to be a writer. I’d had a taste of other jobs since the age of eleven, and the prospect of any other type of employment made me despair. Earlier that evening I had spent a few hours closeted with Kate Wilhelm going over a fantasy novella I’d written, and she pointed out all the mistakes in it that would keep it from being published: too many adverbs, shallow characterization, and faults in point of view. I objected that I had observed a consistent third-person point of view. She showed me where I was wrong. My face went hot, and my stomach dropped. “How come my creative writing teacher didn’t tell me this?”

“Most likely because she didn’t know,” Kate said.
Later as I ruminated in the dark, I understood both intellectually and emotionally that I had a long, long way to go if I wanted to have even a shot at being a writer, that winning the Oregon Young Writers Contest didn’t mean I’d arrived anywhere. I’d just won the opportunity, along with a dozen other students, to confront my deficiencies. I finally consoled myself that this was still further than the vast majority of hopeful high school writers, and that if becoming a proficient writer really came as easily to me as I’d hoped, it would show up my aspiration as cheap.

But man did it hurt. It was good for me, right? One of those formative experiences that breaks the shell of a young solipsist so he can grow.
Yeah, but eff that. Why didn’t my teacher know? I mean, point of view is not rocket science. How many people who love movies and even arrogate themselves the role of critic don’t know about prelap or montage or composition… or point of view?

I was taught trigonometry in high school, but somehow I missed the fact that sine, cosine, and tangent are functions, not variables. My most valuable class in all of high school was probably elective computer programming. But we never connected trigonometry with computer graphics. We didn’t, for instance, program an analog clock simulation, or even try to draw a circle.

Why not? (Because the teacher didn’t know, maybe.)

No one taught us how to draw in high school. The basics of perspective and the visual horizon are not that tough, certainly not tougher than a physics vector problem. I remember thinking that to program a wire-frame 3D program like Battle Zone must involve godlike genius. No one taught me otherwise.

I took four years of high school Spanish, and the only reason I actually learned to speak Spanish was that I hung out with the foreign-exchange students and endured their ridicule, and I took an independent study to painstakingly translate a novel. Why didn’t we have an immersion class? (Because the teacher didn’t know enough Spanish?) My daughter learned more Spanish in a year in high school than I did in three because of an immersion program.

Even in college, I learned more grammar serving as an English tutor than I did in my classes.

Many of us are taught to be consumers, not producers; politicians rather than philosophers. How are your kids being taught? What messages are they internalizing from what they are _not_ taught?

Habitual consumers will have a very hard time trying to escape the personal hell of the prison-maze of their mind. And those who do set out to be artists and engineers against their training will face unnecessary isolation and frustration, and then ego inflation if they succeed.

“We go to college to learn how to think, not what to think.” Really? I learned how to think by clinging desperately to what made me happy, against a tide of conditioning in how to be a consumer.

And I lashed out at the wrong people for the wrong reason. The year after my instruction by Kate Wilhelm, my high school English teacher critiqued a story of mine once, and I told him that I didn’t think he was qualified to offer a critique. He was visibly hurt and angry. I’d gained a bit of reputation for knowing what I was talking about by that point, and maybe this contributed to his decision to leave teaching and take up writing the next year, at a time he had a young child to support.

And I was wrong. He was eminently qualified to critique my work, as is everyone who reads English fluently. If a person thinks they’ve found something broken in a work of fiction — or spots something off in a painting or musical composition — they’re most likely correct. They probably don’t know how to fix it, even if they are masters of their craft, because that’s the artist’s job, to find a solution that communicates their vision when their craft fails.

But it was a big problem that he couldn’t answer me and put me in my place because he was cheated by his education.

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Crafting an Education

Education. I think it’s appropriate to be at least a little dismayed by your education. I certainly am.

Education should give you the keys to escape your unique prison-maze of the mind. Much of what you endure as “education” will not serve you and will only lead you deeper into the maze. Fortunately, in my education I suffered very little direct indoctrination. The one time I did, in a critical theory class, I didn’t really understand what was happening, just that I needed to quit, and that goes hard with a kid (and at twenty I was very much a kid) who holds it as a core value that ducking any intellectual challenge is weakness and copping out.

I will circle back around to the topic of “important things that we do not generally talk about” again and again. This is one. For me, it might be _the one_, because getting educated practically equates to my purpose in life. It’s taken me almost fifty years to reach some clarity for myself about its value and how to pursue it.

You will read many articles, especially in right-wing media, decrying the worthlessness of liberal arts education, often in connection with the topic of publicly funded higher education. A few of my right-wing friends will concede that we should subsidize STEM education, because it leads to jobs that serve basic human needs, but will argue that we shouldn’t be paying for expensive education in the humanities. I have sympathy for their perspective, but my beef with the humanities, as a computer programmer with a degree in English, with more training in the humanities than in tech, isn’t so much that they don’t train one in practical skill, but that they neglect concerns of artistic craft and fill the void with political rhetoric that bewilders and misdirects. The walls of the maze are concretized by politics. Yes, you need the cooperation of other people to accomplish important social goals, but you do not need ideology. Seek to build a coherent philosophy for yourself, but reject a coherent politics, or sooner or later you will come to an angsty pass where you must choose between your values and your “allies.” Politics is not a substitute for philosophy.

So why do humanities departments neglect craft in favor of rhetoric? To me, this is a very important question. I suspect because craft in the humanities is extremely hard. Linguistics is so hard that after you’ve learned a few different languages and taken apart their grammar (hard), you really need to do a deep, cross-disciplinary study in neurology and information science to be said to tackle it. Writing is hard. Drawing is hard. Critical theory is not just hard; it’s impossible — so impossible that if you scrub the politics and rhetorical word-salad out of it, you’re left with linguistics, philosophy, and psychology. I realized in my senior year of college that I’d made a grave mistake in my chosen course of study when I got up and interrogated my fellow students during class and found that they did not know basic English grammar. (What an asshole thing to do, right?)

The disingenuous value proposition of rhetoric teachers enamored of critical theory is they will teach you to better express yourself. They will do the _opposite._ I don’t really want to argue this admittedly political point. I’ll let Steven Pinker do it for me. Read the first few chapters of The Sense of Style.

So how can education help us free ourselves and what should we be teaching and learning, and where should we seek instruction?

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The Prison Maze of the Mind

For the last year or so, I’ve had half a dozen preoccupations at the back of my mind that I think are related: education, motivation, the creative process, depression and despair, suicide, and “important things we don’t talk about” in general.

I woke up a few nights ago early in the morning with an insight that connected a few of these topics, but I fell back asleep, and it evaporated, leaving me only with one sentence to hang onto: “We are each trying to escape a unique prison-maze of the mind.” The following night, I read an article on gifted children and despair — one shared on Facebook by Suzy Charnas — and in it an exceptionally intelligent young five-year-old, gripped by suicidal depression, was quoted as saying, “I feel like I’m trapped in a maze.” That helped me recover a bit of the articulated insight that fell apart for me the previous night, something about how when we align ourselves with people who can share the project of escaping our maze, we should recognize their rare value to us. We’re each navigating a route that’s uniquely our own, but others can help point our way, even as they’re going their own. In Little, Big, John Crowley observed “The things that make us happy make us wise.” It’s a pithy quote, famous for a good reason, and one I couldn’t improve upon. As with many great quotes, though, I want to play with it. The things that make us happy are clues to escaping our prison-maze of the mind. Also, though, the things that bring us happiness, and by that I mean more than mere pleasure, also connect us to what is most real and important in a world dominated by counterfeit, misdirection, and illusion.

In my follow-up posts, I’ll try to get more concrete.

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