I had originally planned to refer to a textbook reading that I use for a class of mine in order to supplement this submission, but I must go where there is wi-fi, and the Muse has now struck, yet I am without the textbook (and there is, for once, a really cute girl in the coffee shop, and I want to indulge the fantasy that I will meet the woman of my dreams in a coffee shop, though I have not had the best success approaching women in coffee shops). Actually, I could probably find it online, but the Muse is telling me to keep moving my strong and nimble fingers. Yes, my divine dear.
Robert Nozick, in his “The Experience Machine,” invited us to join him in his philosophical laboratory back in the 70s (I bet it had plush carpeting and a velvet portrait on the wood wall paneling) for a short but strikingly provocative thought experiment. He asked to reader to consider whether he/she would opt out of actively participating in society in order to connect to a machine that is capable of producing the most elaborate, intense, and satisfying virtual reality (he did not use that phrase, though) experiences while sustaining that person’s bodily functions. This person could elect to spend several months at a time hooked up to this machine, and choosing the fictive fantasy for the next merry mind go-round would take only a few dreadful minutes in real time. Nozick then proposes three reasons why people may not choose such an intellectual incubation: one, we want to do, actually, certain things–not just experience the simulacra of having done those certain things ; two, we want to be, actually, a certain way; three, this would limit us to a man-made reality.
I tell my students that this has to be one of the most important (and prescient) pieces that they will read, given the very great likelihood that they will be confronted with this choice within their lifetime. One only has to look at the boundaries continually being pushed by virtual reality technology to see that odysseys of this sort await us in the electronic ether. Perhaps one need not do even that much. If one looks up from one’s own glowing smart phone screen to acknowledge others, one will find that every one else is still looking at his/her screen. In that way, we have already entered and limited ourselves to a man-made reality. My students usually give the answer that I think they believe I want to hear: “Oh no, how horrible–we would never do that,” they defiantly declare as they text under their desk top. However, usually one or two students is bold enough to admit: “Yeah, I’d try it–I mean, why not?” I admit, I walk that line of inquiry, too.
Most of us have already come to accept a simulacrum of life. Though the preview of this would have horrified my 90s self, I am now perfectly satisfied communicating with people via text messaging. In fact, as with many, I suspect, I often prefer it to actual face-to-face conversations, especially when I feel obliged to contact people whom I would rather not encounter in any significant manner. Perhaps the fact that I inconsistently blog is another sign that I have come to accept a simulacrum of life. While I realize that ever since the invention of symbols, a certain immediacy and rawness has been eliminated from our daily encounters. (John Zerzan wept.) The textual transmission of knowledge can now be outsourced to media other than rather limiting auditory exchanges, allowing for a greater dissemination of knowledge and, well, civilization. This is not quite what I mean. Once again, referring back to my 90s self (who only occasionally wore flannel), I would have been disheartened to think that I would come to a point where I would often rather proffer ideas and debate them online than, say, sitting at a coffee shop or a bar. Given that I presently have this online outlet, I now almost grow embarrassed when serious discussion arises in public when, with my younger self, it was once the only conversation that I wanted to have in public.
Further in the article, Nozick upped the antagonistic ante when he asked if a transformation machine would be more tempting to those who may be able to resist the experience machine. Once again, prescient. With transhumanism poised to become a bigger topic of concern than what another trans word currently is, this is another choice that people will soon enough have to confront. Who would not be tempted by the option of implanting a neural lace, allowing one’s brain to function as a spongy conduit for the Internet? If thought that I could acquire mastery of Latin or Japanese through mere technological implantation, say sayonara to declension drills. (The aforementioned sentence may go down as one of the favorite lines I have ever written.)
Most troublesome, to me anyway, is the conclusion that now seems inescapable: many people will need to be pacified through experience machines in order to keep them from flesh and blood violence or mischief, especially with the great robotic displacement of humans that is coming to a factory/fast food joint/law office/school/truck near you.
By the way, I think coffee shop girl is sporting a ring.