What we perceive as the nature of truth might need updating.
“Is what you see with your [smart] glasses off more real than what you see with them on? If your focus clears, is the image before you fake?” KC Cole, senior correspondent at Wired, asks.
“So much of what’s real is indiscernible,” she writes. “Billions of neutrinos rain right through me as I sip my tea. Are they less real than the tea? Is an NFT less real than a dollar? Is your virtual meeting less real than the vivid memory you have of that meeting that never happened?”
This is classic philosophy. If no one heard the tree fall, did it in fact make a sound? Is Schrödinger’s cat only alive when we see it? Am I seeing the same color as you?
Cole says this queasiness took hold for her when watching The Matrix movies: “Reality is whatever we make it. It’s whatever we collectively agree upon, whether it’s bitcoin, atoms, or the devil…. If you’re not sure the bullet is real, would you stand in its path to find out?”
We can chalk Cole up as a member of the dystopia clan, those who warn about the dangers of ceding all of our agency over to The Man — or in this case, The Matrix.
Jaron Lanier, that sage of the Internet age, wrote in his 2011 treatise You Are Not a Gadget that increasingly, we are. To be specific, we are becoming “computer peripherals attached to the great computing clouds.”
Cole also quotes Microsoft principal researcher Kate Crawford describing the perils of cramming our complex and fluid personal and social realities into “representations of the world made solely for machines.”
AI forces the “systemization of the unsystematizeable,” wrote Crawford. AI “reduces depth, kills grace notes, flattens experience and us along with it,” echoes Cole.
The Matrix is full of analogies for our current existential reality crisis. One of them is that The Matrix itself gets its fuel from human batteries.
“The giant networks of machines we ironically refer to as ‘clouds’ also feed on humans: those who mine rare minerals, assemble devices, drive trucks, load packages, translate text, label and evaluate objects and faces,” says Cole.
Attempting to take in this underground reality is as jarring as Neo’s first look at the vast array of baby-powered fuel cells.
“No one wants to hear about the costs: the enormous carbon footprint of computing, the draining of community water and power supplies, the reliance on taxpayer-funded infrastructure, sewers, gas lines, fiber optics, you name it. There’s a reason these megaservers are hidden away in remote locales.”
There’s another analogy for the brave new world of humans being sucked and suckled by the machine: the way in which our data is used to power the economic monopoly of a few.
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The humongous stores of data scraped off the internet — our faces, habits, health, finances, kids, lovers, favorite actors, vacations, conversations with your Roomba — are funneled into mega computers that tweak what you see in order to keep you hooked, sell you stuff. It’s a one-way street. We’re transparent to the megaservers, but they’re opaque to us.
Distant corporations use the data to change our lives “in unfathomable ways,” Lanier writes. “You never really know what might have been if someone else’s cloud algorithm had come to a different conclusion about your potential as loan taker, a date, or an employee.”
Let’s assume we know all of this. Does that alter our reality at all or are we already so far down the rabbit hole as to be passive receptors of what the machine feeds us?
It’s not as if reality is all that it’s cracked up to be anyway. Cole says, “The human mind is a mess. The reality evolution left us is an accidental collection of spare parts of make-dos. Consciousness is chattery, convoluted, slippery, spotty, fickle.
The impending era of the quantum computer (wait a couple decades) is likely to make artificial reality feel even more real. Quantum computers might be able to handle all the complexity of the human condition.
“The cat can be alive and dead in a quantum computer,” Cole observes.
The alternative is to fight back. To build Web3 or the spatial internet or the metaverse in our own ideal image. To build back better.
In the meantime, Cole jests that she’s tempted to start selling T-shirts that might tap into a new kind of identity politics: This device is analog! Or maybe: Analog (and only analog) Lives!”