Virtual Reality from The Balcony

It used to be called the “new new thing.” That next piece of networked hardware or software that was going to blow open new vistas in human experience and open the wallets of people all across the land. Every once in a while the pundits decide that it’s virtual reality gear. Oculus Rift and MS Hololens are the current standard bearers of this particular dream. Virtual reality is an externalization of interior space. It’s a technology that’s meant to take things we imagine and pipe them directly into someone else’s imagination as a product you can buy.

We call it “virtual reality” because very little suspension of disbelief is required. The audience member shouldn’t have to interpret or fill in pieces of the dream. The dream itself provides all the fidelity of a “real” experience. Of course, this is a very naive view of how reality is experienced by humans.

Once the uncanny valley is traversed, the importance of the hardware will fall away. That means technology will have defeated the human sensory system’s ability to distinguish between a created reality and a given reality. It then becomes a question of what virtual reality you desire. When you escape this world and enter a predesigned world-like experience, what will you choose?

The model, Kate Upton, plays a character in a video game called “Game of War.” Celebrities can sell the specifications of their likeness, and create filmed segments, that put them inside these virtual reality experiences. It won’t be long before individual game players actually pay to have all of their personal data uploaded into the game engine so that they too can be rendered into the virtual world. There’s only one real Kate Upton, but in virtual reality everyone can participate in a story with the model (or a model of the model).

Interrogating these fantasies becomes a key not just to the potential future of the technology, but to the minds behind the effort. The San Francisco-based theater group, The Collected Works has taken on the challenge by deciding that now is the right time to produce Jean Genet’s “The Balcony.” In the play, clients in a brothel pay to play the roles of figures of authority while a rebellion unfolds in the city around them. Many meta-narratives ensue for the characters. Even the audience is implicated in the play’s layers of reality and illusion. Genet gives us virtual reality without the technical apparatus.

The character of the Chief of Police wishes nothing more than to enter the secret desires of the brothel’s customers. He hopes that a customer will choose to impersonate him in their secret virtual reality sessions. One can easily imagine the technologists of virtual reality (the nerds, the geeks) hoping that the audience will choose to enact the role of the creator of technologies It’s always the next step for the latest edition of the “masters of the universe.”

Sometimes a theatrical performance is timed to play with themes coursing through the culture. In this case, the venue couldn’t be more perfect. It’s San Francisco’s Old Mint. You know, the place where they used to print money. The Collected Works has the opportunity to open up the beating heart of the zeitgeist, raise it above their heads, and show it to us in performance.

Let Our Robots Fill Out Your Forms…

Bankers are making use of new technology to determine whether you’re creditworthy. According to the NY Times:

“…they may look to see if potential customers use only capital letters when filling out forms, or at the amount of time they spend online reading terms and conditions–and not so much at credit history.”

They say that “no single signal is definitive, but each is a piece in a mosaic, a predictive picture, compiled by collecting an array of information from diverse sources.”

Fortunately for you, our new firm, HONESTLY, has a whole cloud full of robots standing by to fill out your loan forms for you.

HONESTLY has hacked into all the major banks and new technology providers. When our robots fill out your forms for you, you’ll hit all the right notes for their algorithms. This kind of service has previously only been available to the very rich, but thanks to the marvels of modern cloud-based technology, we can offer robot-driven loan application filling for a low $9.95.

The banks and other loan providers have said that they’ll continually change their matrix of criteria to create better risk assessments. Since we’ve hacked into their systems, have paid off their programmers, and created strong predictive profiles of their key executives, we can anticipate their every move. In fact, sometimes their new criteria comes directly from us, which saves us programming time. That’s a saving we pass on directly to you.

HONESTLY, I can’t think of a reason not to have robots fill out your next loan application.

 

A Particular Kind of a Cold Day

We only seem to talk about big data in terms of predicting buying patterns and targeting consumers. This kind of data analysis is about making invisible patterns visible and transferring information from much larger scales of existence into the scale of human understanding. Climate and the warming of the biosphere may be the most important way we use big data techniques. Amidst the report from the NY Times that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880, when they began to keep records, was this observation:

“February 1985 was the last time global surface temperatures fell below the 20th century average for a given month, meaning that no one younger than 30 has ever lived through a below average month. The last full year that was colder than the 20th century average was 1976.”

We've marked the successive generations based on cultural markers and consuming patterns. But this under-30 generation is the first to experience a specific kind of earth. In this earth, there are no “below average” temperatures. Of course, no one experiences an “average temperature.” One day will be colder than another, and a particular day will be the coldest one ever experienced. But this generation will live out their lives in a fundamentally different possibility space.

What the data tells us is that the set of possible temperatures is slowly moving into a higher range. It's something we can can contemplate in our understanding, but not something we can directly experience. This is the difficulty of direct action with regard to global warming. When we drive our cars, or build a fire in the fireplace it appears to have no effect whatsoever on climate. It's only when you scale it up to the whole human species across the entire planet that the effects are visible. And only then indirectly, using a complex array of sensors, a large historical data set, and a sophisticated simulation of earth's climate.

Hollywood teaches us that there is supposed to be a large explosive event that marks the turning point with climate. We perpetually imagine that event to be in the future, as thought it were a ticking time bomb. There's always time for the hero to intercede and change the course of history. One day, we look up from our newspapers and realize that every human under 30 years of age is already living in that permanently changed world. The possibility of that particular kind of cold day has been foreclosed. It wasn't ever a change that we would directly feel or experience that we should have been looking for; it was a change in what it was possible to experience.

 

The Chicken Comes First

A law passed six years ago by the voters of California came down solidly on the side of the chicken. It was a question of whether the price of eggs outweighed the living conditions of the chickens who produced them. The voters decided that the cages housing chickens should be larger. The chickens should be able to turn around and flap their wings. The fact that they aren't able to do those two things tells you something about their current living conditions.

As the new rules go into effect, the opposition is speaking up. Eggs, they say, as a result of this wicked law, will cost more. And since the producers of all eggs sold in California will have to comply with the law, out-of-state farmers will have to alter their chicken coops too. A long list of complaints have been lodged against the chickens. At the top of the list is the idea that higher egg prices will hurt “the poor” most of all. You see “the poor” rely on the inexpensive egg for protein in their diet.

If we put the chicken ahead of the egg, we're hurting the poor. That's the argument anyway. We can't afford to be kind to chickens. We've put the poor in such tight cages that they can't flap their wings or even turn around. If we increase the price of eggs, the suffering of the poor will become intolerable. The price of eggs is the straw that will break the camel's back. This is the logic we've locked ourselves into. We can't help the chicken and we can't help the poor. Kindness is too expensive.

The key moral question of our age: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

 

 

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