Where are we, anyway?
I hang out with a lot of teachers, and one of my best friends has a lot of fun chaperoning the yearly trip to Washington D.C. (he’s a big history buff, and there’s a lot to love about hanging out around the Capitol). This same friend has also been a partner of mine on myriad video-game based adventures over the years. No, I’m not trying to win an award for most non-sequiturs in an opening paragraph; keep reading. The first time he went on the trip, he found that he could navigate very well around the D.C. area, despite never having spent time getting to know the streets in real life or through maps.
He had, however, recently finished playing Fallout 3. For those of you who don’t know, Fallout 3 takes place in a post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. So while he found his real life trip devoid of craters, mutants, or giant piles of rubble, my friend knew the layout of the city well enough to get around. A few weeks ago, I experienced a smaller version of this phenomenon during my trip to New York City with the Scatterbrained Seminarian.
Some of you already know that the movie Ghostbusters was very important to my childhood. So imagine my joy when the (aforementioned, amazing) Scatterbrained Seminarian told me that we would be spending our time in NYC sightseeing Ghostbusters filming locations. Aside from being super nerdy, this is also a really great way to see the city, since these locations are spread out all over the island.
In any case, our first stop after we left Penn Station was the New York Public Library which, Ghostbusters aside, is awesome all by itself. So Rachel and I had fun checking out the famous lion statues, Bryant park, and of course, the reading room where Venkman utters his iconic line:
“Back off, man. I’m a scientist.”
All that has a cool, weird air of unreality to it. Standing in the place where Venkman mouthed off to the librarian, or where Louis jumped over that stone wall into Central Park (that’s where he ran when the demon dog was chasing him, by the way) was pretty surreal and amazing, since Ghostbusters is one of the first movies I can remember watching. But another interesting moment came in the lobby and upper foyer of the Public Library. It is worth noting that those locations are never shown in the movies. They are, however, one of the mission locations in the (spectacularly well-made) Ghostbusters video game. It’s an odd sort of deja vu. I had never been anywhere in New York City before, let alone the Public Library, and yet, I had moved through that space enough to know what I was going to see when I walked around each corner.
Or rather, I had moved through a simulation of the space.
It got me thinking, though: In our modern age of video games and cyberspace and globe-spanning societies, to what extent is the notion of “place” as a physical location somewhere on the Earth obsolete?
That same friend and I frequently play Minecraft together. Minecraft is an excellent example of simulated space that is real for many, many people. For the uninitiated, it’s easy to look at it and say that it’s “only a game.” But with the increasing pervasiveness of online, social gameplay, the electronic realms of Minecraft have become places where friends from across the street or across the world will gather to imagine and create and play, the same way my brother and I might have done on summer nights in the Cleveland Metroparks when we were growing up. So if these “fictional” worlds are places where the same kinds of social interactions are happening, then does it really matter that they don’t have a latitude and longitude outside of a computer server?
It’s a question that is only going to get more difficult to answer as time goes on and technology improves. The ability to simulate physical space is getting better and better. Let’s imagine that through some kind of neural interface, we could deliver a simulation of, say, Central Park, that was perfect, for all intents and purposes. That is, from a participant’s point of view, the experience of moving through the simulation and that of moving through the actual place would be completely indistinguishable. If multiple people were participating in the same simulation, then one could have the same social interaction through it as he or she could by actually going to Central Park. So if the sensory experience is flawless, and if the social interaction is still happening, then isn’t it possible that a person not physically being in New York City is just a technicality?
I’m not advocating that we all retreat to video games, or that we embrace the dystopian world of Surrogates, but it is an interesting question: What qualities are essential to the idea of being “in a place”? Is it a sensory thing? A shared experience thing? Or are are there things about physical presence that cannot be separated from a true experience of “place”? The regular readers (or even people who joined as recently as yesterday) know that I’m a big proponent of technology. Through technology, we have already surmounted some of the things that prevent me from “being in” a place from which I am geographically distant, or a place that does not “exist” in a physical location in the “real world.” It is that technology which allowed me to explore the New York Public Library before I ever set foot in the city, or plumb the depths of Nashville, dodging creepers and searching for gold, diamonds, and obsidian (yes, our Minecraft world is called Nashville — look, you start running out of creative names eventually). In any case, I am not prepared to say that there are things specific and unique to physical presence (other than the physical presence itself, which I’m not sure isn’t just incidental) that cannot be surmounted with technology. I’m not saying that they will, but I am not prepared to assume that they can’t.
I had a conversation with the Scatterbrained Seminarian about this yesterday, and it revealed a few things to me: One is that any technology that offers us a “perfect” simulation of physical location and activity has philosophical and ethical implications (What does it mean for embodiment? Were the dualists right all along? What about the people left out? Who is this technology going to be used to exploit? And dozens of other questions that are complicated and troublesome and that seriously harsh my mellow). The other is that I come across as a bit of a zealot. Hell, maybe I am a bit of a zealot.
I meant what I said: This entry is not about me thinking that life inside a computer is better than life in the real world, or wishing I had a robot body so I never had to leave my apartment. I like going places. Seeing people. Speaking. Shaking hands. Hugging. (“Actual, physical contact!” to use another quote from Ghostbusters). I guess my question is, are we heading toward a time where my preference of going for a walk down a real street instead of down a virtual one is roughly equivalent to someone who prefers to write letters instead of sending emails? Maybe, maybe not. Time will tell. But I’m excited for the potential applications of increasingly “real” virtual spaces. I’ve already written about technology’s potential for bringing people together; what if we lived in a world where we could use those tools to teach people about far off places and cultures, using sensually rich experiences? What if someone paralyzed from birth could smell the air on top of Mt. Rainier? What if a CEO could taste the polluted water that his or her company was responsible for in a developing nation? What if you could feel the dirt between your fingers as you created something entirely new, with people you’ll never get the chance to interact with in the “real world”? How much more together and connected could we be in a world like that? There are dark, heavy questions about this kind of technology, to be sure, but I’m hopeful and excited.
As always, thank you for reading. More to follow.