October 26, 2004

Real virtuality

Note to gamers: I don't know how many gamers actually find this little blog, but if you are a gamer, and especially if you play MMORPGs, then add The Daedalus Project to your bookmarks and participate in his ongoing surveys. Don't forget to answer his essay questions as well. His first couple of articles are not that well done, but his more recent ones are showing a growing appreciation and understanding of the community of online gamers as well as a more thorough grounding in sociology. Judging from his articles, he's one of the few students who actually pays attention during graduate seminars.

I am beginning to understand that the geek survey I took awhile back was far more revealing than I appreciated at the time. In many ways, I am forever trapped between two worlds, the real one and the virtual one. And yes, I expect you, whoever you are, to click on those two links and actually read them, because therein lies the main dichotomy of my shattered personality: the real and virtual are, to my mind, completely interchangeable.

Around 250,000 years ago (Creationists may leave now, this will annoy you) humanity did something no other organism in the 4 billion year history of our world had ever done: it learned how to choose. One side effect of that learning was the need to form an internal vision of the external world, separate them, and use the internal world to project the possible outcomes of doing something unnatural. What was that first choice? I don't know, but the division between the two worlds has remained and that division is the source of both our genius and our madness. For a sane person, the lines between the two worlds are very clear and easy to distinguish. A sane person can both accurately project options using their internal world and make profitable decisions based on those projections in the external world. Insanity of any kind occurs when the line between the real and unreal blurs, loses distinction, or flat-out vanishes altogether. All insanity can be seen as an inability to make profitable real-world decisions. This inability is directly linked to either a failure to make accurate projections using the internal world, or a failure to carry out those projections in the external world.

Like it or not, Descartes' formulation of the internal/external dualism that both helps and hinders us is flawed, because it assumes that man is the center of the world which revolves around him. The external reality which Descartes de-emphasizes in order to prove his point is, in truth, as real as the internal reality he chooses to focus on. "I think, therefore I am," is most certainly true, but that does not detract from the bruise on your leg when you run into the corner of a hardwood desk while dodging the groping hands of an egocentric colleague. Both the internal and external worlds are equally real, and equally virtual.

Physicists discuss "many-worlds", while social scientists debate the reality of "virtual" ones, and yet neither group notices that the object of their discussion has a dualistic existence all its own which lands it squarely in both camps. Every world being studied exists simultaneously in the external reality of the researcher and internally in the virtual reality of their imagination. Scientific speculation and experimentation is designed to precisely lay out the borders of the external world and prevent the internal world from bleeding over into the external one and thus creating a "false" result. However, if quantum mechanics is also real, then there is no division between the internal world and the external one at all because any "false" result will immediately spring off into a new world where the "false" return is true!

Anything we can imagine is real, but that does not mean it is real here and now. The difference between my insanity and your sanity is a function of both current definition and real-world position on a contiguous and constantly shifting time-space continuum. Your sanity is sane here and now, while in my world, you're the crazy one.

We walk through a world of wars, economic inequality, greed, gluttony, egocentrism, arrogance, and countless other human foibles, all of which spring from the mistaken assumption that my internal world (or yours) is a true and accurate representation of the external world. It is not, and it cannot be, because as soon as I imagine something, it slips off into one of those parallel worlds where it is real and this one is imaginary. The core of my own personal insanity is a profound preference for those worlds which are spun off from this one through misinterpretation, misrepresentation, misapprehension, and plain old misunderstanding. The world of my imagining is more preferrable for me because it is far more flexible than the world of your reality. This flexibility in turn pleases my need to endlessly control and manipulate the outcome of every mistake so that it serendipitously becomes something profoundly divine and there is always a happy ending.

I'm not the sharpest tack in the box. As a result, I have made many unrealistic choices, far more than those of you lucky enough to be both sharp and sane. If you were me, wouldn't you prefer a virtual world as well? If I were you, I'd certainly prefer reality!