Virtualization 5.0: Resisting the bliss of ignorance

Closing thoughts – Resisting the Bliss of ignorance

There’s a scene in the film The Matrix that resonates strongly with me. If you haven’t seen it, the film is famous for its crazy gravity-defying fight scenes, and equally, for the way it popularized the aeons-old philosophical idea of radical scepticism and made it understandable, perhaps disturbingly so. The film made us question reality like Descartes once did. Is anything we see truly real? In this film’s setting, the answer is no: the world most people know is a fantasy concocted by a malevolent robot civilization, designed to deceive and placate us into being unwitting cattle that is harvested for energy.

Fighting against the killer robots is a plucky band of protagonists. They’ve all been “unplugged” from the Matrix and want to save humanity from this awful fate. Since this is a Hollywood blockbuster, you know they’re going to win, and it’s true, they do achieve a kind of victory before the film (and the trilogy it spawned) wraps up. What I found most interesting along the way though, was the traitor among them. A man named “Cypher” who, unplugged from the Matrix world, now lives a shitty, stressful existence that includes subsisting on a porridge-like gruel. See, Cypher is like that part of me I opened this discussion with; ready to get lost in the fantasy, rather than deal with reality. He wants to be plugged back into the Matrix. He wants to forget.

So, he plugs back into the Matrix for a moment and meets with the bad robots to discuss how to get what he wants. He’s sitting in a lush restaurant, speaking with the big bad AI as a lady strums a harp, and what he says is so stupidly simple, and yet such an unforgettable moment to me.

Cypher: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?

[Takes a bite of steak]

Cypher: Ignorance is bliss.

I don’t say all this because I’m an unhappily sober undergraduate who’d rather be playing games and thus, decided to write about them as a distance second place. I say it because there’s something genuinely profound in my self-indulgent desires here that I think needs to be addressed.

If you think about it, what I’m really saying here is that instead of writing this and doing my part to be a constructive member of society who contributes their ideas for the betterment of all, I’d much rather the quiet life of a social parasite. That kind of phrasing makes the idea more damning, perhaps, but also more real; more accurate.

Maybe it’s projection, but I think a great many people aren’t too different. I think Cypher represents so many of us. It’s hard to view us as conscientious practitioners of sustainability when something as stupid as convenience drives so much of our problematic behaviour. Single-use plastic, cheeseburgers, and the personal car – I think many people would rather see the world burn than give these daily conveniences or indulgences up, even if they’re the ones accelerating our downfall. It’s poetic, I think, that Cypher seems to be ready to sell the entirety of humanity out over some steak. All these years later after a film from 1999, with our growing awareness of the link between beef consumption and climate change, our traitor Cypher here is basically your average Western consumer. We’re the villains, and if I’m frank, I’m not sure we really care that much.

Ignorance is bliss.

It’s painfully obvious to say, but maybe needs to be said regardless: We generally seem to prefer to meet our own needs and desires right now, than we care about future generations, or even other people alive today. This is, arguably, a bleak or pessimistic view of humanity, and yet, perhaps it’s a realistic one too. Importantly, this kind of perspective is often missing from how we think about, how we communicate, and how we practice sustainability.

We often go into this whole thing with some huge assumptions. Firstly, we assume that humans are worth saving from annihilation. Secondly, we assume that humans do indeed want to be saved, and will do what’s required, if only we communicate it the right way, motivate them the right way, design society the right way, and so on. This article is an excellent example, because it suggests that redesigning society towards a more virtualized existence would provide a way to reduce natural resource consumption, and thus maybe promote the longevity of our species. It assumes, as a starting point, that doing so is a good idea.

We assume that people don’t do the right thing now because they’re not sufficiently empowered, educated, or motivated. But what if, in addition to all that being true, there’s also this more basic problem? What if, at least some of us are perfectly willing to see our species end because the alternative, saving ourselves, is a real grind, a lot of hard work, and takes a lot of sacrifices? What if we’re genuinely happy just saying “fuck it, rather die”? This is an idea similar to “The Fall” mentioned earlier. How do we want to spend our time? If we’re not chasing immortality, then at what point is it acceptable for us to give in; to our desires, to our apathy, or to other things.

It’s not like this would ever be an overtly stated position for us; we’re not about to enshrine defeatism into a Universal Declaration at the UN. But maybe, just maybe, we signal that collective surrender through other channels. Maybe the way we act, and indeed the way we don’t act, represents those interests. Almost like another school of thought about sustainability – one that you won’t ever see raised at the UN, in academic journals, or in mainstream discussions – a philosophy that is only ever in the background as a common thread between many different societal failings.

What if this helps explain where we’re at right now as a society? It’s an obvious, well-trodden answer to explain the ills of our world on human apathy and indifference, and yet perhaps it’s because it has become so cliché that we have become numb to the truth of this reality? Is the biggest conflict of sustainability one between believers and non-believers; between say, science advocates and science deniers? Or is perhaps the biggest battle right now the one driven by these often-unspoken selfish desires we all have? A battle between the people who care, and the people who honestly just don’t. Importantly, sometimes, each of us can play both roles – hero one moment, and villain the next.

This is a largely philosophical point about human world views, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. It is ultimately a deeply philosophical question: to what extent should humans indulge their desires, and at what cost?

I mention it in closing because other, future work in this project will have to focus in more detail on the challenge of communicating sustainability, a topic I only briefly touched upon here. Often, in sustainability communication, we focus on human psychology and this underlying philosophical problem goes unaddressed. For example, we might focus on the ways that humans best respond psychologically to new information. This might help us communicate more effectively, and it might even engender the types of responses we want, but it doesn’t directly address the underlying question of how much we should be manipulating behaviours.

There is an ethical question here that recurs throughout my writing, about the extent to which we should resist the allure of blissful ignorance. How best should we spend our time? And how harshly should we judge the traitors, the Cyphers, amongst us?

Virtualization 4.0: Utility and Sustainability

It might seem in other discussions like I’ve painted the idea of all-consuming virtual worlds as something largely negative –  not just as a distraction to everyday life, but on a broader scale, as a pitfall along the way to development, or a detour that civilizations might get lost in. It’s possible, however, that virtual worlds offer some promising upsides for sustainability. These are not that obvious right now, but there are examples out there worth examining that demonstrate what those positives might look like.

Virtual worlds and their potential for sustainable consumption.

Compare the ecological footprint of someone who lives their life entirely in the real world, and someone who spends a great deal of their life in virtual environments. Both will need to eat real food, have real shelter, and so on. In some areas though, the VR person’s impact might be dramatically reduced. It’s in those moments of everyday consumption – driven less by biological needs, and more by psychology – that someone who spends their time (and money) in a virtual environment might really shine.

We often buy things for status. The clothes we wear, the cars we drive, even the bottles of water we drink out of – for many of us, the items we consume help signify and shape our identity. Since this consumer culture is often the driver of many sustainability challenges, it’s worth considering how its impacts can be blunted in certain environments[1], and virtual environments seem to offer genuine promise here.

Let’s use shoes as an example. You buy shoes for many reasons. One reason is unavoidably “real world”: you use them to cover your feet. But other reasons, like buying them for status, don’t necessarily have to happen in the “real world” to effectively scratch that consumer itch of yours. And if you buy shoes in the virtual world instead of the real, the ecological footprint is reduced effectively to just one, relatively cheap, thing – to the energy required to power the simulation[2].

With the caveat that not all consumption can be virtualized, take a moment to appreciate what’s on offer here: reducing large sections of consumerism to a what can become over time a single natural resource draw – to energy. Consider the entire life cycle of a real-world shoe; the natural resource extraction and refinement, the distribution and logistics, the post-life disposal and waste. Consider too, just how many different computers running in mines, warehouses, distribution centres, and retail outlets it takes to get a Nike shoe from the Earth into a Foot Locker store – maybe as many as it takes to get a shoe from someone’s imagination into the pixels on your screen, maybe even more.

All of that real world, socially-driven consumption around a shoe involves a wealth of different resources, and yet almost all of that in a virtualized environment is replaced with just a demand for one thing: energy.

The one resource, perhaps above all others, that the universe offers in abundance.

Hopefully you’re seeing the undercurrents of the idea here. I’m not just talking about buying virtual sneakers, but about civilizational development trajectories: if you wanted to make your civilization more sustainable then surely one excellent path towards achieving that involves limiting, to the maximum extent possible, your physical presence and through that your physical draw on the world’s resources. It only makes sense, then, to think that virtualization (and other forms of “dematerialization”) offer a promising way forward here.

 The future of sustainable consumption is…$60 monocles?!

EVEMonocle
Image courtesy of CCP Games

The dashing gentleman above is an example of what a player’s character might look like in the game I used to work on, EVE Online. For many years in the game, these player’s characters were represented mostly just by a single portrait that players could customize, posing their avatar in various clothes, lighting, hair styles, and so on. The game was about spaceships, so you mostly just stared at whatever ship your character was flying in space, rather than their body. But eventually, the game was updated to include 3D environments that players could walk around in. And with that, came the opportunity for the studio making the game to sell virtual clothes. Among the first release of items was that monocle you can see our chap above sporting. Yep, we tried to sell a monocle to our players. We also charged $60 USD for it.

It didn’t go so well.

EVEMonocle2.jpg
The headline sums it up nicely.[3]

I was at the company when this all unfolded. It hurt us significantly, and part of me resented the idea that we would sell virtual goods at all, let alone for such outrageous prices. Ironically, part of why I left this industry was because I wanted to study sustainability and do some good instead. All these years later, my feelings are far more mixed. I can see how, in principle, something like this can offer surprising, and surprisingly large, gains in this new area I’ve shifted focus to.

Returning to the monocle, or “monocle-gate” as it was insufferably labelled; all of this happened essentially a lifetime ago in games industry terms, around 2011. Since that time, the purchase of in-game “cosmetic” items has now become far more accepted, and far more commonplace. I think it would spin people’s heads to know just how far this industry of virtual goods has grown in such a short time.

To illustrate this, I’ll start by comparing two examples of in-game transactions (often dubbed “microtransactions” because they’re usually only small amounts of money[4]):

This is one of the first ever microtransactions offered; some armour for your horse in a fantasy game:

HorseArmor
I think it looks good, personally. For more information on this moment in gaming history see this article.[5]

Though not quite monocle-gate, it wasn’t received well either. Back then in 2006, the idea of asking $2.50 for a cosmetic item was new, and the game was importantly only single-player: there’s less motivation to make a status-type purchase in a non-social environment.

Here’s the big change, however:

As games have shifted increasingly online, even gameplay experiences that once were typically single-player and non-social have become the opposite. Just five years ago, if you played the biggest basketball video game out there, NBA2K, you’d do so largely by yourself or with friends on the couch beside you, maybe at most play some online games with other people.

In the last few years that’s changed, and now this game, and many others like it, are becoming more like the MMO genre – a persistent, always-online world. Now, in these basketball games, you have your own apartment, and you occupy a neighbourhood shared with other players. Naturally, this means there’s shops too. Because the game world is now social those items you buy can be shown off to other people as you walk the neighbourhood (or play on court). Status purchasing makes more sense, and I believe this is key to why we’ve seen this change.

This is the second example of microtransactions, and it shows just how detailed, embedded, and mainstream this has now become. So, to illustrate this, let me take you on a quick tour around the neighbourhood in one of the latest versions of that basketball game, NBA2K.

There’s a barber where you can drop in for a haircut change, which you can pay for with real money, of course:

NBA2k1

There’s countless clothes stores too, for basically any style. Inside are genuine brands, and there’s a strange new grey area created here. It’s somehow more real when they’re officially branded Levi’s jeans. They may not be “real” but they are certainly “authentic” or “genuine” and this surely helps blur the lines between real and virtual even further.

NBA2K (3)

There’s advertising everywhere, too. The billboard above that store is advertising another in-game item, also potentially purchasable for real money.

Speaking of branded goods, why not stop by JBL and get yourself some dope headphones to walk around the neighbourhood in?

NBA2K (4)

And, of course, there’s a Foot Locker with all the big shoe brands you’d expect. I wasn’t using shoes earlier as an example by accident.

NBA2K (5)

People drop into this virtual Foot Locker here and spend virtual currency on virtual shoes for reasons like status and prestige.

NBA2K (1)

To be clear, the virtual currency (VC) most things are sold for can be “earned” in-game by playing, but because there is so much money to be made in this now, the game is increasingly designed these days to be less rewarding in that regard, and through that, to encourage players to reach into their wallets, just like they would in a real Foot Locker store.

The point being made here is we’ve come a long way: from $2.50 horse armour developed in-house, to officially branded Foot Locker stores slinging virtual Nikes in a fully licensed sports game franchise. For the publisher of NBA2K games, virtual goods are now a huge part of their revenue model and have proven highly successful. Oddly, this success comes despite often significant consumer backlash. Games journalist Luke Plunkett captures the broader consumer sentiment in a scathing article about NBA2K’s 2019 release of the game, and about the games industry use of microtransactions more broadly:

2K19 is like a free-to-play mobile game, a predatory experience where the game is always shaking you down for your lunch money, even after you’ve already given it $US50 ($70). To play 2K19 is to be in a constant state of denial and refusal, always aware that in every aspect of the game, from the gyms to the stores to the action on the court itself, you can either spend VC [virtual currency – the game’s money] or be told that you’re missing out on something.

It is not fun to be around.[6]

There may remain a vocal portion of the player base and industry commentators loudly protesting virtual goods sales, but the overwhelming majority seem to have spoken with their wallets. Below is the game publisher, Take Two Interactive, reporting the sales figures for 2019:

Net revenue grew to $1.249 billion, as compared to $480.8 million in last year’s [2018] fiscal third quarter. Recurrent consumer spending (virtual currency, add-on content and in-game purchases, including the allocated value of virtual currency and add-on content included in special editions of certain games) increased and accounted for 24% of total net revenue. The largest contributors to net revenue in fiscal third quarter 2019 were Red Dead Redemption 2, NBA 2K19 and NBA 2K18.[7]

Almost a quarter of all revenue, and figures in the hundreds of millions, driven largely by the sale of two basketball games, and chiefly, the virtual goods sales that happen within them.

We’ve come a long way from horse armour, indeed! The question now is, where might this trend take us?

Breaking down what this all means:

Shifting consumer culture towards virtual worlds might seem like a ludicrous concept, but what I’m trying to show here is that it’s already happening. On a big scale too. One of the most popular games right now is Fortnite, and it’s made over a billion USD in 2018-2019 from purely cosmetic item sales – ones that don’t affect gameplay advantage[8]. In other words, a billion dollars that might have been spent on real world items for similar reasons, has instead been spent on pixels, which largely only needed energy to produce[9]. Big players like Levi’s, Nike, Foot Locker, and big revenue figures mean the industry is valued somewhere around 15 billion USD[10], a huge figure for something not many people talk about at all, let alone in sustainability terms.

There’s a great deal more that can be said about the virtual economy too. It brings many co-benefits, like offering new types of consumer empowerment and control over the goods they purchase, and even allowing them to be producers (owners of the means of production?!) themselves, as creators of in-game content, or people who can monetize their in-game prestige or fame for real world wealth[11].

Virtual goods economies also have a proudly long tradition with social goods, too. For decades now, sales of virtual goods have often been used to donate towards charities, or fund other social enterprises. The largest of MMO-type games like EVE Online and World of Warcraft run regular, highly successful fundraisers, providing millions of dollars in assistance. This example here is an in-game pet from the previously mentioned game World of Warcraft – a Cinder Kitten!

Good Kitty
Sales proceeds of this fiery furball raised over $2 million for relief efforts following Superstorm Sandy.

Levelling up: Games as a competetive sport (E-Sports)

Meaning “electronic sports”, “esports”, if you haven’t heard of it, is the idea of professional gaming. In relation to virtual goods, a more recent twist is that proceeds from virtual goods sales now can also be combined into a pool that serves as prize money for e-sports athletes in major gaming tournaments. These prize pools have ballooned from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of millions in the last five years, driven largely by virtual goods sales. This has, in turn, helped promote the further professionalization of athletes competing, and grown the legitimacy of esports further. These in-game tournaments and esports more generally are now economies in their own right, involving broadcasters, analysts, announcers, along with sponsors for the shows, and sponsors and endorsements for the individual teams and players. To put it all in perspective, an esports athlete coming to the US for a tournament, for example, can sometimes file for the same VISA used by other professional athletes – a golf or tennis star, for example.

ESports at MSG NYNY
Madison Square Garden, New York, sold out on consecutive nights hosting one of the largest annual esports tournaments.

‘When you fill up “The World’s Most Famous Arena”—home to the New York Knicks, Rangers, and the “Fight of Century” between Ali and Frazier—and you do it on consecutive nights, you send notice that you’re to be taken seriously.’[12]

Clearly there is a culture growing here too, not just an economy. Gaming personalities, analysts, athletes, and journalists are all earning money and creating economic value, but they’re also shaping a new culture that draws ever more people in. This culture drives dozens of different economies today while just in its infancy. It will surely drive many more as it develops. Virtual worlds and virtual goods are part of this broader movement, and they’re likely only going to increase in economic and cultural value into the future.

Increasingly, there is a blurring of the line between real and virtual worlds; the status we achieve in them, the sense of belonging and accomplishment they provide, and the wealth, even, that we achieve in them.

Perhaps it was something like this that drove a company like Facebook in 2014 to purchase the virtual reality headset Oculus Rift for a then head-scratching 2 billion USD[13]. Many couldn’t understand why the social network giant wanted to get in on the virtual worlds industry, and why they were willing to pay so much for one of the earlier headset technologies that showed promise and potential for broad adoption.

A lot of commentators seemed to focus on everything I have so far; on gaming and the virtual economies around them. What’s interesting to consider are the broader applications of a virtual environment and economies that could spring up around them. As just one powerful example, imagine being able to buy cheap front row tickets to your favourite sporting team, musician, comedian, or whatever else, using VR? Facebook may have lofty ambitions for virtual worlds beyond games, while hoping for a similar ability to draw people in; to create cultures, and of course, economic value.

Virtualization offers attractive incentives to many companies. It’s often far cheaper to provide a virtual product than a real world one, and although price points are significantly lowered in virtual environments, the overall margins are far larger (hence it being so insanely lucrative for the companies that have done well on virtual goods sales). The potential here for new economies seems to catch the eye of business, but the potential gains in resource reduction should equally catch the eye of sustainability practitioners and advocates. Perhaps we should be having more discussions about virtualization, virtual goods, and how to use combine civic advocacy, business innovation, and government policy to encourage reductions in natural resource draws.

Interestingly though, this idea of increasingly pervasive virtualization of goods will battle both indifference and ignorance from people unaware of the virtual goods industry already out there, and it will also meet some hostility from gamer and game analysts, who are often in conflict with game studios over virtual goods sales. Virtual goods sales have at times been deeply predatory and problematic, as Luke Plunkett’s earlier article demonstrated.

Another recent example is controversy surrounding “loot boxes”. “Loot boxes” are essentially randomly generated boxes of items that players can spend currency on (usually real-world money). Because the items in the box are randomized, there is a chance each time for a good or bad item. They operate similarly to poker machines, and with similar odds for great “payouts”.  What we have here, then, is huge gaming companies employing psychologically manipulative practices to lure gamers, often children, into gambling real money for virtual items.

Even if it may offer some promises for more sustainable consumption, the road towards virtualization, quite clearly already, has its own pitfalls. These flashpoints of controversy all have the familiar whiff of hyper-capitalist greed that we’d find most other places, whether trading oil commodities or offering real estate loans. As discouraging as that is, it’s also an indicator of just how real and high stakes this world, and this industry around it, is becoming.

When the sharks have begun circling, you can be confident there’s something meaty there.

The Transcension Hypothesis, Bucky Fuller, and the Sleepers

It’s not entirely correct of me to say earlier that the Fermi Paradox assumes that advanced civilizations would be motivated to colonize space. This is because the Fermi paradox is something of a living idea; one that is updated as new critiques are made. This idea I’ve focused on – of advanced civilizations essentially leaving our universe and disappearing to a virtual world within, has in fact been added to the theory (as officially as possible). Stephen Webb’s compendium of solutions to the Fermi paradox, If the Universe is Teeming With Aliens … Where is Everybody?[14] now references an idea like the one I’m discussing alongside 74 other possible explanations.

This is thanks to the paper by John Smart[15] outlining an idea called the “Transcension Hypothesis”. Smart and I aren’t quite speaking the same language, but we’re both playing the same game here, pun intended.

There are a few key pieces of source material worth quoting at length here, before I return to assumable them all into something understandable, and something I have some experience myself with.

Firstly, what is Smart’s “Transcension Hypothesis” about? The clearest and most concise summary, sadly, isn’t in the abstract of the paper itself, which is quite dense. Instead, I prefer this summary from H+Pedia – a transhumanist version of Wikipedia essentially, and interesting in their own right.

In the “developmental singularity hypothesis”, also called the transcension hypothesis, Smart proposes that STEM compression, as a driver of accelerating change, must lead cosmic intelligence to a future of highly miniaturized, accelerated, and local “transcension” to extra-universal domains, rather than to space-faring expansion within our existing universe. The hypothesis proposes that once civilizations saturate their local region of space with their intelligence, they need to leave our visible, macroscopic universe in order to continue exponential growth of complexity and intelligence, and disappear from this universe, thus explaining the Fermi paradox.[16]


One key idea here is that long-term sustainability might be cosmologically quiet – hiding its secrets from us

The idea here, as you can hopefully see, echoes my own about civilization development and virtualization. As I said earlier, if you want to optimize your ecological footprint, you will minimize your resource consumption. Smart’s paper echoes this with ideas about “highly miniaturized, accelerated, and local “transcension” to extra-universal domains, rather than to space-faring expansion within our existing universe”.

Think about this in terms of science fiction clichés. It’s extremely common to see future versions of humanity where we’ve colonized other planets, spreading out like locusts to consume, extract, and expand (I feel like sometimes in these movies we are the baddies and we don’t even know it). Less common than this story, historically, is the one where future versions of humanity instead colonize virtual worlds, expanding inwards, as paradoxical as that sounds. If they were to take this route, then there wouldn’t be as much going on in the physical world, perhaps. An interesting idea to ponder, how those two “worlds” might co-exist – but the important point for now, in terms of the Fermi Paradox is that a civilization that develops into “inner space” won’t leave much of a footprint in “outer space”.

Perhaps achieving sustainability means we won’t leave a large footprint to be noticed for other civilizations. If advanced civilizations optimize their existence to vastly minimize their environmental impact, and thereby perhaps, their visible presence, this could help explain the Fermi paradox in a way that’s maybe even uplifting (success is out there, it’s just quiet).

To elaborate on this idea, I’ll include a portion of the abstract from Smart’s paper, worth quoting at length so as to capture the general “feel” of the idea, at least.

The emerging science of evolutionary developmental (“evo devo”) biology can aid us in thinking about our universe as both an evolutionary system, where most processes are unpredictable and creative, and a developmental system, where a special few processes are predictable and constrained to produce far-future-specific emergent order, just as we see in the common developmental processes in two stars of an identical population type, or in two genetically identical twins in biology.

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.[17]

There’s a whole lot to process there. In short, Smart is arguing a few key points:

  • The science of evolutionary development presents two ideas about evolution, one as a chaotic and unpredictable system, and another where a “special few processes” are predictable, almost inevitable. In this hypothesis, on a civilizational level, these processes are “constrained to produce a far-future-specific emergent order”. In other words, to produce predictable outcomes.
  • This theory argues that every advanced civilization will encounter a situation that represents that second type of evolutionary development – a process that is predictable. This is because, on a long enough timescale, they will desire a development path that shifts from physical space, towards “inner space” (maybe virtualized space?), a “computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter”.
  • This shift towards an increasingly smaller physical profile, towards “inner space” may represent a solution to the Fermi Paradox. Civilizations that achieved advanced levels of sustainability would not, according to this theory, leave a significant physical footprint and thus be difficult to discover.

This idea of Smart’s is echoed in a far earlier work, from the great thinker and futurist Buckminster Fuller. Bucky talked about this same idea in terms of “ephemeralization” which is explained nicely below:

Ephemeralization is the ability of technological advancement to do “more and more with less and less until eventually you can do everything with nothing,” that is, an accelerating increase in the efficiency of achieving the same or more output (products, services, information, etc.) while requiring less input (effort, time, resources, etc.). Fuller’s vision was that ephemeralization will result in ever-increasing standards of living for an ever-growing population despite finite resources. From Wikipedia

Sounds quite sustainability-related huh? Sounds quite a bit like this transcension hypothesis, too. And these ideas I have of my own about the potential importance of virtual worlds to sustainability, well it all intermingles quite nicely indeed, if I can say so, while adjusting my $60 virtual monocle.

…and the Sleepers?

Right, so… yes, a little confession is perhaps in order. Like I said, I used to work on this game EVE Online, and I was a writer there. It was a wonderful environment in that sense, because the game embraced concepts of transhumanism and other philosophically rich domains quite openly. Fertile grounds for a writer with an interest in these topics like myself.

At one point, the game was releasing a large expansion to its content that would feature a new alien race. My role as a writer was to help shape the story of that race. My brief was more or less that they should be “super advanced and ahead of our time”.

So, the story I created about them was almost literally everything you’ve just read.

It’s so weird. That I’m trying to write seriously paper about sustainability, and that this part of my past life keeps recurring, haunting me like a ghost. Something I wrote as fiction is now something I feel a need to talk about as a potential reality.

This race, the “Sleepers” as they were known, had disappeared into a virtual world, into “inner space”, just like Smart describes. A huge part of their advanced technology was derived from fullerenes, a type of carbon molecule invented by that same “Bucky” fellow, my way of giving nod to his own ideas of ephemeralization. And I was there in that world, that virtual world, as a real person working in a virtual world, roleplaying a real person who was investigating this alien race that had disappeared into a virtual world and…the lines blur.

It was only years later, reading Smart’s paper, that I realized something I wrote about as fiction might be an idea of genuine interest to serious minds.

Vitrauze
Image courtesy of CCP Games. Art by me 😉

The image above hints at the what the structures housing the Sleeper civilization look like. The image was released alongside a short story I wrote that accompanied it and intended to conjure a feeling of detachment. The cosmos surrounding the facility glows red with life while the facility housing the Sleepers –vanished to their VR world within, if they even remain – languishes in a static black and white monochrome.

We made sure (at least at the time I was there) that players had no direct interactions with the Sleepers. All that remained were these silent, enigmatic buildings, and the fearsomely powerful worker drones that sustained the colony’s physical needs. There was no “big bad villain” in this expansion of the game, which certainly bucked the trend of how most games tell their stories. But with the right nudges here and there, the players found an enjoyable mystery.

In this case, players could only pillage these places for scraps of understanding; they could only scratch at the surface of greatness as they pilfered the Sleeper’s sites for breadcrumbs. I was trying to make the experience as close as I could to what it might be really be like, encountering a civilization that exemplified the transcension hypothesis. I was doing it before I had even heard of that term or read that paper. I was doing it, as an example of the paper’s thesis.

Life is strange.


Footnotes

[1] Of course, it’s worth considering dismantling it too, but those are well-explored paths. This isn’t an argument I’ve heard others make, so it’s my focus right here. We have a million eyeballs on that problem, you don’t get much more from a million-and-one, and certainly not at the cost of us not exploring this a little bit further, right? Great.

[2] There is an exception here, of course, since computers require a lot more than just energy, but we’ll shelve that consideration momentarily.

[3] Kuchera, B. (2018, July 4). Leaks, riots, and monocles: How a $60 in-game item almost destroyed EVE Online. Ars Technica.

[4] Perhaps, given that term, you can see why a $60 item, and a monocle of all bloody things, went down so badly?

[5] Fahey, M. (2016, April 4). Never Forget Your Horse Armour. Kotaku.

[6] Plunkett, L. (2018, September 12). NBA 2K19 Is A Nightmarish Vision Of Our Microtransaction-Stuffed Future. Kotaku.

[7] BusinessWire.com. (2019, February 6). Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. Reports Strong Results for Fiscal Third Quarter 2019. Retrieved from BusinessWire.com: https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20190206005102/en/Take-Two-Interactive-Software-Reports-Strong-Results-Fiscal

[8] Fagan, K. (2018, July 20). Fortnite — a free video game — is a billion-dollar money machine. Business Insider.

[9] More thoroughly, there are the indirect resource requirements of the people needed to develop those pixels, so there is a broader resource drain still, it should be noted.

[10] Bonder, A. (2016, December 25). 5 lessons from the $15 billion virtual goods economy. VentureBeat.

[11] Video game streamers, for example, are massive celebrities. The top streamer, Ninja, amassed a staggering 218 million human hours watched on his channel in 2018. YouTube’s largest star, PewDiePie, while now a media icon in his own right, launched his career in the same way as Ninja, as a video games streamer.

[12] Cunningham, S. (2016, October 27). How Video Gamers Sold Out Madison Square Garden. Inside Hook.

[13] Kovach, S. (2014, March 26). Facebook Is Buying Oculus Rift, The Greatest Leap Forward In Virtual Reality, For $US2 Billion. Business Insider.

[14] Webb, S. (2002). If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY? (2nd ed.). Copernicus.

[15] Smart, J. M. (2012, September). The transcension hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI. Acta Astronautica, 78, pp. 55-68.

[16] H+Pedia is a Humanity+ project to spread accurate, accessible, non-sensational information about transhumanism, including radical life extension, futurism and other emerging technologies and their impact to the general public – From their website main page.

[17] Smart, J. M. (2012, September). The transcension hypothesis: Sufficiently advanced civilizations invariably leave our universe, and implications for METI and SETI. Smart,, 78, pp. 55-68.

Virtualization 3.0: Civilizational development

Having worked in the video games industry, and now studying sustainability, I feel I have a better perspective than most on the interplay between these topics. It’s a strange combination, I realize, but the interplay between them is surprisingly large, and much of it stems from the unique way in which games are consumed.

I have seen first-hand how all-consuming some video games can be. I don’t just mean addictive either, I mean life-consuming, and even lifereplacing. At various moments in my career I would meet people who played the game I worked on. They would become utterly invested in the game, to the point “playing” hardly capture it. To them, it was a second life, and I could hardly blame them. We wanted this world we created to be exactly that.

For me too, the lines blurred heavily between the game world and reality, and the relationship I had with the game was complex. It was both something I created and something I consumed. Something I lived in and worked in, and worked on. A world I was paid to create, but also got lost in myself – my favourite kind of gameplay was just sitting around “roleplaying. Interactions with other people inside the world mixed between real world banter, and in-character drama and in-world action. At one point, I was running something called “live events” where I would take control of in-game characters, such as a menacing invasion force that would fight it out against our players. An experiment that pushed the edges of narrative – now the characters lept off the page into a living, breathing, world, in a story that would unfold in real time before the eyes of thousands of players.

There’s a reason this has become the world’s biggest entertainment industry. Games can get incredibly deep.

Though games are growing in cultural and economic importance and becoming completely mainstream, it’s still perhaps underappreciated that there are vast, complex, always-online worlds out there, perpetually bustling with thousands of player “inhabitants” – pocket virtual worlds running on a network of computers. At times, the richness of the social, economic and other interactions in these games can rival real-world equivalents[1]. A person may chase fame, wealth, or prestige harder in their video game life than they do in the real world. Perhaps this is especially the case in the “MMO[2]” genre which creates not just “game worlds”, but cities, neighbourhoods, homes, and alternate lives – something persistent and to many of its players, something deeply meaningful.

StormwindWoW
Image courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment Inc.

This, for example, is Stormwind Keep.

It is the main city for one of the two players factions in the MMO game World of Warcraft. Players can retire to the city after adventures to socialize, trade, and otherwise interact with others.

Driven by a mixture of artistic aspiration and financial motivations, the studios behind these special types of always-online games design them to be as immersive as possible; tempting people to stay longer, to sink deeper in. The game I used to work on, EVE Online, is an MMO like this. It has run for decades now; a living, changing world that players have spent huge parts of their lives inside of.

This game is especially notable because not only does it provide an online world for players to interact in, but it all happens on the one “server” – everyone occupies the same world[3]. The technical wizardry required to achieve this is not insignificant. The studio, for a time, owned and operated the world’s most advanced and expensive single-server computer network. All this just to host a game. The same studio I worked for once (infamously) marketed its game as “more meaningful than real life”. Among other accolades, the game is part of a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, featured alongside just 13 others including immortal, iconic titles like Pacman.

Though the moment has long since passed, MoMA continues to indirectly stick it to Roger Ebert, famed movie critic that once boldly claimed video games could never be art[4]. The installation takes the form of a 4K UHD video that shows what happens on any given day in EVE Online. While a game full of ships flying around a statistically empty universe may not seem like a proper subject for an artistic 4K UHD museum documentary, EVE Online remains what is arguably the best instance of a living virtual world…The games weren’t chosen for being pretty, but rather for being an outstanding example of interactive design.[5]

I strongly believe the implications of all this are underexplored, and yet have potentially profound consequences from a sustainability perspective. To understand why, you must appreciate that these games and the technology behind them is all just in its infancy. Despite this, it’s already possible, financially, and technologically, to build some seriously impressive virtual worlds – ones that draw in great numbers of people. The longer-term implications of these games will become more obvious as the industries and cultures around them grow, and perhaps, as increasingly large numbers of the human population gravitate towards spending some part of their life inside virtual environments.

The key point here is that MMO studios needed cheap, pervasive, high-speed internet to really shine, so the genre is only a few decades old. Return your mind to the Fermi paradox however, and we’re talking about civilizations advanced enough to colonize space, rather than ones that recently developed broadband internet. That might mean they also invented some really good games along the way, or more broadly, some really advanced virtual environments. Did that distract them? Is that why we can’t see anybody out there? Is the Great Filter of advanced civilizations that they inevitably become enamoured, or perhaps even lost, in a simulated world?


Footnotes

[1] And in cases where in-game items have corresponding real-world monetary values, it can be real money and not just pixels at stake in those interactions.

[2] MMO stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online”.

[3] The more common alternative is called “instancing” where many copies of the game world are made, and players occupy just one copy at a time. For example, there are multiple “copies” of the city of Stormwind Keep in the MMO game World of Warcraft. In EVE Online, there is just one world that everyone occupies – one Stormwind Keep, effectively.

[4] Watt, M. (2010, April 19). Roger Ebert says video games can never be “art”. Geek.com.

[5] Plafke, J. (2015, May 12). Eve Online’s permanent art exhibit at MoMA can now be viewed online. Geek.com.

Terror, black mirrors, and the era of threats

What do we really fear most? Death or eternal life? The answer seems obvious, but looking at modern, popular culture suggests we have new fears in this STEM-driven era. This discussion was largely inspired as as a response to a paper by Bendell[1], which suggests that sustainability’s first premise – at this point – should be one of imminent collapse.

The paper is worth quoting at length:

“Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy

The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. The approach of the paper is to analyse recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes.

That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.

The paper reviews some of the reasons why collapse-denial may exist, in particular, in the professions of sustainability research and practice, therefore leading to these arguments having been absent from these fields until now.”

Jem Bendell

Terror Management Theory

The Great Explainer everyone’s sleeping on?

There’s a school of thought in sociology called Terror Management Theory (TMT) which offers interesting explanations of human behaviour. TMT argues that awareness of our own mortality induces terror in us, and we respond to that terror by managing it in different ways – hence the name! How we manage that terror has profound and far-reaching social consequences, even to the point we erect entire social institutions to mediate and manage our fears. This “management” varies, but the theme doesn’t – immortality is the goal.

This might manifest as a literal belief in immortality (religious beliefs about the afterlife, for example, and the institutions that maintain them) or as figurative expressions of it: infamy, posterity, legacy – some aspect of your memory or ‘self’ living on. This is Marilyn Monroe stuff: “The legend ever lives”. Although they don’t offer a literal afterlife, culture and cultural institutions can offer a different kind of permanence that’s real enough for people to enshrine and revere; a figurative immortality –another way we can find peace despite knowing this will all end someday.

What’s always struck me about TMT is that sustainability can promise immortality too. The notion of sustaining over time – and in one especially optimistic conception, of sustaining indefinitely – is essentially the idea of literal immortality at the species level. That thought makes my head spin, because if TMT were true then surely, we’d be embracing sustainability wholeheartedly! Instead of a religious afterlife that requires faith, or an imperfect approximation of permanence through culture and legacy, here we have the science and technology-based version of immortality for our new STEM-based era.

ModernMeme
This meme seems appropriate here. Confused? Know Your Meme

So why are we not embracing it? Why are we moving so slowly on any number of sustainability-related issues? Why are we managing our terror so sub-optimally, according to the theory?

Maybe it’s because sustainability, in the context of TMT, subverts the very concept of “management” itself. Instead of managing our terror by reaching for a faith-based afterlife or an imperfect cultural approximation, this time we can “manage” that fear by eliminating the source of it – and once we do that, there’s nothing left to “manage”. TMT becomes a ladder we would throw away after ascending to new heights. It’s a whole different conceptualization of management to suggest that we can alleviate our fears by removing the source – a kind of TMT 2.0.

It comes down to starting assumptions, ultimately. TMT as we know it assumes that annihilation is inevitable and maps out our responses accordingly. TMT 2.0 assumes that “with strange aeons even death may die”[2] and maps out a different set of responses.

I’m mentioning all this because the same thing is happening in the article I’m responding to (Bendell, 2018). The context has changed from a kind of social management towards the narrower discipline of organisational management, but the same “subversion” of what management means is being driven by starting assumptions. Essentially, this article isn’t that novel. It’s just the original TMT assumption – collapse is inevitable.

Earlier I talked about the existentialists, and they’re another group of many within the discipline of philosophy that could inform this research, too. The concept of collapse and annihilation may be depressing, but philosophy and many other fields have offered up some very good options on how to manage that – different kinds of peace we can arrive at; ones that don’t resemble the options that TMT lays out.

Culture, too, can offer more than what TMT describes. Take this beautifully simple exchange from the show Six Feet Under

“Why do we have to die?”

“To make life important.”

Maybe it’s as simple – and stupid – as that? There’s peace in that idea.

It is the final episode of the first season of HBO’s Six Feet Under, and no sequence could better sum up the series’ central theme – or its legacy. One minute, it’s funny – refreshingly cold and darkly humorous – and the next it’s deadly serious. Neither element would be as strong without the other: the humour would be too morbid without the occasional touching moment, and the touching moments would be too saccharine without the bite. Just as people have to die to make life important, people on Six Feet Under joke to make the serious moments matter. Death can be just as funny as life.[3]

NateSFU
A scene from the TV Series Six Feet Under. Image courtesy of HBO.

Protect me from what I want?

Annihilation may be depressing, but immortality can be terrifying.

Protect me from what I want, Jenny Holzer, 1982

Perhaps something else is going on too. Maybe, in this STEM-driven era of alarmingly rapid technological progress, our reluctance to embrace sustainability is driven by an even deeper fear than annihilation – in fact, the inversion of it – a fear of immortality.

If you’ve watched Black Mirror, particularly the most recent season, you might still be shuddering at the thought of having your consciousness uploaded to an inanimate object and being trapped for an eternity inside a prison designed by someone who wanted to torture you. Notably, if you know the show well, you’ll realize I could be talking about many episodes there – it’s a recurring theme that creator Charlie Booker is really trying to drive home, and I don’t think it’s an accident he wants to push this concept so hard.

It’s a genuinely heinous concept: eternal torture. Watching it unfold in the show can be deeply, existentially unsettling. Interestingly, this is pretty much the idea of “hell” in religions – the same institutions that offer heaven up as an alternative afterlife.

Returning to the earlier comparisons of TMT 1 and 2: If it’s true that modern sustainability, driven by science and technological progress, can offer us a literal heaven, then it’s also true it could bring us a literal hell! More simply, if there is a STEM heaven, then there is a STEM hell, and Black Mirror shows us many visions of what that could look like. I think Booker’s point, in at least some cases, is that complete annihilation isn’t such a terrible outcome. A mercy kill, of sorts. If someone was trapped inside a machine designed to torture them and was effectively stuck there for an eternity, you would turn it off, wouldn’t you?

Or maybe Booker’s point is a simpler one: we are losing control of technology, and the consequences are going to be dire beyond imagining.

MonkeyHug
In the Netflix series Black Mirror, someone’s consciousness is capture and effectively imprisoned in this stuffed monkey toy. The toy is only capable of a few basic phrases, including – most horrifically – the catchcry that “Monkey needs a hug”. The “literal hell” Black Mirror captures is deeply disturbing. Image courtesy of Netflix.

welcome to the Apeilicene

The closing section of Graham Turner’s[4] revisitation of the Limits to Growth is interesting because he doesn’t just conclude that collapse may be underway but lays some of the blame for that on our preoccupation with climate change. Other threats like resource constraints could end up being even more serious, he argues, even more so since we have not given them enough attention.

Unfortunately, scientific evidence of severe environmental or natural resource problems has been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces...Somewhat ironically…the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply

… A challenging lesson … is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched.

Regrettably, the alignment of data trends … indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.

Graham Turner, Is global collapse imminent?

Turner’s point can be applied even more broadly. Technological progress is advancing in ways we are struggling to control, and that could pose severe, even existential threats to us. AI, automation, big data, surveillance, genetic engineering, biohazards, nuclear warfare, cyber warfare – the list of potential threats we face of an existential kind are perhaps an even more worrying acceleration than rising global temperatures? Or are they also perhaps in a sense the same threat, as Morton suggests, just differently understood?

The concept of the “Anthropocene” only captures the idea of climate change and human-driven ecological impact, perhaps another term like Apeilicene – the era of threats – better captures the trajectory we are on, and how we should respond. Naturally, a focus on threats alone may deprioritize focusing on assets and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean innovation isn’t possible, or that framing our situation as a terrible and looming crisis can’t still yield positive results. Consider how much innovation past wars and crises have driven, and the advanced nature of military technology and other inventions birthed from a profound necessity. Then again, consider that a “War against Nature” is exactly the thinking that drove us to this perilous place (as the idea of a metabolic rift suggests). Our situation is so complex and bewildering, it’s not even clear how we should think about it at a fundamental level.

Surviving the Apeilicene will require thinking about sustainability in many ways all at once. It will require a combative focus, a defensive, resilience-based mentality. Yet it will also require adaptability, and the ability to recognize not just problems and weaknesses but also opportunities and strengths.

We must rethink what an existential threat can be, too. Annihilation is just one negative outcome. Eternal torture, as discussed, is an infinitely more dire existential threat. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paper on “existential risk prevention” provides a fantastic matrix of different types of existential threat – capturing perfectly the kinds of outcomes that Booker’s Black Mirror describes and so many more. Creating a rigorous map of outcomes according to varied types of existential threats allows us to see that yes, perhaps we’re living in the Apeilicene after all. Will Steffen’s famous ‘Great Acceleration’ graph paints a trend towards exponential changes across a range of areas. It would be interesting to consider if the threats (and types of threats) against us are multiplying at similar rates, and what the implications of a trend – if one exists – might be.

GreatAccelSteffen
Will Steffen, an ANU academic, has famously charted the “Great Acceleration” – a series of simultaneous and exponential increases in human productivity and consumption[5].

Praxis and epistemology

An era of renewed interest in the truth

Kellyanne Conway once famously stated she was giving “alternative facts” to a journalist. Although in this case, she was demonstrably lying, the statement (and other developments from the Trump Administration) have since reignited public interest in the concept of truth and verifiability – and perhaps more broadly, remembering the problem of Australia’s infinite coastline, the idea of the paradox. The phrase “alternative facts” has its own Wikipedia page[7] and “post-truth” was declared 2016’s Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries[8].  Despite the often-negative nature of these incidents, what they represent may be a positive development. Perhaps, with rationality now threatened, we will see a reassertion of its value? The media, for example, now increasingly stresses the importance of one of its core purposes – to state the truth.

KACad2
(Left) U.S. Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway and (Right) A New York Times ad playing on the phrase “alternative facts”.

Our era represents a renewed interest in the debates around epistemology – what is true, what can be verified. Alternative facts, fake news, and the gaslighting[9] of the public by powerful figures are all driving forces behind a rising anti-intellectualism, a distrust of experts, and a fragmentation of our shared reality. Are we in a post-Enlightenment crisis? And if so, what are the opportunities that will bring with it?


Footnotes

[1] Bendell, J. (2018). Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy. Carlise, UK: Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS).

[2] Lovecraft, H. (1928). The Call of Cthulu. 11(2). New York: Popular Fiction Publishing Company.

[3] Armstrong, J. K. (2015, August 21). Six Feet Under: ‘It made it okay to laugh at death’. BBC Culture.

[4] Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[5] Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O., & Ludwig, C. (2015). The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.

[6] For all the facts and alternative facts, see what Wikipedia has to say, for the moment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_facts

[7] BBC News. (2016, November 16). ‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. BBC.

[9] “…[the] tactic of getting people to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “gaslighting”. A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.” From: Azarian, B. (2018, August 31). Trump Is Gaslighting America Again — Here’s How to Fight It. Psychology Today.