A Digital Nation

I’m a problem solver by nature and the bigger the problem, the more interested I am in solving it.  In looking to solve things like gun violence, the application of democracy, educational inefficiencies, or health care, I often end up back in the same place – the system for creating change is deeply flawed.

I don’t mind a flawed system, most are.  What I do mind is a reluctance to face those flaws and solve them for the sake of progress.  In the world of business, poorly run companies go bankrupt.  In the world of politics, poorly run governments increase their national debt while raising tax on their citizens – and continue on.  In the great recession, the big 3 auto-manufacturers were running their businesses poorly and were on the verge of bankruptcy because of it.  Some argued that allowing them to fail would be catastrophic to the American economy and that losing those jobs were not an option.  I would argue that failing businesses should be allowed to fail so that from their ashes, ingenuity and integrity may have the opportunity to build something better.  Instead, 2 of those companies were bailed out and 10 years later, not much has changed.  Had they been allowed to fail, I wonder if Tesla would be the only major new entry in the auto-industry in the last several decades.

Tesla wasn’t the first crack at the electric car either.  We tried that back in the 90s but the system we exist in allows large business interests to influence government policy.  Auto-manufacturers weren’t overly interested in the R&D necessary to tackle electric cars and the oil industry wasn’t interested in the competition – so they lobbied.  A government which allows well-funded business interests to limit the innovation and competition in their industry is deeply flawed.

So how do you fix these problems?  Run as a member of a major party and try to create change from within?  I’ve experienced first hand how change from within can be an unrealistic approach, especially when you require the cooperation of those who would rather keep things the same.  Run as an independent?  Good luck getting any legislation passed in a 2 party system.  Try and operate outside the government?  They don’t take kindly to that.  Start your own country?  All viable land has already been claimed.

What to do.. what to do..

My pipe dream was to develop the technology necessary to build large, stable islands.  Once you built an island large enough, you could claim it and start your own country.  With a progressive game plan, you could easily lure great minds and great businesses.  Together, you could set the example for the rest of the world on how things could be done.

I think Elon Musk’s plan is similar, but he prefers the buffer of 50 million miles of empty space.  Given Russia’s announcement of their nuclear missile with indefinite range and all the other fun stuff going on, he might be on to something.

While these are fun contingency plans to think of, it’s overlooking something important.  Life always finds a way.  There’s a natural progression to what happens next and I think we’re starting to see it.

We’re moving from an analog reality to a digital reality.

I’ve watched a few animes over the years which touched on the subject of a futuristic society that was digitally based, and I couldn’t help but connect the dots.  When I saw the first trailer for Ready Player One, I knew it wasn’t just me seeing where we were headed.  With the film out last week and on my way to see it tonight, I wanted to put a journal entry together to document my thoughts before they’re further inspired by what looks to be a Spielberg masterpiece.

For anyone who still needs some context, a digital reality is the inevitable evolution of virtual reality.  Virtual reality as it exists today is rather limited but the momentum is there and we seem to be approaching a new plateau.  Within the R&D being done right now, there’s a focus on getting your brain to accept that the illusion is real.  If that sounds like hocus pocus, you’d be right.  For as long as magicians and illusionists have existed, there has been a craft designed around the manipulation of your senses.  As complex as the the mind is, and as good as it is at processing the outside world, it can be fooled.  Right now, the holy grail in virtual reality is getting your mind to forget that it’s within a virtual reality.

There’s an idea that we all hallucinate our own reality.  Some are quick to dismiss the thought, thinking that what they’re experiencing is the same reality that everyone else is experiencing – but they would be wrong.  Everyone’s mind is constantly collecting information from all of its senses and continually trying to make sense of all of its surroundings.  If those senses are your input, your hallucination is the digital rendering.  And this is the genius of true virtual reality, where all of your inputs have been taken over, and your mind hallucinates your new digital reality.

On the path to a true virtual reality, we have much ground to cover.  Sound is perhaps easiest, sight is where the most progress is being made today, and touch is where new ground is being broken.  There are a few people putting energy towards taste and smell but they don’t seem to be a priority right now (although I can’t help but think that smell may be one of the most immersive inputs).  The piece of tech which I’m most interested in at the moment is the haptic suit, a full body suit which allows for a very real sense of touch.  Within the next 10 years, I think it’s extremely likely that we’ll have sight, sound, and touch dialed in at a very high level.  But perhaps this is where we’ll plateau.  The biggest obstacle I see in VR is getting to the point where we have this brilliant digital universe to explore, only to be bumping into the couch and TV at home as we try.

As I’m trying to map out the future of virtual reality, I’m seeing an eventual division between analog and digital.  Analog will be with the helmet, headphones, haptic suit, and everything else.  Digital will be with what Elon and a few other think tanks are working on right now, a direct neural link.  I don’t understand the science well enough to know what the timeline on something like this is but with the ramp up of AI, it’ll probably come quicker than we’re ready for.  I suspect that this will be the technological jump that truly takes us into the digital age.

Today, so much of what we already do exists in the digital realm.  Our work, our social lives, the way we learn, the way we play, the way we explore, the way we communicate…  it’s now all digital first.  What some of us may not realize or want to accept is that we’re already one foot in the digital world.  We just have a low-bandwidth way of accessing it.  What if it wasn’t through our thumbs on our phones or fingers on our keyboards that we accessed our digital world?  What if we could interact with the digital world as quickly and accurately as we interact with the physical world?  What would that look like?  What would that lead to?  Or maybe there’s another way of looking at this.  If this is the direction we’re already headed in, what problem is this a solution to?

Well, what  if the current level of inequality in the world persisted?

Well, life finds a way…

I’ve watched very closely as the disposable income of the lower and middle class has evaporated over the past decades.  Half your income goes to tax, of what’s left, half goes to rent, of what’s left, you try to live a life you’re happy with.  It’s failing.  And when going outside begins to cost significantly more than staying in, dynamics start to change.

Personally, I’m feeling a very real resistance to leaving my house because of how much it costs.  Rent is so high right now that to remain on budget, I moved to the edge of the city I’m in.  Our city is paying the highest fuel costs in North America, which means anytime I want to go anywhere, I’m mindful of fuel and parking.  High costs of real estate mean business owners need to increase their prices to stay open.  That means the cost of eating out or shopping at local businesses becomes prohibitive.  I used to eat out several nights a week with friends for the company and experience.  Now we all stay in.

Stagnant wages in tandem with a drastic increase in the cost of living has left the younger generations without much to work with.  So we rose to the occasion and introduced the world to the sharing economy and decentralization.  Knowing this leaves me optimistic about our future.  I suppose I’m pretty optimistic in general, but that’s not to say that I don’t see the other side.

Through the trailers of Ready Player One, it looks to take place about 20-30 years in the future where many of today’s biggest problems haven’t been solved – in all likelihood, they’ve gotten worse.  In a world where the cost of living rises faster than income and a minimum wage doesn’t afford you a minimum lifestyle, in a world where government has forgotten its responsibility to the people and in a world where a handful of people horde the majority of the world’s wealth… where do the rest of us go?

According to Spielberg… into the Oasis.

I can’t help but think that I’m glimpsing that future now.  As the digital approach has made things easier and more convenient, we’ve adopted them.  From our finances to our social lives, we’re already most of the way there.  What I think may determine how quickly we move towards being fully immersed in this digital reality is going to be a function of cost.

If it continues to cost more to be outside than to stay in, we’re going to come up with better reasons for staying in.  Virtual commuting, virtual sporting events, virtual concerts, virtual dating… virtual sex… did I mention that porn was likely going to be one of the biggest drivers for advances in VR?  I digress.  If it costs $100 to go out and have the full analog experience, or $10 to have a virtual experience that’s most of the way there, which would you choose?  And what if you didn’t have $100?

Personally, I’m kind of excited about event-based virtual reality.  Big Jay Z concert on tonight?  Don’t want to spend $200 or deal with the lines and crowds?  No problem, just put on your VR headset with your VR headphones and you’ll be teleported to a front row seat where you can H to the Izzo along with everyone else.  Now imagine being ring-side for a big UFC match… or pitch-side at a world cup finals where you didn’t have to pay for the flight, hotel, and rental car.. and where you go back to your normal life when you take the VR kit off.  That sounds pretty darn neat to me.

While the cost of staying in versus going out is likely going to have a huge effect on the development curve of this technology, I don’t think it will change the destination.  There’s something extremely unique about a digital reality that’s so much harder to create in the physical world, and that’s freedom.  In Ready Player One’s digital reality, everyone creates an avatar for themselves to explore The Oasis.  Want to try out another gender for the day?  Go for it.  Want to be the giant robot from Pacific Rim? why not.  When the limitations of how you project yourself rest within your own imagination, I can’t help but think we’re going to encounter something very, very cool.  And it’s not just about the freedom to be who you want, it’s also the freedom to do what you want.

Something especially interesting about a digital reality is that it literally comes with it’s own laws of physics.  I have a recurring dream in which I have the ability to fly.  Sometimes it’s even lucid, so in a very real way, I’ve been able to experience what it’s like to fly around the city like a superhero.  Best thing ever.  Unless that experience would be available to me anytime I wanted.  Or maybe you’d rather fly around the galaxy and explore the other planets.  Imagine being able to shrink down to the size of an atom and explore molecular structure.  Or imagine having no physical form at all.  Crazy right?

I was watching Elon at SXSW a little while ago and what stood out most to me was something he said about AI.  At least in the early stages, it’ll be our responsibility to give direction to the AI – A prime directive.  As Hollywood would suggest, telling the AI to keep us safe probably isn’t the right approach.  We’re terrible at keeping ourselves safe and it’s a big part of how we’ve gotten this far.  So what directive do we give the AI?  According to Elon, it’s to maximize our freedom.  I can’t help but think that he’s done the same deep dive that I have and understands how central the concept of freedom is to the human condition.

If freedom is core to who we are, and essential to our growth and evolution as a species, shouldn’t we pursue the direction which affords us the most freedom?  Would that not be one which also frees us from the limitations of our physical selves?  Worth pondering.  But who’s to say that we’re not putting ourselves in the matrix by pursuing the future.  In The Matrix, it was a war between man and machine which led to machine dominating man and plugging them into the Matrix as batteries.  Maybe a more accurate future is one where we plug ourselves in and forget to leave.

Author: Author

In an age of promotion before substance, let's try substance before promotion. I'm hoping anonymity will help keep a focus on the ideas but I do understand wanting to connect to the person behind them. Let's split the difference with some fun facts: I have a professional crush on Harvey Specter, Bruce Wayne is my favourite superhero, and I share a personality type with the likes of Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, and Lex Luthor.

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