Sunday, May 3, 2009

Worlds in my head, take 2

It might be obvious by now, but it often occurs to me that my favorite entertainments, chiefly science fiction and fantasy, derive much of their charm from their depiction of alternate realities. Whether it's through books, games, movies, or webcomics, I enjoy imagining (and, if what I've said so far is true, to some extent living in) other worlds. This could easily be described as escapist, and prompts (but does not beg) the question: what's wrong with this world? My first instinct is to get defensive, but that's never a particularly convincing approach. Actually, thinking about it, a better response would be: what do you mean by "this world"?

One of the great triumphs of human society, perhaps even its fundamental purpose, is to convince us that we all perceive the same basic reality. It's obvious why this is generally desirable: we can't work together or communicate if we don't believe that what we see somehow correlates to what others see. Whether this is true or not, as I've said before, is out of my scope for the moment. What's important here is that reality as it's conventionally thought of is just cyberspace on a larger scale, a consensual hallucination including nearly the entire human species. Each of us has different perceptions, but despite this we nearly all believe that we're perceiving the same things. Then to me, what we call "the real world" is the region in which my mental space overlaps with that of (what I believe) most other people think of as real. That is, rather than thinking of the "virtual worlds" I've talked about as alternatives to reality, it makes more sense to think of reality as just another one of these worlds. We each have our own constructed reality, and insofar as we divide it from fantasy that's a constructed division; if we were taught from birth that everything we imagine is real, there'd be no difference to us between reality and fantasy.

Again, it's obvious why this distinction is desirable; a common perspective seems (from the common perspective) to be useful if not necessary to a productive life. Nonetheless, even from within the bounds of our constructed reality we can feel the desire for other interpretations, and can even see it as useful as well, working the idea, if not the reality, of alternate worlds into our own.

So, why fight the status quo, even though it leaves space for the worlds I so cherish? To a certain extent, it's a game; I enjoy thinking about these things, for many of the same reasons that I enjoy science fiction and fantasy. There is, however, a part of me that believes that some serious reenvisioning of reality is going to be required sooner rather than later. The internet has already brought virtual worlds to the forefront to an unprecedented extent, and if developments in any of various technologies continue, including telepresence, AI, and the awkwardly named VR, we'll soon enough have "real-world" issues that can only be discussed coherently by recognizing the proper place of "unreal" worlds. The current debates over intellectual property might well be one of these problems, and of course speculative fiction began to delve into these issues long ago. At any rate, if the future isn't here now, it may well be soon, and if and when it comes this sort of mental exercise will no longer be purely academic. Or so I believe. You have to take anything I say with a grain of salt; after all, I read a lot of science fiction.

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