Coffee With Doc: Losing Our Illusions
What’s real and what’s illusion? A rock is real. If one hits us, we directly sense pain. But is a quarter real? As a little alloyed disc, it’s real. But how about the 25-cent value we attached to it? That’s an Illusion. Value is an artifice drawn from the mental reference framework by which we “interpret” a quarter. On a broader social level, our inability to separate reality from illusion separates us from nature. We need a better reference framework than one based on endless growth in physical consumption.
People from indigenous traditions readily see that money is merely an artifice – a marker for trading, and for “valuing” assets, just as economists define it; nothing more. However, when we use money for daily transactions, its value seems “real.” If we mark our welfare and status by money, its illusory fleeting nature easily eludes us.
Indigenous people lived close to the earth, utterly dependent on its soil and life cycles. Without understanding the science, they directly sensed much that moderns can’t. For example Aleuts paddled long distances in the sea, in a fog, sensing where they were by wave action and other signs that they can’t describe. Who needs a GPS?
However, indigenous people also mixed illusions with reality. They were “grounded” in the sense of feeling part of nature around them – spiritually attached – but they also thought that their own symbols, ceremonies, and myths caused real consequences. For example, indigenous people in New Guinea concocted a “cargo cult” watching American military personnel do paperwork when receiving cargo planes. They created a ceremony imitating the paperwork in the belief that magic made an airplane appear. The full process was too abstract for those relying on direct observation to comprehend.
Humans have always had difficulty separating reality from illusion. Technology does not appear to be sharpening our ability to make the distinction.
Advanced Illusion Technology
The tech world is rapidly advancing artificial intelligence and virtual reality (VR). The latest VR resolution renders all 400,000 hairs on a mouse – pretty realistic. In tech speak, “grounded reality” is direct, unenhanced sensory perception. “Virtual reality” is perception of artificial images, sounds, and touches. VR developers are in the vanguard of psychological and neurological research because VR technology messes with minds.
People deeply into VR pastimes may become addicted. Their avatars play Second Life, Farmland, and other interactive sites, taking on different persona – different ages, different sex, different behavior. Pastimes fall into four major genres:
- Different social contexts (free to love, to hate, or even to murder)
- Gamble, sometimes with fake, sometimes with “real money.”
- Gaming, competing for artificial reward levels (or for real money).
- Sex: From flirting with other avatars on to much, much more.
Virtual Reality players may presume that their other world will not affect their real world, but ugly incidents like divorces and suicides suggest otherwise. South Korea, which has very fast line speeds, has since 2007 promoted digital detox boot camps for an estimated 10% of all its youth addicted to on-line artificiality. And where do addicts go to rehab? Out to the mountains to reconnect with nature and real humans, not avatars. (Instructors opine that addicts lose “critical thinking skills” – lose “grounding.”)
You need not use the latest VR technology to tire of trolls with fake names hip shooting on social media or commenting on articles in digitized “old media.” With everybody broadcasting their own “news,” reflection is skimpy and credibility dubious. Anonymity affects social behavior.
But as a technology, VR also has positive uses, like immersive “Link Trainers” for pilots. Aviators hone skills in situations impossible to stage using real aircraft. And VR overlays guide every kind of work from surgery to art restoration. VR developers think that if well done, education by VR should be vastly superior in some fields. Compared with classroom boredom, it fully engages students. Automated feedback on students’ physiology instantly tells the system whether they are learning, so why have tests?
But that characteristic of VR raises more questions. If original discovery is by carefully observing reality, we need open minds and patient concentration. (Want to study ant behavior?) Can virtual reality educate people about nature? Yes, up to a point. For example, documentaries expose us to more nature than we can ever see personally. VR can enhance this experience, but documentaries show only what others have discovered and curated for us. VR can aid original observation if used to extend our vision, like remote cameras of wildlife or close up of volcanic eruptions. (But what might a Higgs boson “look like?”)
Losing Our Illusions
Will technology become an extension of our humanity, or be a destroyer of humanity? Are our objectives real or artificial – illusory? Prioritize the regeneration of life – all life – over illusions of other goals. (Faced with death, most of us realize that many things we had previously deemed important, are not; they are illusory. That insight may come slowly, or suddenly, as at gunpoint.)
Whether we see nature as a global phenomenon, or as our local surroundings, if we want to improve that reality, what should we do? That is, what is the mission of a company, a government, or a community? To improve the health of all life, of ourselves and of the environment that supports us.
That is a value judgment, but it is not an artificial goal. It’s not a computer game, and not a business game. It’s serious life, and life should trump illusory goals.
For example, concocting financial incentives for improving human and natural health is also hopeless. Most physicians want to do what is best for patients, but how do financial incentives tug at them? If they are paid for each service, “pressure” is to over diagnose and over treat. Marketing by pharmaceutical and medical service companies adds to the pressure (ask your doctor about). If they are paid a flat annual fee per patient, with costs subtracted from fee income, the pressure is to under diagnose and under treat. One can fragment these incentives into subset slices and still not erase the potential for bias. In sum, the illusion is that promoting and preserving life is a market.
If money itself is an illusory concept, so is the array of concepts that come with it. All are based on assumptions about business, economics, and measurements of success – beginning with profit, return on investment, and compound interest – then spiraling ever more abstractly into derivatives trading and currency hedging. Living with them, and living by them, they shape our thought. Whether maximizing profit or not, all organizations in a transactional economy live by a budget. Run out of cash, and all activity that now takes money ceases. Even volunteer work takes some money. That’s the system. Escaping it is hopeless. We have to transcend it.
What we have is an onrush to promote technology, techniques, business models, and an economic system, mostly from a mental model of “exchanging things.” However, its goals amount to little more than continuing its own onrush. Yogi Berra nailed it, “We’re hopelessly lost, but we’re making great time” – purposeless innovation and efficiency.
Our “tool-centered” transactional system needs a new ethic, a new mission, a better reason for being. Beyond the illusions, preserving “all life” is the only goal that counts. Human life literally depends on other life, including the microbial symbionts in our own bodies. If we can’t do that, all the “cool stuff” in Silicon Valley has no future.
Underneath our deepening environmental problems is a human one. Huge numbers of people feel little responsibility for their own well being. First in industrial bureaucratic societies (corporate as well as government) many became mere cogs in systems. Then in recent decades we also gradually became more like manipulated psyches in media networks, lost in our own little worlds, struggling to discern reality in the fantasy. All the while, the direction of advanced economic systems is urging us to consume more, consuming just because “the system” depends on it. This system is on borrowed time.
Now there is much talk of “revolution” to escape our confusion and malaise. Unfortunately much rebel talk is just back-to-the-future. The real revolution is to guide our technology toward regeneration, preserving essential life in all its forms. But to do that, we need a “spiritual awakening” to the realities of nature and the world, escaping the illusions that cloud our vision.