Virtually Happening

This is my dissertation, final year thesis for my degree:

Virtually Happening

 

Society and the Digital Age

Reality is changing. When I was born, in 1995, 1% of the world had Internet access; 21 years later that has grown to 50%. (Internetworldstats.com, 2016) The same has been seen of mobile phone usage, rising from 1% to 73% global penetration. (Infoplease.com, 2017) As a species, we have never been more connected to each other, or more dependent upon technology as we are now. These devices are increasingly augmenting our abilities or replacing whole areas of labour. We can shop and entertain ourselves and communicate with each other – work, learn, and fall in love – all online. Added to all this is the scale of video games in the modern day, simulating whole cities for users to experience at leisure (Grand Theft Auto V, 2013), giant battlefields incorporating 64 players at a time (Battlefield 1, 2016), or even an entire procedurally generated universe of over 18 Quintillion planets (No Man’s Sky, 2016). With over a billion video game players (Takahashi, 2013), it is clear that the effects of this medium on society as a whole are only going to grow. So, how will this integration with technology continue and what will it mean for society and even for reality?

 

The emergence of affordable, high quality Virtual Reality (VR) technology opens up the realm of simulation in the not too distant future. The rise of Virtual Reality is often compared to the rise of mobile telecommunications, as the ways in which it can enable a near physical presence anywhere from anywhere given a connection is a strikingly powerful idea.

 

Its use in the medical industry is one of the more lauded applications; with the first VR live-streamed surgery having taken place in April 2016 (Weller, 2016) where we see VR already in use as an experiential educational tool. Further to this is the use of VR for surgical simulations and practical training in safe environments. (Mayo.edu, 2016). It is easy as well to see the use of Virtual Reality as an extension of robotic surgery, a practice that has been in place since the turn of the century, and with these two technologies combined opening up even further the idea of remote telesurgery adding presence to the screen based technologies already in place. (Eveleth, 2016).

 

The argument that the use of further computational devices as mediums between human interactions can be applied here to say how the medical field is further venturing into a realm of virtual productivity. But with AI systems such as IBM’s Watson already in use as a diagnostic tool, it is less likely that we will have ‘Virtual Medicine’ than augmented and then automated medicine. With the added caveat that it would be sufficiently trained, an AI is less likely to make a mistake in a diagnosis or surgery than a human. However, once a system has reached a level of expertise comparable to a human, it can be rolled out worldwide, instantaneously, with any updates or alterations doing the same. Compare this to the need to train a human for 6 years to achieve just one added access point to medical knowledge and the benefits become abundantly clear.

 

The importance of the medical field’s rapid adoption of the use of virtual reality as a tool for training, remote surgery and consultation is more to do with the development of the technology within the domestic domain. It is within this domestic environment that the medical uses intersect with the consumer side to VR. The growing field of therapeutic virtual reality experiences, helping patients deal with phobias, anxieties, PTSD, pain management, phantom limb pain and rehabilitation from brain damage as well as enabling the homebound and the disabled to escape their physical limitations. (Carson, 2016)

 

The anime series Sword Art Online (2012) follows the lives of people trapped inside a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG), in the year 2022, living inside the game-world as avatars that were scans of their own bodies. In the real world these people are found and taken to hospital still plugged into the game (to unplug would be to die both in the game and for real). Later in the series, with everyone freed, this relationship with reality within the hospital changes, posing questions about the potential future of VR tech. A terminally ill patient spends the majority of her time embodied digitally as her avatar, playing the game – mobile and strong and healthy, what she cannot be in the real world. If one were to argue that an abled-bodied person living within a simulation was somehow not living a fulfilled life or missing out on his or her “humanity”, it must be asked where does someone with a disability such as this lie? With independence and dignity stripped away in the real world, yet restored in the virtual one, where are they more human? It would surely be unethical to say they were less human than an able bodied person in the real world, so then humanity could only be lost in living virtually. However, with independence, strength and body functionalities restored, it is hard to say they will have lost something, or at least anything quantifiable. (‘Zekken’, 2014)

 

The uses of these applications are focused primarily on the sense of presence that the technology can provide and it is this sense of presence that generates excitement about virtual reality as a technology for entertainment.

 

“It’s the first medium that creates the sensation that you’re somewhere else…If you’re standing at the edge of a chasm, even though you’re really just standing in a room you’re afraid to step forward.”

−Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic Games.

(Westervelt, 2016)

 

The current range of consumer VR products are mainly focused on gaming and the novelty of the experience. The main frontrunners have prominent flaws: The HTC Vive and Facebook’s Oculus Rift are both tethered, tying you to a single area and a rather expensive computer. Similarly, the Sony PSVR ties you to the Playstation 4, and like the Rift and the Vive requires external sensors to track movement. Google’s Daydream and Cardboard projects, Samsung’s Gear VR, as well as many other products hold your phone in front of a pair of lenses that focus your vision to your phone, which plays the content. The flaw here is the power of the phone and the requirement for specific handsets in the case of the Gear VR and software.

 

There are limits to VR if it maintains this guise of an added object that enables a presence-engaged experience at the expense of integration with the physical world, no matter how realistic the environments get. The world has the Internet, and perhaps more importantly mobile Internet and communications. It is hard to see right now what devices like these give a user beyond an extra luxury; Another personal realm, but one now with a screen hidden from any third party. The video games may be more immersive, and the education and therapies may be more effective, but where is the essentiality in this technology? The defining innovation of the info-tech era has been the networked individual – the educated and connected human being (Mason, 2016) but what need does that individual have for a new way to play games, watch a film or hang out in Altspace (the “Social VR” platform)? Presence may improve an experience, but on the consumer level it doesn’t yet offer much beyond a novelty.

 

The aforementioned examples are all within the “Virtual Reality” space. Microsoft rejects this definition when talking about it’s own device: Hololens. The preferred term for the Hololens is “Mixed Reality”, here Microsoft express their interest in the future, not the present, of these technologies. Rather than encompassing the field of view, isolating the user from their physical environment, the Hololens embeds ‘holograms’ into the environment through a specified window in the users vision, keeping the periphery clear. This enables the user to interact with the world as normal, but also treat the virtual elements as if they were part of the world too.

 

More than this, the Hololens is a standalone device, untethered, with all its sensors on board. As such it provides the headset the fluidity of a mobile phone, it can act to accompany the user’s life rather than be a fascination. The extra onboard tech means the Hololens in its current incarnation seems to be aimed at the industrial and software development market with a heavy price tag of $3000 compared to the $500-800 headsets already on the market, its flexibility will grow its functionality but with all its bits onboard, it is unlikely to be able to compete with the computing power necessary to run with the Vive or the Rift. From the invention of the smart phone which has moved many tools (e-mail, banking, web browsing, all manner of communications) into one device, to software such as Microsoft’s Windows 10, which runs across multiple platforms. The extending arm of “the cloud” turns your pc, phone and tablet into a single device with multiple faces. A similar merger can be seen with Apple’s mobile IOS and desktop OSX operating systems as they sneak closer to being a seamless platform with icloud. Unlike the virtual reality headsets, the Hololens is not a peripheral device, but an entity of its own that can run without, or seamlessly alongside, other devices in its operating system family.

 

This is where I see the essentiality. With improvements to batteries, CPUs, GPUs and environment sensors the fully encompassing “virtual realities” will in future be able to break the tether and be able to map the environment and rebuild them on the screen which at the moment seems a less costly way of doing it than with the fancy holographic display Microsoft have engineered. Concepts such as the AMD powered Sulon Q and Intel’s Project Alloy are already pointing in this direction.

 

The availability and functionality of the various forms of alternative realities that are being posited is likely only to grow, and as such so does the possibility of a life within a simulation. Would it be better therefore, to have the consumer choice to live in a reality one knows to be fiction, rather than in one where its subjects may be unwittingly controlled? In the 1999 film The Matrix, Neo is given the option to take a blue pill that will return him to his life within Simulated New York or a red pill to discover the “truth” of his existence and escape the Matrix. The Philosopher Slavoj Žižek postulates that this choice between the Red and Blue pills is not a choice between illusion and reality arguing that ‘if you take away from our reality, the symbolic fictions that regulate it, you lose reality itself’ (ŽIŽEK in FIENNES, ŽIŽEK, ENO, & MYERS, 2006). Žižek proposes instead a third pill, which allows one to see ‘not the reality behind the illusion but the reality in the illusion itself’. The Matrix is set up to provide the machines that control it with energy, taken from the electrical potential of the brain of the simulants. Žižek suggests that the simulants are also dependant on the matrix as a fantastical outlet for their own libidinous energy, energy that requires illusion in order to sustain itself. In fantasy we can enact those facets of our personalities that are closer to our true selves without the stigma of society watching.

 

Virtual reality enables sensory experience not achieved by other media and it is important to question how this heightened interaction affects our behaviours. Founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson led an experiment investigating the Short- and long-term effects of embodied experiences in immersive virtual environments on environmental locus of control and behaviour (Ahn, Bailenson and Park, 2014), testing to see whether feelings of one’s individual actions could directly influence an outcome (inner locus of control) changed after experiencing an immersive virtual environment (IVE). The experience consisted of chopping down a tree within a forest, after which the forest would become quiet and still to emphasise the damage caused by deforestation as a result of not recycling paper.

The results of the study concluded that, although there was no immediate difference, a week from the test there was a 20% decrease in paper usage amongst the IVE users compared to the paper and video groups, suggesting a greater effect on behavior over the long-term. The team proposed two explanations for this finding, the first being that an IVE provides a more salient memory from which to draw on, citing Icek Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour, which suggests behavior to be a ‘function of salient information, or beliefs, relevant to the behavior,’ (Ajzen, 1991) that cutting down the tree encouraged a belief in a direct relationship between the participant’s actions and the ecological outcome. The second suggested explanation saw the far richer sensory information of the IVE as compared to print or video as elaborating the message and with the greater interactivity of the medium, increasing involvement with the message and so contributed to the persistence of promoted behaviours. (Ahn, Bailenson and Park, 2014)

 

Bailenson’s lab has made other attempts at affecting behaviours through interaction with a virtual environment including the reduction in heat and water used in showers as well as promoting altruism within participants by asking them to fly around a virtual city, as a superhero, to save a diabetic child. This second experiment was to investigate the opposite of studies into the effect of violent videogames on aggression, to see whether real-world empathetic behaviours could be encouraged.

 

Should we be creating IVEs to specifically affect behaviours? Being more effective than their media ancestors (books, film…) and far easier to distribute (beyond the requirement for a helmet, any digital file can be copied ad infinitum), IVEs can be viewed with a danger sign. Content creators may unwittingly construct scenarios that are damaging to an individual’s mental health or promote aggression, violence, isolationism, selfishness, or some other socially undesirable trait. The rapidity of digital distribution presents a challenge to any attempt to censor material, although there are well-established distribution platforms such as Valve’s Steam, which may cooperate with state actions as well as their own ethics policy to take down unsavory IVEs, the well-reported Streisand Effect (that attempts to censor information leads to the unintended consequence of publicizing it) may lead to the proliferation of mirror links to the content across a variety of media sharing websites.

 

The closest mass scale research into these kinds of potentially negative behavioral effects is research into the psychological and societal effects of violent video games. A report by the American Psychological Association performed a meta-analysis of lab based psychological studies into the effect of playing violent video games and concluded that they were a risk factor that linked them to a short-term increase in aggression (APA Task Force on Violent Media, 2015). However there are a number of problems associated with trying to tie these results to increases in violent behavior. The first expresses that boys generally play more than girls as well as being generally more aggressive, this gender bias would push conclusions to an increase in aggression. Secondly, youth violence during the video game era has dropped to 40-year lows; links between video games and dropping youth violence remain correlational but a causal relationship of “voluntary incapacitation” has been suggested. The rationale is that those who might otherwise be spending time on anti-social behaviours or criminal activity are instead exercising this by playing the violent games.(Cunningham et al., 2011)

(Scribd, 2013). Here we see the effect perhaps of libidinous release suggested by Žižek provided by the reality of simulated violence.

 

 

Personal Realities and Shared Simulations

If a simulation has the potential for its effects to proliferate in reality, we must ask what the difference is. The British Liberal politician Viscount Herbert Samuel expressed that ‘the whole body of scientific achievement – massive, world-wide – brings confirmation’ (Woolley, 1992, p213) to the idea of an objective reality. That the scale of global science and yet its homogeneity point to an observable, measurable reality. With the rise of quantum mechanics during the first half of the 20th century, the view of exactly what reality is shifted. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that ‘the position and momentum of a particle cannot be simultaneously measured with arbitrarily high precision’ (Nave, 2016) ‘denied the independent existence of the material world – The observer was no longer a passive onlooker but an active participant’ (Woolley, 1992, p221). This is not to imply as an idealist that closing one’s eyes sees the universe disappear, but that He is playing dice, with every subatomic particle, all the time – we can only observe the results of this uncertainty, and in doing so solidify our reality as our personal solipsism.

 

An exploration of the universalism of solipsistic thinking can be found in Philip K. Dick’s 1957 novel Eye in the Sky: After an incident at a scientific facility, a group of tourists and their guide find themselves in a very different world, later revealed as being inside the head of one of their number. The novel then follows the group as they travel between each other’s minds, with each reality presenting to its originator the true state of things. Mrs Pritchet’s fear of the world corrupting her child sees her abolish every offensive article until eventually she abolishes the world all together rather than allowing him to encounter it and grow; Miss Reiss’s paranoia and anxiety of the world leads to it becoming a malevolent environment full of dangers ready to kill her; and McFeyffe’s takes place to the backdrop of the proletariat uprising as his hidden communism is revealed. Dick asks us to question how we particularly view the world amidst a sea of alternate interpretations, pointing out that we experience life uniquely due to our particular position and beliefs, an idea that seems the more relevant in today’s global society of social media. (Dick, 1957)

 

French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard instructs us to ‘think of the media as if they were in outer orbit, a sort of genetic code which controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal’ (Baudriallard, 1983, p55), taking in video, witness and reaction, adding political, contextual and moral direction then releasing reports, conclusions and condemnation. What we consider real are things we agree on with another external source. That funny film isn’t so funny when your friend doesn’t laugh. We want our opinions to be affirmed, and we find this affirmation in the media we choose. The television news channels we watch, the newspapers, magazines and websites we read all have a target audience and they preach the news to please this audience. Social media provides us with a mob we may add our voice to or a solitary other who shares our opinions. We like and retweet and post content we enjoy and the systems feed us back a slightly more concentrated version of that content each time. The algorithm builds an echo chamber that provides our personalized image of reality, but this only adds to the echo chamber we have built for ourselves.

 

Baudrillard has another term for the hyperreal: Simulation, stating it is ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality’. (Baudrillard, 1983, p2) The aforementioned example of the media can be seen as entities that take the actuality of things happening and build the simulation around them, to present to the public the series of events and their significance and meaning.

 

Our own lives that we find ourselves directly involved in fall between interaction and solitude. Those interactions, many of which are repeated time and time again even though the proponents may change – buying coffee, greeting an acquaintance, stepping on the bus – play out as ‘images with which the subject identifies one after the other in order to act out, as sole actor, the drama of their conflicts’ (Lacan, Fink and Fink, 2006, p80). As the actor we have pre-conceived notions of what part we are meant to play in the societal drama and embody a sense of ourselves in order to act our part out, the cameo role in a thousand other lives. Lacan states ‘that man’s individual behaviour bears the mark of a certain number of typical psychical relations in which a certain social structure is expressed’ (Lacan, Fink and Fink, 2006, p80), that our behaviour is informed by the social structures with which we grew up and that now, in adulthood, inhibit our ability to perceive ‘certain affective situations—for example, the particular bond between two individuals in a group’, censored as we are by convention. The more of our lives we spend within the system, the more we re-enforce it.

 

The majority of our lives therefore fall into a series of events of which we are assured of the outcome by convention. These rituals are man-made and unoriginal, we trust in their completion and require them to function correctly. When something or someone upsets this however, it is then that we find ourselves outside of the simulation and thrust into the real – we find ourselves in obscenity. (Baudrillard, 2003)

 

This theory of obscenity suggests that it is within obscenity that we can see our reality around us, ergo, if someone were to tell you that you existed within a simulation, this revelation would cause you to question your environment, propelling you into the obscene and thus into reality. Therefore, reality is a perceptual condition of evaluating objectivity. In a simulated environment one may have a unique sensory subjectivity (e.g. a different “skin” or a mod for a game) that none else can experience, yet be playing the same game as another. In this instance reality is not the sensory perception of the world but the state in which one interacts with it; because within a known simulation there would be architecture of code that is not just investigable but understandable by definition of being man-made, the simulation will carry an objective mathematical reality for its participants. One’s investigation of or interaction with objects is the reality of said object. Within an unknown simulation or a base reality, the same applies, that reality is held within your interaction with the world, not within the fabric of the world itself.

 

Ideas of simulated life, and the breaking down of it are addressed in HBO’s 2016 television series Westworld, which expands on the premise of Michael Crichton’s film of the same name in a way that reflects the growth in understanding of the topics at hand. The premise of a Wild West style theme park with humanoid robots, “hosts” ready to fulfill every fantasy acts as a skin in the original film for a more generic story of mankind losing control of its creations. However, the HBO series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy asks deeper questions about consciousness, morality, reality and the nature of being human.

 

Humanity is seen most clearly when the hosts act what seems to be outside of their scripted daily “loops”. It is this moment when we as the audience watching as well as the human guests in the park find ourselves in obscenity; when we are no longer capable of distinguishing whether we are witnessing a host acting within its loop or whether we are seeing the emergence of consciousness, the latter being effected visually with the use of a handheld camera rather than a Steadicam. When presented with a novel situation in our own lives we determine what the “real” is and ask who is crazy, the person acting outside of societal norms, or those who act within them? Very much like the hosts, it can be argued that those outside the norms are showing genuine expressions of humanity. Ford, the hosts creator, expresses his intuition on how it is our hubris that separates us from the “unconscious” beings he creates, despite the similarities in the ways in which our lives are led: ‘There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts, no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” (‘Trace Decay’, 2016)

 

Consciousness is explored through the idea coined by Julian Jaynes of the Bicameral Mind whereby ‘primitive man believed his thoughts to be the voice of a god’ (‘The Stray’, 2016). Jaynes’ theory asserts that ancient humans existed as ‘pre-conscious, pre-personal civilizations’ (Schindler, S. 2013), following the commands of these auditory hallucinations until, Jaynes estimates, around the time of Homer’s Odyssey. ‘Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we; he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon.’ (Jaynes, 1976, p75) ‘Since we know that Greek culture very quickly became a literature of consciousness, we may regard the Iliad as standing at the great turning of the times, and a window back into those unsubjective times when every kingdom was in essence a theocracy and every man the slave of voices heard whenever novel situations occurred.’ (Jaynes, 1976, p82) Westworld’s hosts hear their programming language as an inner monologue of instructions and much like the Bicameral Iliadic man theorised, there is no ego involved in the carrying out of these instructions, merely followed as if the command of a god. It is the questioning of these compulsions that are the symptoms of the barrier between instruction and action breaking down, and the subsequent emergence of an ego and, upon recognition that the voice is merely oneself, a consciousness.

 

Westworld introduces memory as the vehicle for this breakdown and more specifically points to traumatic memory as the “cornerstone” of consciousness: ‘The thing that led the hosts to their awakening — suffering. The pain that the world is not as you want it to be.’ (‘The Bicameral Mind’, 2016) This pain is obscenity, the moment when things are immediately given and realized. These moments of obscenity, bring to the fore a reality, separate from us that we cannot control, and through this interaction, build a consciousness.

 

From one machine to another, the silver rectangle with which this essay is written cannot accurately be called a “computer”. The word itself originally referred to a human until Alan Turing described a possible Universal Machine, a machine capable of computing any computable number by changing its table of behavior, (what can be seen as analogous to software nowadays) in other words it was a machine capable of being any machine capable of performing a computation. These secondary machines are then Virtual machines in that they are both real and effectual and yet if one were to tear the rectangle apart would have no physical referent. The computer itself is ‘an abstract entity or process that has found physical expression… it is a simulation, only not necessarily a simulation of anything actual’ (Woolley, 1992, p69). If the process of using a computer is already achieved by means of a simulacrum (a simulation (copy) with no original) what does that say about the reality of our lives, being as they are so reliant on computers?

 

In a flight simulation are you flying? No. Are you going somewhere? Yes. It enables one to experience travelling without changing our world referent (where we are), it is not sitting in a toy car pretending to go to the shops in base reality but sitting in a real chair travelling for real in Virtual space. The machine does this firstly by simulating what a machine that can simulate an aircraft actually is, and then secondly simulates the aircraft. The break from reality occurs not in the experience of now flying an aircraft but in the request for the universal machine to simulate the specific machine that is then capable of simulating an aircraft. When using this rectangle therefore, I am not just accessing and relaying information digitally as opposed to physically, but I am doing this using an instrument that, when the rectangle is closed, no longer exists. Every process therefore that has been given over to computers is running within a simulation, and by extension our lives too.

 

Lastly, within the simulation, we must examine the urbanized environment. The urbanized environment has elevated itself beyond the natural world, where all interaction takes place through a medium controlled by man. As much as there can be a distinction between an item that is “man-made” in opposition to one considered “natural”, urbanization is the generation of a habitable space in opposition to nature. A generation by models of a real (habitable space) without origin… a simulation.

 

‘In pre-capitalist societies, work was necessary, but people had shared access to land, subsistence farming and the necessary means of survival. Peasants were poor but self-sufficient, and survival was not dependent on working for someone else.’ (Srnicek & Williams, 2015)

 

What capitalism did by taking land away from the peasants and forcing harsh legal systems to impose wage labour on the populous was to create dependents and as such separate the lives of the working poor from the land where they lived that was now capital and the freedoms associated with subsistence. In making everyone dependent on the system, capitalism created its proletariat and was able to flourish and reproduce itself. Within this system, there may be a choice in the training one could take that would determine the types of jobs they might be eligible for, but there is no choice to not have a job, unless one is exceedingly wealthy to begin with. This indoctrination into the system meant the divide between the production of necessary resources and the people consuming them was separated by extra levels of human labour, building up the dependency for the commercialization of social life into the building of networks.

 

And it is networks that the urbanised environment will need to exploit if it is to thrive. With the growth of AI, the ability to monitor the many varied and interlinked systems within a city is becoming ever more involved. Fleet learning of autonomous vehicles is one such powerful technology that is already seeing limited running; on motorways in the form of Tesla Motors’ Autopilot system, which has seen over 1.3 billion miles of driving, 300 million with the autopilot system activated (Lambert, 2016); and in the city with the launch of nuTonomy, an autonomous taxi service being tested in Singapore (nuTonomy, 2016).

 

As an example, autonomous driving presents the possibility of turning travel into productive time far cheaper than the cost of paying for a taxi driver. The more miles the autopilot systems travel, the better they get. The more vehicles that are assisted or driven by an autopilot system, the more vehicles can communicate (for instance about the state of traffic), and the safer they are. As long as the software is secure. And what both these projects, as well as Google’s own self-driving project all have in common is the pairing of electric vehicles to this technology. In the case of Tesla, having merged with Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s solar power company SolarCity, are in a position to start offsetting power usage from Tesla Supercharger stations with green energy. The simulation points towards efficiency, comfort and a transition away from fossil fuels.

 

Speaking in conversation at the World Economic Forum in 2017, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella explained further needs and considerations for these sorts of systems:

 

‘In the cyber-physical systems…autonomous driving or even being able to give advice to patients, where you’re having real impact in the real world, you can’t make mistakes… that means you’ve got to create simulation that is the real world, because you are going beyond perception when you are making calls based on your predictions of how the constrained world works. You’ve got to create real simulation environments, that means software tools and the tooling around it has to be very sophisticated.’

(World Economic Forum, 2017)

 

Software is the factory that processes information, the raw material of the digital era, and as more develop, it will make more decisions. Here the matter of how programs are written brings in legal and ethical considerations. Joichi Ito, director of Media Lab at MIT, in discussion with Nadella, saw the treatment of companies as legal entities providing a model of how the decisions made by an AI may be legally considered:

 

‘Companies are a collection of intelligence… it has a legal representation, it pays tax… I think machines will start to become either parts of corporations but built into the collective intelligence. They might augment humans, they might augment corparations but I think the corporation is really a kind of AI already.’

(World Economic Forum, 2017)

 

Simulation here regards to controlling systems by maximizing data usage, mapping systems out in real time in order to predict and prevent disruptions to the lives of those within a population. It is a tool that augments municipal management but enables greater degrees of proactivity, thus it stands to reason that the act of management itself is a framework of simulation. Much as Ito points to the idea of corporations as meta-organisms of collective intelligence, society itself can be seen this way; it just needs to be connected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A New Simulation

 

As it is connecting, society is seeing major change with the proliferation of modern technologies being developed for industry, such as the increase in automative processes as well as Artificial Intelligence. The world of economy that will be so deeply affected by this change is as separate from the real as any VR experience.

To understand this, we must first take a simplified look into the history of our situation. Neoliberalism wasn’t a natural progression of politics and economy; the ideological infrastructure was created by The Mont Pelerin Society, set up by the Austrian economist F.A. Hayek, from the foundations of the short lived Centre International d’Études pour la Rénovation du Liberalism after the Second World War. The MPS used many channels in academia, media and politics to spread its ideas but most successful was the extensive creation of a network of think tanks around the world. The think tanks were involved in ‘developing policy arguments, building policy solutions and homing in on economic culprits.’ (Srnicek, Williams, 2015, p58) With this network of often misleadingly neutrally named organizations such as The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), the neoliberal agenda slowly became the new common sense on economic policy. The Atlas Economic Research Foundation alone claims to have helped set up over 400 think tanks in over 80 countries.

 

In August 1971 US president Richard Nixon effectively scrapped the Bretton Woods agreement (a post-war accord that tied all currencies to the dollar, and the dollar to gold) with a unilateral decision to end the convertibility of the dollar to gold in order to counteract other countries devaluing their currencies to remain competitive. This meant the global financial system was now based on floating exchange rates and Fiat Money: Money created out of nowhere, enabling banks to expand money creation. The removal of the Bretton Woods system decreased the value of oil worldwide contributing towards the 1973 decision by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to embargo oil exports to the US. The stagflation of rising unemployment and inflation that persisted throughout the 1970s led to a need for an alternative to the Keynesian solutions that could deal with either problem but not both. Reductions on capital controls and an attack on the power labour were combined with financial deregulation throughout the 1980s to consolidate neoliberalism’s position as the new common sense during the Thatcher-Reagan era. With many of Thatcher’s advisors having passed through the IEA, ‘the outcome of the IEA’s effort was not only to subtly transform the economic discourse in Britain, but also to naturalise two particular policies: the necessity of attacking trade union power, and the imperative of monetary stability’ (Srnicek & Williams, 2015, p59).

 

The First Basel Accord, in 1988, dropped the requirement for banks to hold 20% of their deposits as cash to just 8%. By the time of the Second Basel Accord in 2004, increasing complexity to loans saw a weighting system introduced that allowed firms to wrap up loans as Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDO) they could sell to investors to get around transparency laws. Ratings agencies misvalued these and then sold Credit Default Swaps (CDS) to investors to protect them if the CDOs went bad, as well as selling CDSs to speculators against CDOs they didn’t own. With no regulation on CDSs, firms weren’t required to hold any money aside to cover potential losses. (Inside Job, 2010) When the loans did go bad, governments dealt with the problem the same way they had been trying to avoid crisis up until 2008: print more money in the form of Quantative Easing, buy up government bonds and unpayable debts from the mortgage lenders, give money to those who were already rich and hope the effect would trickle down. It is a system that has seen massive increases in wealth inequality, with the richest 8 people (men) in the world now having a combined wealth equal to that of the poorest 3.6 billion, a report by Oxfam has concluded, calling for a new common sense to run our economies. (Hardoon, 2017) Furthermore, it is a system that has led to spiraling government debt, caused in no small part by the transfer of corporate debt to sovereign debt by quantative easing. A situation that, combined with ageing populations (requiring higher spending on health, pensions and long-term care) and the majority of private pension funds being invested into government debt, would ‘sink the world’ without being reined in. (Mason, 2016)

 

This idea under neoliberalism that money can be made from money alone misunderstands its role within society: ‘Money is created by states and always has been…Money is always the “promise to pay” by government. Its value is not reliant on the intrinsic worth of a metal; it is a measure of people’s trust in the permanence of the state.’ (Mason, 2016, p15) The government places their trust into the banks and the public no longer trusts the banks, the trend of printing a way out of crisis avoids extended recessions, providing stability, but merely transfers this to the next crash, and the money created to those who least need it.

 

It is clear that neoliberalism, as an ideology, was a devised project that found traction, proliferation and mutation throughout the world. It is yet another example of how human invention has been the driving force behind change to create a world that seems natural to those who inhabit it. Having created its precariat, those living without predictability and security, as capitalism created its proletariat before it, neoliberalism is a system that increasingly benefits the wealthy at the expense of vulnerable individuals the world over. With this in mind, it is imperative that this changes, moreover it seems not so far fetched that the end of neoliberalism may be brought about by a similar project of intellectual common sense re-education rather than through war or cataclysm.

 

If a society were then to undertake a project of transition out of neoliberalism, there are two remaining aspects that need to be considered: Production and economy. These are very much interrelated with each other and with the growth of technologies that further distance human labour from the productive process, as the ways in which profit margins can be drawn out from the system are reducing. It is to the Labour-Theory of Value that this society should turn for answers.

 

The economist Adam Smith stated in The Wealth of Nations that ‘It was not by gold or by silver but by labour that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased… and its value… is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command’ (Smith in Mason, 2016). Here, Smith explains that a commodity’s value is the value of the “socially necessary” hours of work; the average amount of labour hours needed to produce it.

 

The value of this labour is then determined again in the same way any value is determined: by the amount of labour required to prepare a worker for any given day’s work: food, clothing, electricity, housing, etc. This cost is spread across the whole of society and is less than the hours of work the worker is then able to contribute. This additional output from the input was what Karl Marx termed “surplus value” and this goes to the employer. As such, labour then becomes ‘not just the measure of value but the motherlode from which profit is mined.’ (Mason, 2016)

 

With labour as the sole source of added value, one is left to question the role of the machine in the productive process and what its relationship with the value of a product actually is. The labour-theory of value treats machines as “finished labour” and transfers a portion of the cost of this labour to the end product. (Mason, 2016)

 

The labour-theory, in tying all value to socially necessary labour, creates a constant by which value in any area can be compared, ascribing to the market, ‘and only the market, the mechanism of making concrete the reality beneath’. (Mason, 2016)

 

The question of the value of labour becomes ever more important when we look at the rise of Artificial Intelligence and its potential to automate processes that previously required the cognitive efforts or adaptability of a human worker. The Oxford Martin School suggested 47% of jobs in the US were susceptible to automation, starting with transportation, logistics, office and administrative support and labour in production in the next 20 years then moving on to jobs requiring dexterity, observation, feedback and working in cramped environments within the next 40. (Mason, 2016) A report in the University of Texas publication Issues concluded that 81% of all jobs are susceptible to automation (Elliott, 2016) involving a ‘drastic reduction in sales, management, administration, construction, maintenance, and food service work accompanied by a massive expansion in health care, education, science, engineering, and law’, in other words moving human effort from a manufacturing based economy to an info-labour economy. Further to this, a report by Forrester concluded that the emergence of Artificial Intelligence would threaten 6% of jobs in the next 5 years alone (Taylor, 2016).

 

These reports tell us that there is a glut of jobs that do not require the creativity of a human to perform them, or are even ultimately pointless as LSE Professor of Anthropology David Graeber points out:

 

‘We have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.’ (Graeber, 2013) mincing no words when proposing the descriptor “bullshit jobs”.

 

As the coming tide of automation begins to breakdown the need for “bullshit jobs”, more and more the pressure will mount on a capitalist society to provide employment, further increasing the size of the precariat. With mass under-employment, consumption will collapse requiring ‘the mass commercialization of ordinary human life’ a solution rejected by Austrian born social philosopher André Gorz:

 

‘At a certain level, human life and interaction resist commercialization. An economy in which large numbers of people perform micro-services for each other can exist, but as a form of capitalism it would be highly inefficient and intrinsically low-value.’ (Gorz in Mason, 2016)

 

And it is here that finally, after a century of inflating bureaucracy, automation via the growth of Artificial Intelligence may begin to encroach on these areas as well as on the productive side of the economy.

 

For the developed world, where economies are primarily service based, this change has the potential to reduce pressure on the swollen education and healthcare systems by freeing up workers, but a great shift in wealth inequality would be required to encourage training or retraining for these highly skilled and complex jobs.

 

For the global south and manufacturing economies, these changes could be potentially disastrous. Globalisation expanded capitalism to these new labour markets, setting back the need for ‘intensive growth’ (growth in productivity) in exchange for ‘extensive growth’ (growth of inputs/labour), to maintain low prices. This state is already nearing its end and is well beyond its apex, as the developing middle class (those earning between $4 and $13 a day) is growing faster than any other income bracket, having grown from 600m to 1.4bn people since 1991. This poses a problem for the developed world, with the current US poverty line at $13 dollars a day, it is becoming less and less fruitful to offshore labour as the developing middle class begins to overlap in wages with the poorest of western workers. When adding automative, intensive growth, a reduced labour force, increased productivity and a developing middle class demanding wages to compare with those of the lowest Western incomes, the West will reduce its offshoring in favour of home-based automative production. (Mason, 2016)

 

Project Zero is the name Paul Mason gives to his idea of a political plan to transition towards a post-capitalist society, so called because ‘its aims are a zero-carbon energy system; the production of machines, products and services with zero marginal costs; and the reduction of necessary labour time as close as possible to zero.’ (Mason, 2016, p266) He suggests increased incentives to automate away jobs, reduce carbon emissions, and develop renewable energy sources. Increased automation necessarily reduces human labour and thus the marginal profit that may be taken, to its greatest extreme, with no human input (including maintenance), this margin is reduced to zero, as it will be the capital itself (the machines) that can produce infinitely with no requirement for financial compensation. These capital inputs then necessarily become valueless, being unable to produce a profit to recoup any losses incurred by purchase.

 

Mason proposes a solution to the debt crisis requiring cooperation on the scale of that of the Bretton Woods system to create a ‘Global policy of “financial repression”: that is, to stimulate inflation, hold interest rates lower than the inflation rate, remove people’s ability to move money into non-financial investments or offshore, and thus inflate away the debts. This would reduce the value of assets in pension funds, and thus the material wealth of the middle classes and the old… and would be partially deglobalizing finance. But this is only a controlled way of doing what the market will do via chaos if, as S&P predicts, 60 per cent of all countries see their debt reduced to junk by 2050.’ (Mason, 2016, p275) This may help to reduce the pressure on economies caused by recent financial crises and ageing populations but still required is a method to care for all as automation encroaches on jobs in a way that would otherwise increase inequality.

 

A welfare solution to job losses that may be incurred by automation as well as being a method of wealth redistribution to disseminate the benefits of automation across society would be the introduction of a Universal Basic Income. UBI. ‘A basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or work requirement.’ (BIEN, 2016). The most obvious benefits to this system as a method of tackling material poverty include its simplicity and transparency. The lack of a requirement to vet those who would be the recipients of such a scheme vastly reduces the admin involved and the potential of anyone cheating the system.

 

There have been a growing number of basic income trials and systems tested in the last half century. A 1996 study of the mental health of 4500 children in the Great Smoky Mountains region of North Carolina inadvertently observed some effects of a basic income; The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, comprising approximately a quarter of the cohort, built a casino on their reserve and each tribal member was given a share of the profits, earning each member approximately $4000/year. This equal dissemination of money provided an average of a 20% boost in household incomes. A second study later looked into the specific effects on the Cherokee children recorded over the 10-year period. What was reported were lower instances of behavioural and emotional disorders, and boosted conscientiousness and agreeableness, both of which correlate with happiness and success. Furthermore, it was noted that the reported effects were most pronounced in the children who were most deficient. (Ferdman, 2016) One potential reason for this given in the second study was that the higher income enabled families to move to relatively wealthier areas, where the children had access to more amenities that may have then led to the mental wellbeing increase. (Akee et al., 2015)

 

This greater benefitting of more disadvantaged groups was also an observation of a basic income trial funded by UNICEF in Madhya Pradesh, India. ‘Suddenly, they [lower-caste families, women and those with disabilities] had their own money, which gave them a stronger bargaining position in the household.’ (Standing, 2013) Families were now able to buy fresh food from markets rather than from ration shops, better diets led to better health. Better health meant children went to school more and performance improved. Another cited reason for this improvement was the ability to pay for transport and even for shoes. The income enabled investments, which led to greater productivity and higher growth and kept families away from predatory financial services:

 

‘One cannot overestimate the importance of financial liquidity in low-income communities. Money is a scarce and monopolized commodity, giving moneylenders and officials enormous power. Bypassing them can help combat corruption. Even though families were desperately poor, many managed to put money aside, and thus avoid going into deeper debt when financial crises hit due to illness or bereavements.’ (Standing, 2013)

 

Trials such as these suggest that the most disadvantaged benefit the most from a basic income and that people, when given the freedom to allocate resources, are better at it than in a paternal system such as food stamps or Below Poverty Line Cards. Furthermore, these systems are less subject to corruption due to the transparency of the system: everyone knows what they should get and that everyone should be receiving the same.

 

In Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy a report released by the White House on the future effects of AI on the economy and potential policy decisions that may be required, basic income is discussed, or rather dismissed as ‘We should not advance a policy that is premised on giving up on the possibility of workers’ remaining employed.’ (The White House, 2016, p38) Preferring to focus on skills, training, and job search assistance, missing the point of a basic income entirely. A basic income isn’t a resignation to the end of human labour in the face of automation, it is a structural answer to the problem of material poverty and wealth inequality. No research has pointed to a UBI leading to a decrease in productivity. This response is indicative of the near-theological attachment to work bred by neoliberalism, rather than support the population from the ground up, it is from the top down that neoliberalism works. AI automation seems certain to do one thing: increase productivity; changes in labour statistics at the moment are guesswork as the numbers of jobs that will be created by new technologies are unknown, whether net-positive or negative and so the job market is sure to be turbulent. As I mentioned earlier, in order to fund the retraining and education to perform these highly skilled jobs, a great shift of wealth away from the current state of gross inequality will be required, something that may be contributed to in part by a UBI. A basic income enables a degree of financial independence to those who need it, allowing them to spend time doing the training for the new jobs that the government has suggested they are more interested in.

 

The report goes on to express interest in increasing worker bargaining power, wages and raise minimum wage, again all things that are aided by a UBI. ‘By eliminating a reliance on wage labour, workers gain control over how much labour to supply, giving them significant power in the labour market’ (Srnicek & Williams, 2015, p120) Further, low wage jobs are often undesirable and demeaning, a basic income reduces the need for people to take such a job, tightening the labour market and putting pressure on increasing wages or innovation to automate the job away.

 

The wealth created by automation needs to be spread across society equally, rather than being hoarded by organizations and stored in the financial sector, which would lead to higher rates of wealth inequality. A UBI may be a vehicle for this distribution, but it will require funding. The White House report suggests an increase in the top rate of capital gains tax, and that inherited assets be subject to it in order to capture more of the increased wealth brought about by the increased productive reliance on capital. Srnicek and Williams additionally propose ‘reducing duplicate [welfare] programmes, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agriculture subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.’ (Srnicek & Williams, 2015, p123) It must be noted that a basic income should not be used as a replacement for all current welfare systems, but a base to eliminate material poverty to which other needs-based welfare systems (e.g. family, disability and childcare benefits) may supplement, otherwise it ‘would just become a vector of increased marketization, transforming social services into private markets’ (Srnicek & Williams, 2015, p119), simply furthering the neoliberal machine.

 

 

I have avoided, so far, of writing about simulation theory; the theory that any given civilization will either die out, lose interest in simulation, or build simulations, in which would be more civilizations and the same would apply, thus the likelihood of being in base reality is very low. This choice was made for the purpose of being practical. Our lives are governed, by social common sense and cultural upbringing, by governments and the legal and economic structures they regulate, by ideology. These structures support us and we support them because it is beneficial to the individual when costs are spread across a society. It can be said that the most effectual inventions are ones that permit laziness; that reduce the human effort required for a task. Farming enabled fewer people to supply more food. Gunpowder required less training for a higher fatality rate in war. The energy input required when spread across a population reduces, decreasing the socially necessary labour for a worker to arrive at the gates, increasing productivity.

 

The digital world is providing a second tier of reality as it starts to use data on a massive scale to improve our lives. Digital infrastructures that will shape the ways we interact and permeate our cities will make more understandable and measurable the effects of design and policy decisions. But this is only revealing the abstract thought structures that already direct our lives and hold the endeavor of society as simulation, to master nature by controlling it.

 

Simulation theory makes a convincing argument, but evidence for this logical assumption lies at the fringes of science, whereas there is a simulation we all enjoy, or at the very least experience, today: Society. Successful societies harness the capabilities of their people, and with newer and better methods of automation and AI, this is becoming more possible than ever. Video Games and Virtual reality on the other hand are helping to prepare us for a world of information in abundance. The fourth industrial revolution as it has been called, and like the three that preceded it, is in human hands. The fifth might not be…

 

‘The best way to predict the future is to invent it’ – Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet, Inc

 

 

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