By Pat Kane
Plonk a set of smart glasses or a virtual-reality helmet before the philosopher Plato, and after his fastidious recoil there would be a moment of self-righteousness: “I told you so.”
Plato’s ”Allegory of the Cave“ has its inhabitants chained up and gazing at a stony wall. Over it flicker shadows that they take for reality. As we plug in, turn on and zone out with our current repertoire of virtuality-generating devices, we will find it worth musing over the challenge that Plato poses: do wisdom-lovers break those chains, as he suggests, and leave the cave to seek reality? Or do they stay put, finally face down the old misery-guts super-rationalist, and assert that this new layer of simulated experience is as natural to humans as play or art?
Simulation already draws on mythology. The much-heralded Magic Leap platform – which sees reality “augmented” as you look upon it, rather than entirely simulated like in a video game – sends household robot-gods scurrying around under tables and schools of whales undulating across the ceiling. Other human beings can be mapped in your augmented eyesight and rendered as cultural icons, creatures, objects, or aliens. An entirely new popular-culture storm is gathering here; last year’s Pokémon Go phenomenon was the merest flurry.
Still, it’s good to keep Plato’s admonitions about delusion and illusion in mind. We have come through a decade in which general enthusiasm for a “gameful world” (as theorist Jane McGonigal might put it) held out the hope of new forms of education and work. A generation of managers asked: look at all the free labour people do in World of Warcraft, Minecraft and No Man’s Sky. Can’t we “gamify” our endeavour or enterprise to elicit a similar kind of commitment? Not just for profit, but for social good, for mental health?
This agenda has progressed somewhat into the mainstream. In the current series of House of Cards, Frank Underwood’s presidential challenger – the damaged military hero Will Conway – uses a war-gaming VR headset as therapy for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Yet the “serious games” movement (which has an upcoming conference in July at George Mason University in Manassas, Virginia) can rarely overcome the oldest truth about any human engagement with games, play or mimicry – that being able to freely chose to play the game, beyond utility or coercion, is the very point of it.
Freedom to play
This freedom to play is not just a rabbit hole into which one’s attention disappears. The link between freedom and play could perhaps be preserved in a “serious” game if the political stakes were high enough. Some regard virtual-world creation as a tool, as yet barely wielded, for reordering society. In his recent book Postcapitalism, Paul Mason wonders why we have “no models that capture economic complexity, in the way computers are used to simulate weather, population, epidemics or traffic flows”.
Mason’s simulations would be “agent-based” and unpredictable: you create a million digital people with digital resources and needs, set them loose in a synthetic world, and are informed and illuminated by what emerges.
The assumption is that economics needs to be much better at anticipating major surprises and crises that arise from messily motivated – rather than rationally maximising – human beings. Synthetic worlds, with their increasingly daunting simulation power, can set those hares running.
Rehearsal for reality
So virtuality could indeed rehearse you for the complexity of the real world, not just act as an escape from it. The optimism of the current wave of AI pioneers, such as Google’s DeepMind, is that their learning machines can be the great assistants of – not grim replacements for – human ambition, vision and will.
Our modern Plato should put on his techno-specs and walk out of the cave. He would still see a real world worth grasping and shaping, but one informed by the simulations and augmentations dancing before his eyes. Will we need new philosophies and philosophers to cope with our permanently virtual condition? Well, one might argue that’s all they’ve ever done.