Thursday, November 05, 2015

ISIS: A virtual reality

"Virtual" is a difficult term to define, especially in the modern phrase, "virtual reality." Of course, by the time kids are in middle school they know what virtual reality is, but ask them to define it. Then ask yourself.  In this essay I've assembled what knowledge I could about "virtual reality" and the role the concept plays in modern society.  At the end I relate what I find to our conception of the terrorist group ISIS.

A good dictionary covers the basics: "Virtual" is related to the noun, "virtue," which we know to mean, "a morally good quality," like integrity or honesty, from Latin virtus, "merit," "perfection," from vir, "man."  The transition from vir to the rest is a challenging etymological puzzle (while you're at it, consider "woman of virtue"), but my focus here is the equally mystifying modern usage of "virtual."

Back to the dictionary- there are three broad definitions of "virtual":

1: "Almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition : the troops stopped at the virtual border."   Virtual borders are not official borders on a map, but de facto borders, determined by use.

[Note: Only definition #1 clearly references the historic usage of virtue, in the sense of "possessing certain virtues."  In the example above, virtual borders have the "virtue" of being observed by practice, though not the virtue of being indicated on maps.]

2: "In computing, not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so : a virtual computer;"  In other words, imaginary.

3: "Physics, denoting particles or interactions with extremely short lifetimes and indefinitely great energies, postulated as intermediates in some processes."  In other words, particles, or things, that exist for such a brief period of time that their reality as things is questionable.

I would have guessed that "virtual reality" derived from #3, since it is the most confusing.  Does the length of time that something exists have bearing on whether it exists?  How long do individual humans exist?  In galactic time, it's not very long.   So is ours a lesser existence?  That subject will have to wait for another essay, however, since "virtual reality" derives from #2, which means, as noted, imaginary.

Under virtual reality we get: "The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors."

The question I ask at this point is, why do we need to call computer-generated simulation any sort of reality, as if it were a type of reality?  We never had this need with novels, plays or movies.  Those are not types of realities.  They are imaginary.

In modern, media based culture, we do seem to have a need to think, or feel, that we create our reality.  It is a sort of honesty, in one sense.  After all, when we turn on the news and see what is happening in far away parts of the world, the news show is constructing reality, so that what we receive is not reality, but a construct based on it.  We have "reality shows," in which people behave in stage-managed ways, real only in the sense that we've made the behavior real on the show.

I'm calling this usage "honest" because, unlike past ages when, for instance, young men recruited for the Crusades were told that various things were happening in the Holy Land that required invasion, those various things were held to be real, not virtually real.  So our culture, by holding that certain things can be virtually real, as opposed to just real, admits a pervasive doubt into our discourse, and doubt is a virtue.

The extended context is not so hopeful, however, because it suggests that we don't require actual reality from our media, that it is enough to produce simulated, virtual reality, as video games do.

It is in this context that I consider ISIS, which, with its professionally produced, ready for prime time video of a man burning to death, realized the predictions of numerous science fiction novels, from the media-mediated wars of George Orwell's 1984 to the blurred lines between war and mass entertainment in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games.  On the day of the ISIS video, our national news anchors breathlessly described the "high production values" of the video, Scott Pelly of CBS marveling that no Hollywood studio could have done "better," as if he were delivering a movie review.  In a sense he was.

The next day my friend showed me a video on his computer that his girlfriend had sent him.  It purported to be a recording of the transmission from a drone that was conducting an attack on ISIS ground troops who were attacking the peshmerga (Kurdish enemies of ISIS, thus our allies).  It was a nighttime attack, the ground troops glowing white through infrared lenses. The chatter from drone control, which was hundreds or thousands of miles from the scene, was dispassionate though highly engaged, technical, referencing targets and coordinates, ordering rocket and 30mm fire that resulted moments later in white flashes where running forms had been.  It looked exactly like a video game.  My friend and I could have been blasting aliens or Kazakhs (a favorite game foe for a while).  Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game came to mind, in which hot-shot 9th grade gamers are told by the military that they are trying out a new training video, while they are in fact fighting real aliens (spoiler alert: Book III reveals that the invading force was actually on a peaceful mission).

What do these musings have to do with the real ISIS?  And by the way, my point is not that ISIS is not real (or evil).  It's hard to see how its actions could be faked.  A Jordanian pilot was really burned; people were really beheaded; Paris was really terrorized by fanatical men.  I'm talking about the thinking behind ISIS, specifically their marketing department, and they clearly have one.  The War of ISIS is packaged for young men the way a video game would be packaged.  You know how you'll be watching a TV show that young people also watch, and suddenly there's a commercial, long minutes of CGI heroes blasting a variety of monsters, with forceful titles, like End of Doom Part III!  Now it's The Rise of ISIS Part I!

Our commentators are wondering where ISIS came from, and what it wants. It is not a country.  It has no past as an established enemy, no clear parentage.  Its psychology seems not to reference anything in the surrounding world.

In other words, ISIS somehow does not seem real.  Virtually, though, it's real enough.  It certainly has no problem with ratings, though ISIS is at heart a transitory organization, dependent on outside support.  On its own it does not have the staying power of a profitable video game.  The best outcome would be to win this war quickly, as well as virtually and really.

Monday, November 02, 2015

What do we obey?

Why do humans do the things they do? Why is the human brain, so impressive in its computing capacity, overrun with dangerous and ill-advised  behaviors? Communally, why do we build complex civilizations based on fantasies, lies and wishful thinking, compress ourselves into cramped and frustrating living spaces, then long for violent outlets (expressed either in reality or in movie and TV preference)?   We fancy ourselves to be exceptionally intelligent, as animals go, but much of the time we appear to have no more agency than the blindly self-destructive victims of parasites.

Speaking of which, Carl Zimmer's Parasite Rex is the story of the perpetual struggle between large multicellular creatures (like us) and the parasites who feed off them.  Parasites frequently specialize in mind control.  The book describes numerous instances where parasites invade the brains of their hosts to make them, for instance, forget their fears of natural predators, the intent being to get the host eaten so the parasite can go on to its next life-stage in the new animal.  For the benefit of parasitic reproduction, fish float in front of herons, ants wait atop grass stalks for hungry birds, caterpillars leave the safety of their camouflage.  Another type of parasitic mind control involves hijacking the reproductive system of the host so that all nurturing instincts are directed at parasite offspring, while the host remains barren.

We have no evidence that the familiar human compulsions are caused by parasites, but it's likely they are caused by something other than the human intellect.  What sort of intellect would long for war, for instance, as our species is known to do?  Since suicidal behavior, which longing for war can exemplify (even provided with a "just cause"), longing for war per se might be judged by most human culture and medical practice as abnormal, belying an intellect that can be reasonably suspected to be a victim of mind control.

If our thralldom does not derive from parasites, the next best suspects are transposons, mysterious genetic manipulators that invade our DNA from outside.  Genetic scientist don't know what transposons are, what they want- if anything- or where they come from.  The latest thinking is that transposons account for the non-inherited differences between identical twins, and for significant non-inherited behaviors in everyone.  Exactly what those behaviors are and what purposes they might serve is unknown.

Transposon theory provides less explanation than parasite study, because at least with parasites we know the host is forced to serve the survival interests of a hostile life form.  We don't even know if transposons are alive, let alone promoting an agenda.  We only know they are there, influencing us.

Zimmer paints a vivid picture of the perennial war between parasites and their hosts.  The genetic blueprints of both parties change dramatically and quickly as they interact, keeping the balance of power steady.  Zimmer posits a theory of sexual reproduction which explains it as a constant reshuffling of host-species' genes to keep pace with parasitic evolution.  From this point of view, humans' incessant compulsion to mate is reminiscent of the non-survival behaviors of parasite hosts.  Of course, reproduction is hardly a non-survival oriented activity; we only survive if we reproduce, but the question remains, why don't we just split in two like bacteria, or hermaphroditic creatures, giving new meaning to the expression, "Go fuck yourself"?  The compulsion to sexually reproduce without resources to care for our young, with no concern about overpopulation, resulting in seven billion anxious and pessimistic humans plotting against each other, is clearly not the result of an intellectual process.

How about our longing for war?  Note: I am not referring to delight at actually being in a war, but to the anticipatory delight at learning that the humdrum, boring and intolerable "peacetime" we've endured for so many years might finally come to an end, like the irrational delight felt by the comfortable English middle-classes at the outbreak of World War I described in Aldous Huxley's Point Counterpoint,  and witnessed by Bertrand Russell as he mournfully watched excited young men boarding trains for the front. We might find it incredible that a fish would purposely float at the water's surface so a heron will eat it, yet our gullibility to war mongering is no less startling.  

Our intellects are muffled and controlled by forces we can't see. These forces might emanate from parasites or transposons, or from our own kind.  Maybe the next step in human evolution will be to truly elevate the intellect.  Or maybe we will just float on the surface waiting for herons.