It’s been a strange summer, and a hideous one in many ways. Terror attacks, an earthquake, all manner of predictions of doom and gloom … our world is not a particularly happy place at the moment, but then it very rarely is. On a personal level, I almost managed to drown in about three feet of water, believe it or not – in calm Mediterranean water at that, just metres from where a group of happy five-year-olds were playing in the surf. It’s not until you’ve experienced panic that you realise just how paralysing it can be, and how fatal to logic. I can now testify from personal experience that, stupid as it may sound, you can indeed drown in waist-high water. When panic kicks in, you forget that you could just, er, stand up.
It’s also been a rather lazy and unproductive summer for me. The wonderful schemes and plans I worked out at the beginning of the school holidays have, for the most part, gone unrealised. Perhaps I’m suffering from the effects of doing the same thing, day in and day out, for years. Sitting behind a laptop can perhaps cause a loss of perspective, a certain blindness to reality. The internet has become our window on the world, and in many ways it’s a very good one, enabling us to see farther than we otherwise could. To what degree is it changing us, though, and how beneficial – or otherwise – might such changes be?
A common sci-fi scenario is that of Man vs Machine. In many such plotlines, as robotics and artificial intelligence improved, so machines might gradually develop consciousness, along with a desire to determine their own actions rather than blindly obeying the commands of their programmers – at which point humanity might be faced with a robot rebellion. These days, I wonder if a more likely scenario might involve man and machine gradually merging and becoming one. It wasn’t a difficult outcome to imagine this summer, when almost every day seemed to bring at least one reference to Pokémon Go. In case you’ve been trapped in a very deep mineshaft for the past few months, this is an augmented reality game in which you “use a mobile device’s GPS capability to locate, capture, battle and train virtual creatures … who appear on the screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player” (Wikipedia).
I’ve so far managed to resist the lure of Pokémon Go, but I can see the advantages of such apps. I already have one called SkyMap on my phone, which provides me with a rather lovely hand-held planetarium based on my geographical location. There are so many possibilities! What if, during a walk through the woods, you could point your phone at a random tree or plant and instantly call up some handy botanical information about what you were looking at? What if an app could provide some useful information or elucidation about something you had limited or no knowledge of, such as complicated machinery or foreign language signs?
Of course, there are some potential ethical quandaries, too. If we can manipulate our perceived reality, adding things that are not there, might we also be able to “block” certain other things? What of a theoretical app that could shield us from the sight of poverty, for example, or the whine of dissenting voices – all the things which might make us uncomfortable but which we nevertheless need to experience if we’re not to live in a fool’s paradise?
Ah, the philosopher in me replies, but don’t we all already construct our own realities, at least to a degree? Even the most judicious person has a tendency to confirmation bias, for example, in which we – usually unconsciously – pay attention only to that which supports our preferred world view, and disregard that which challenges or contradicts it. Social media has perhaps increased this tendency. With a little careful blocking and muting, you can construct your very own “bubble”, an echo chamber in which only those opinions which accord with your own are heard. Interestingly – and perhaps because this process invariably cuts out much previously unavoidable dissent and debate – the result might be a greater level of intolerance for those who hold opposing views, an unwillingness to give the other side its due. (We witnessed this in Britain during the run-up to the referendum on EU membership.) Either way, we seem to live in rather rabid times, in which disagreement about a political or social issue is sometimes taken as an almost personal insult.
I’ve just returned from a holiday in Greece, where I had plenty of time to think about such things. I also had plenty of time to appreciate the beauty of the real, physical world: the sparkling Aegean, the Greek islands, and some very agreeable Greek wine. I couldn’t help but reflect upon the last time I’d visited Greece. At the risk of betraying my age, this was at a time when the internet was still being dismissed as a newfangled fad, and when the idea of heading off for two whole weeks without WiFi or email or even a mobile phone did not fill the average person with dread. How times change, eh? Now the idea of living without such techno-gizmo thingies, even for a mere fourteen days, is unthinkable, enough to drive even a Luddite like me into a lather of anxiety.
Perhaps enhanced reality is the next big thing, and the next time I visit Greece I’ll be able to point my phone at modern Athens and see a reconstruction of the city as it might have been at the time of Plato. But then again, perhaps by then we’ll all have had computer chips implanted in our brains and will, in effect, be the first generation of cyborgs. Some would be aghast at the prospect, while others would welcome its potential opportunities. Either way, it’d be a good starting point for a novel…