General · Social Media

Men, Machines, and Augmented Reality

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.

The sea, where I never intend to swim ever again.

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.

The theatre at Epidaurus, which has absolutely nothing to do with the topic of this post.

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…

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7 thoughts on “Men, Machines, and Augmented Reality

    1. Thank you for commenting, Lucinda. It was indeed pretty horrific – and yet strangely funny, now I’m looking back on it. Had I in fact drowned, I would surely have been eligible for a Darwin Award…

  1. It’s crucial for a writer to know about that tendency you mention – the fact that we all, writers and readers, make snap decisions about people and then simply seek evidence to confirm that they’re accurate. I think psychologists call it ‘thin slicing’ and if we’re not careful about how we introduce our characters and what we let them say, our best laid schemes could definitely gang aft a-gley. Speaking of which, don’t drown.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bill. That’s interesting – I didn’t think about the implications of this for writing (and reading) while I was putting this post together. I think, however, it’s something that we need to be wary of, in all situations. That said, I am as guilty as anyone of making snap decisions…

      I’ll try very hard not to drown! Since I now intend to avoid water – I’m even a little wary of filled bathtubs – this should, hopefully, not be too difficult.

  2. At work on Friday, a co-worker mentioned how nice it will be when we have the ability to integrate with computers to index our brains, making it easier to recall details of particular problems, rather than relying on notes or each other’s (leaky if not faulty) memories. I was on the side of aghast; I like it that my brain is a private reserve, and not even I know all of the byways. In my own mind is the only place of true privacy. This is a world where we’re all too happy to share location, mood, pictures and yet manage to sharing nothing true or lasting. I prefer the simplicity, say, of a lunch with you, perhaps with a glass or two of that nice Greek wine, with the breeze bringing the smell of food, the tang of sea (the sea that very thankfully did not claim your life), with the sun warming us and perhaps causing us to shift our chairs a bit so not to squint. This is better and more real because of the immediacy, the overlapping in time of our shared experience. That said, I can also see the allure of a virtual world – how easy it is to be absorbed by it. I tried on a Virtual Reality headset, a knockoff of the Oculus Rift that integrates with a mobile phone as the screen, and with noise-cancelling headphones it is enchanting (in a nearly literal sense) to be surrounded by another world. I get more out of immersion in a good book, though, but I think that is because an excellent writer recreates the sense of immediacy. When VR can do that, what will there to be to keep us from each disappearing into our own perfect world, never to interact meaningfully with another person?

    And, yes, I agree this sounds like a good starting point for a book. I’ve got an unpublished novel (Dead Breath) that toys with some of these ideas. Somewhere, I lost my desire to publish, though, and I left the sequel (Slippery Grave) unfinished. Maybe when you publish your book along these lines (Yes, please!! I would love that!!!), I will be inspired to return to my dark sci-fi as well. 🙂

    -aniko

    1. Your unpublished novel sounds interesting, Aniko – and I hope you do return to it one day! I agree with you to a large extent – I like the fact that my mind is the one part of me that is absolutely private, and where I enjoy absolute freedom, and in ordinary day-to-day life that inner freedom is something I value highly, and try to protect. And yet I can kind of see the advantages of the man-meets-machine scenario, too – if it turns out to be even remotely possible in our lifetimes, which it might not. Still, it will be interesting to see where all of this might be heading…

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