The “useless class” and a new quest for purpose

I was so impressed by Yuval Harari’s latest book it took me three blog posts to event touch on a few of his big ideas. In an article in The Guardian, he expands on a couple of (related) ideas: Basic Income and religion-as-virtual reality. He wrote at length about both of these in Homo Deus but I think the Guardian piece is new (not excerpts from his book).

I agree with Professor Harari that some kind of Basic Income is inevitable. It’ll happen because the wealthy will see it as the best (only?) way to protect all their shit. And what will we all do when we don’t have to have a job? One possibility is virtual reality.

For thousands of years, billions of people have found meaning in playing virtual reality games. In the past, we have called these virtual reality games “religions.” […] What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).

I really can’t see a flaw in that comparison. Unless you count, “Yeah, but Heaven and Hell are real and Grand Theft Auto Six is not.”

When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.

Whoa. The two big holy books as VR devices. And how about a game we all play?

Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game. You might object that people really enjoy their cars and vacations. That’s certainly true. But the religious really enjoy praying and performing ceremonies, and my nephew really enjoys hunting Pokémon. In the end, the real action always takes place inside the human brain.

What does it all mean?

The end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles.

As one who has not worked for the the last four-and-a-half years, I’m here to tell you it is not necessary to give your life meaning.

The virtual reality of a good novel

VR gear keeps getting better and cheaper and — eventually — I’m sure I’ll give it a try. I have some concern that I might like this technology too much. Don’t think I’ll ever become addicted to VR games because, well, I’m just not a gamer. But I could see myself strolling the virtual back-streets of some foreign city for hours at a time. That somehow feels like a bad thing. But…

I can spend three or four hours at a whack lost in the pages of a novel, oblivious to the ‘real’ world around me. Is there a difference between these two experiences?

Virtual reality environments for the elderly

Is anyone creating virtual reality games/environments for the elderly? I’m not a gamer but each time I happen on some video a new game, I’m stunned by how good the graphics have gotten. I assume all other aspects are improving as well.

Today I can outside and romp and play with the other kids but someday that might not be the case. And I might be in an assisted living facility or whatever they have in the far, distant future for people who can’t care for themselves.

Could a clever person create a custom virtual environment for me. I have thousands of photos, hundreds of videos and many thousands of blog posts and tweets and such. A person could know a lot about my past and interests and use that data to create something amazing.

Instead of playing grab-ass with Mrs. Henson down in the day room, I could jack in to Steve World. Hell, in 20 years, the hardware and software will know things about my cognitive state and compensate where needed.


There’s a pond at the bottom of the hill on which we live. On nice days I enjoy sitting at the edge and watching the geese. I’ll bet you that could be created with amazing accuracy. Even “get up and take a walk” around the pond (after I can no long walk anywhere). I’ll hear the geese and the wind in the trees and maybe smell the grass.

This might sound sad and creepy to some, it does to me a little. But aske me again in 20 years.

God as software engineer

In a piece titled “Geek Theologian,” KevinKelly talks with Christianity Today’s Katelyn Beaty
“When we make these virtual worlds in the future —worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options— it’s not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That’s the story of Jesus’ redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations. So I would begin there. For some technological people, that makes the faith a little more understandable.”
Difficult to noodle on such things and not recall the scene with The Architect in the later Matrix films.

The State, the Press and Hyperdemocracy

“Information flow is corrosive to institutions, whether that’s a record label or a state ministry. To function in a hyperconnected world, states must hyperconnect, but every point of connection becomes a gap through which the state’s power leaks away.”

“Script kiddies everywhere now have a role model. Like it or not, they will create these systems, they will share what they’ve learned, they will build the apparatus that makes the state as we have known it increasingly ineffectual and irrelevant. Nothing can be done about that. This has already happened.”

Mark Pesce is one of the early pioneers in Virtual Reality and works as a writer, researcher and teacher. Excerpts above from this post.

The $99 PC and cloud computing (1997)

In 1997 Po Bronson wrote The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest. The novel was the story of some Silicon Valley types who set out to design a PC that would sell for $99. Here’s a bit of the plot from Wikipedia:

“The team finds many non-essential parts but cannot come close to the $99 mark. It is Salman’s idea to put all the software on the internet, eliminating the need for a hard drive, RAM, a CD-ROM drive, a floppy drive, and anything that holds information. The computer has been reduced to a microprocessor, a monitor, a mouse, a keyboard, and the internet, but it is still too expensive. Having seen the rest of his team watching a hologram of an attractive lady the day before, in a dream Andy is inspired to eliminate the monitor in favor of the cheaper holographic projector. The last few hundred dollars comes off when Darrell suggests using virtual reality gloves in place of a mouse and keyboard. Tiny then writes a “hypnotizer” code to link the gloves, the projector, and the internet, and they’re done.”

Does that “put all the software on the internet” part sound familiar. I mean, shoot, that was 13 years ago. Shows how long folks about been thinking about “cloud computing.”

I liked Mr. Bronson’s early work. The Nudist on the Late Shfit and What Should I Do With My Life (non-fiction) in particular.

Hard cover virtual reality

While we wait for the virtual reality promised by Ray Kurzweil (and others), I’ll make do with with immersing myself in good books. I have two that should get me to Seattle and back:

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler

Mortimer Tate was an insurance salesman on the verge of a nasty divorce when he holed up in a mountain cave in Tennessee and rode out the end of the world. Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse begins nine years later, when he emerges into a bizarre landscape filled with hollow reminders of an America that no longer exists.

Hit and Run by Lawrence Block

Keller’s a hit man. For years now he’s had places to go and people to kill. But enough is enough. He’s got money in the bank and just one last job standing between him and retirement. In Des Moines, Keller stalks his designated target and waits for the client to give him the go-ahead. And one fine morning he’s picking out stamps for his collection at a shop in Urbandale when somebody guns down the charismatic governor of Ohio.

I’m not familiar with Gischler but he’s got a knack for titles. I’m a long-time fan of Lawrence Block. If you’ve never been on one of Keller’s hit jobs, you’re in for a treat.

Computer animation technology

In a day or two, I might read that this was a hoax. If not, this is… I don’t know. Amazing falls a little short. Emily is a computer graphic illustration produced using a new modeling technology that enables the minute details of a facial expression to be captured and recreated. For the first minute and a half of the video, before they revert back to the source (the real actress), Emily’s face is being simulated by the technology. [via Podcasting News]

I’m nearing the end of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near and this bit of CGI magic brought the following paragraph to mind:

“The Web will provide a panoply of virtual environments to explore. Some will be re-creations of real places; others will be fanciful environments that have no counterpart in the physical world. Some, indeed, would be impossible, perhaps because the violate the laws of physics. We will be able to visit these virtual places and have any kind of interaction with other real, as well as simulated, people (of course, ultimately there won’t be a clear distinction between the two), ranging from business negotiations to sensual encounters. “Virtual-reality environment designer” will be a new job description and a new art form.” (pg.314)

And if you missed my chat with Michale Spooner, give it a listen and think about the job description, Virtual Reality Designer. [Michael, it’s time to talk about your CGI work and what lies ahead.]

Recommended reading: Idoru by William Gibson.

“Early in the next century, Lo/Rez is more than just the hottest rock band in the world, it’s a business. The enigmatic guru-like guitar hero Rez has announced that he will marry Rei Toei, the most popular musician in Japan. But she doesn’t exist. She’s an idoru, a massively-complex computer program designed to create and perform music in concerts.”

Combine the AI predicted by Kurzweil with CGI about 10,000 times better than the example above and… and I don’t know what. But Kurzweil thinks he does. I plan to live long enough to experience this. Whew! I’m all tingley.

HaltinG StatE by Charles Stross

“This brilliantly conceived techno-crime thriller spreads a black humor frosting over the grim prospect of the year 2012, when China, India and the European System are struggling for world economic domination in an infowar, and the U.S. faces bankruptcy over its failing infrastructure. Sgt. Sue Smith of Edinburgh’s finest, London insurance accountant Elaine Barnaby and hapless secret-ridden programmer Jack Reed peel back layer after layer of a scheme to siphon vast assets from Hayek Associates, a firm whose tentacles spread into international economies. The theft is routed through Avalon Four, a virtual reality world complete with supposedly robbery-proof banks. As an electronic intelligence agency trains innocent gamers to do its dirty work, Elaine sets Jack to catch the poacher.” — Publishers Weekly


PS: The final Harry Potter book was long(er than it needed to be), boring and depressing. Sorry, Mrs. R, I loved the others.