1. Conciousness is more a process than a product.
Jaynes, de Chardin, Tipler, Bucke and KurzweiI have argued that consciousness is evolving, i.e. I have a different conciousness than Skhul 5 (A human fossil from 90,000 years ago). Furthermore, my children’s idea of conciousness will be almost unrecognizable to me. In that sense consciousness in an evolutionary process.
Jaynes takes an extreme tact on historical conciousness – arguing that ancient Egyptians and Greeks in the Iliad were in fact unconscious.
In another sense, the fossil record shows that hominid brain capacity has changed dramatically over the last 20 million years. The brain of my grandaddy homo erectus (1 million years ago) was about 75 percent the size of my brain. I have markedly larger frontal and parietal lobes. (for a picture please see my Web Design & The Brain paper @ indi.ca).
The fossil record demonstrates l that what homo sapiens circa 2003 call consciousness is on point of an evolutionary process, not an unchanging product. In a sense the fossil record confirms Jaynes general theory, it just pushes the dates back a few million years.
Many more scholars have prophesized further changes in consciousness over the next few centuries. Marshall McCluhan said technology is an extension of mind, and in that sense exponential change in human consciousness is inevitable.
Teilard de Chardin – discoverer of the ‘Peking Man’ fossil & a Jesuit priest – theorized that humanity was ‘headed towards the unification of the entire species into a single interthinking group. He coined the word ‘noosphere’ (from the Greek ‘noos’, mind) to refer to the cumulative effect of human minds over the entire planet.’ He refered to this as the Omega Point.
Frank Tipler, professor of Physics @ Tulane elucidated Omega Point Theory as ‘a testable physical theory for an omnipresent omniscient God who will one day in the far future resurrect every single one of us to live forever in an abode which is in all essentials the Judeo Christian Heaven.’ I think it’s unlikely that the concept of discrete (distinct) conscious entities would exist in the noosphere, but as Thomas Friedman said ‘Google is God’. It very well could be.
Bucke, I think offers the least radical version of the Evolution of Consciousness. Bucke’s basic argument is that consciousness is still evolving and that the next step is cosmic conciousness, when a sudden transformation takes place in the individual and that individual comes to transcend normal consciousness, achieving peace, harmony, losing fear of death and sense of sin, and coming to know that life is eternatand one does not achieve it but already has it (Cartwright, 1994 AWARE conference).
Finally, Kurzweil describes how technological change will make this change possible by connecting individuals (the Internet as a primitive example) and the use of nanotech and neural networks, which can artificially speed the evolution of the human brain.
In this way, consciousness is a continual evolutionary process.
2. Contrast Neuromancer’s dark picture with the potential of VR to be positive.
As Gibson has said, he wrote Neuromancer as an artistic description of the present, not prophecy.
His dark future is our present, consumer society dominated by multi-national corporations. Case was a pawn of the semi-corporate AIs Wintermute & Neuromancer. He was a disempowered individual making a petty living robbing the corporate powers that be.
The growth of the Net has actually given more power to people, and mass movements like MP3 sharing directly give power to people and artists at the expense of corporations represented by the RIAA.
Gibson spoke of information trapped in lattices of light, protected by deadly Ice that would fry intruders brains. That is more similar to corporate record stores where alarms sound if you ‘steal’ music. More information is made free and available on the net, for the betterment of artists and researchers starving for exposure and for the education and enrichment of humanity as a whole.
Virtual Reality, if it is built on the Net as it must be, will be more of a free and open system than the corporate-controlled intellectual property system Gibson was describing in 1984.
3. Difference between VR and cyberspace
What is the difference between ‘virtual reality’ and ‘cyberspace’? One description is that virtual reality is the enabling technology and cyberspace the ‘content.’
– Marcos Novak : Liquid Architectures And The Loss of Inscription
These are both vague terms, especially since neither exists on a grand scale. The term Virtual Reality has more acceptance within the scientific community. Researchers like the VR fMRI group in Toronto refer exclusively to VR. It is sort of a catch-all term that describes any technology that enables the simulation of reality (beyond video and text).
Cyberspace, on the other hand, was a space fully imagined and populated by William Gibson in Neuromancer. People did business, loved, and lived in his Cyberspace. Cyberspace is roughly equivalent to the Internet, just involving activation of much more of the Brain.
The technology of VR is currently in development, but the content of cyberspace won’t exist until VR is deployed on a large-scale consumer level over the Internet.
4. Educational applications of VR?
VR activates more brain areas than text alone. It as thus a better method of learning, as it activates measurable more portions of the brain.
Reading involves Iimited Visual Cortex activation & left brain reading areas (Wernicke’s). VR, as measured by the Toronto VR fMRI Research Group, activates nearly the entire visual cortex, auditory areas of the temporal lobe, spatial procesing in the parietal, and motor cortex at the frontal/parietal border.
In terms of maximizing the students brain power, VR is the ideal educational environment.
One application is an interactive VR sim of the Puget Sound, done by Dr William Winn at the University of Washington. It allows students to test the effects of pollution & flooding and see the results.
Other examples are in astronomy (Thigarajan, 1998), meteorology (Hay, 1999), physical oceanography (Winn, 2001), maintenance of nuclear reactors (Kashwa, 1995), subatomic chemistry (Byrne, 1996), and global warming (Jackson, 2000 – Winn, 2002). For further discussion please consult my paper Videogame-Ed at indi.ca.
A measure of the effectiveness of VR can be obtained by MRI or other brain scans.
5. Benedikt’s Laws of Cyberspace
There are two pieces of hardware involved in Virtual Reality, a computer and a brain. It is necessary to have laws of cyberspace in order to conform to the physical laws governing the Brain.
The Principle of Universal Up states that there needs to be agreement as to which way is “up” in a (multi-user) virtual world, this for two reasons: first that gravitation, though it does not strictly speaking exist in cyberspace, continues to exist in our perceptual apparatus and our expectations of the form of things: any horizontal division of the visual field is a horizon, the earth is below the sky, things poised on their points or corners topple, and so on. Second, it is likely that text will appear in these worlds: signs, banners, documents. Text is orientation-sensitive for its legibility, and so, for that matter, are facial expressions and many if not most body gestures.
The human brain is primate brain evolved from primates and originally from the first mouse-like mammalian. It is adapted for life on Earth, which necessarily involves gravity. Our cerebellum is uniquely evolved to keep us balanced and to enable movement despite the downward pull of gravity. Our inner ear and connected brain tissue in the temporal lobe are adapted to also preserve an up-down sense of balance. Facial and text perception in the Visual Cortex and Wernicke’s Area are also compromised in MRI scans if the stimuli are displayed upside down. In order to take the best advantage of the human brain, VR would do well to observe the Principle of Universal Up.
The Principle of Indifference states that “…the felt realness of any world depends on the degree of its indifference to the presence of a particular ‘user’ and on its resistance to his/her desire.”
Again, our Brains have evolved to deal with a world which is largely out of our control. We have adapted to the environment. However, humans do seem to want more control, as they naturally reach for God or superstition. Our brains however, do not have the capacity to control all objects in our environment even if this were possible. It is necessary that some things must exist so that we can take them for granted and focus on the few items in the environment which interest us. For example, I am typing on this computer and I don’t have to worry about preserving the level of oxygen in the room, which would be annoying and counter-productive.
The Principle of Scale states that the maximum velocity of our motion through cyberspace is, and should be, indexed to the (computational) complexity of the world visible around us, including the world that exists behind our back.
The human brain is well equipped to deal with the concept of size. In processing information, it is useful that more information would have a larger size. This is a convenient way of encoding size information in the human brain.
The Principle of Transit states that “…travel between two points in cyberspace should occur phenomenally through all intervening points, no matter how fast (save with infinite speed), and should incur costs to the traveller proportional to some measure of the distance.”
Nothing in our ape ancestors past has prepared the human brain for instant changes between states. Transitions are still very popular today. For example, one of the greatest innovations of Orson Welles was that he transitioned between movie scenes using fades and similar objects – and this was greatly popular with audiences. This sort of illusion is useful for the human brain, but Benedikt’s definition of ‘some measure of the distance’ is so vague as to be useless. The crucial question is how do you measure the distance? By conceptual distance, by physical distance between data? The fact that no such principle has appeared on the Internet makes it unlikely that it will appear in VR as anything more than a stylistic illusion.
The Principle of Personal Visibility is a perfect example of the sort of mixture between two realms of Law, the physical and the social, which the design of virtual worlds and cyberspace forces us to entertain. It states (i) that at all times (when logged in) individual users in/of cyberspace should be visible, in some perhaps minimal but never trivial form, to all other users in the vicinity, and (ii) that individual users may choose for their own reasons whether or not, and to what extent, to see/display any or all of the other users in the vicinity.
This principle also, I find unrealistic. One of the greatest pleasures of the Net is anonymity, and one of the greatest concerns for the future is privacy. The industries of pornography and MP3 sharing, which drive a large percentage of Net traffic, depend specifically on anonymity. It has also been said that the greatest protector of Free Speech is anonymity and software like the FreeNet and WASTE use multiple levels of encryption to protect this right to be unseen. There are some situations when anonymity is much preferred and to stipulate that users of cyberspace should be visible is meaningless. It may be a nice idea, but it has not emerged naturally on the Internet, and to great benefit.
I don’t agree with Benedikt’s laws for the most part because I believe laws of space are to be observed, not simply stated. Many of his laws contradict the behaviors emerging on the Net. Laws are necessary in the sense that they exist and emerge naturally, but not in the sense that anyone dictates them. The laws of cyberspace are more like the laws of physics than any written legal laws. As modern events show us, ‘laws’ in the latter sense don’t really hold on the Net. Words like Benedikt’s or the RIAA’s are interesting, but the only real laws are those that emerge naturally, from the decisions of millions of people.