You might have read the title of this post and asked yourself: wait, am I a meat sack? Yes. Yes, you absolutely are. But you’re also so much more than that! You have a brain that synthesizes all of your sensory perceptions and past experiences into something amounting to your consciousness. Unfortunately, for the time being, that consciousness is bound to your pesky body (read: meat sack), severely hindering your ability to get new and varied life experiences beyond the confines of your material being.
But what if we could free ourselves from the shackles of our meat sacks? Great question! In some ways, we already have: art, writing, and the continued development of human culture are all practices that add permanence and legacy to corporeal experience, meaning that we’ve done more than any other known species to make our sensory experiences last well beyond our lifetimes. Twitter is just as much a lasting catalogue of human experience as ancient ruins or the Library of Congress, and the Internet in has made for a culture that values self-publishing in a way that no prior culture has.
But the Internet is mostly for porn, right? Yeah, mostly porn. Porn, after all, tends to dictate which technologies thrive and which ones fade into obscurity (remember BetaMax? HDDVD? Me neither). Keep that in mind as we venture into worlds changed by more speculative technologies.
Back to the Internet: networked digital communities have—from the outset—played host to anonymous users, and anonymity paves the way for a culture of avatars. Regardless of how much Facebook, Google, ISPs, and, more cynically, government agencies like the NSA may know about us by examining browsing histories and other metadata, we still see the Internet as a place where revealing your identity is optional. The culture of a post-adolescent Internet has been visibly molded by the avatar, the username, the handle, the alias, the pseudonym, by the very idea that the Internet is a place to be someone other than yourself. Look to 4chan, World of Warcraft, Second Life, League of Legends, and thousands upon thousands of other online communities for an indication of how anonymity can alter human nature, often for the worst.
Today, with social media continuing a meteoric rise, we see a trend away from anonymity: I have a name, I have a face, and I would like you to see them in your newsfeed every day, please and thank you, because I’m the greatest and I have quite a lot to say. That said, services like reputation.com are committed to keeping your online persona blemish-free now that employers are vetting potential hires’ online presences for evidence of past indiscretions. Even with our real names and faces attached to online profiles, the artifice of an online identity remains: this is not me, this is the me I would like you to see.
Enter the Cyberverse
From Star Trek’s Holodeck all the way down to TRON and The Matrix, it is a fact near-universally acknowledged that Virtual Reality is the coolest thing ever. It is also very much a theoretical space, with Facebook’s recently acquired Oculus platform yet to hit the consumer VR market amid a bevy of competitors. Modern day VR remains only a slight improvement on your 55″ OLED monitor: most headsets don’t even have built-in audio integration, and that’s to say nothing of stimulating the other three senses. The Matrix points to a virtual reality so intricate and convincingly real that its inhabitants don’t even realize it’s a construction. Of course, the residents of The Matrix are also being used as heat slaves for robots, which seems less than ideal. If the Matrix is the virtual reality that unfeeling robots might make for humankind, just imagine the (un)realities we’d make for ourselves!
Multi-sensory VR needs to have some grounding the world we know in order to make sense perceptually, but its potential is otherwise limited only by processing power and development resources. The more immersive the experience, the more processing power and development manpower are required to make it possible. However, as worlds are increasingly procedurally generated (see No Man’s Sky for an entire universe of procedurally generated possibility), it becomes possible for algorithms to do a lot of the heavy lifting in both building and populating immersive worlds. The Matrix remains a distant future, but networked VR experiences akin to Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash may well be possible within the decade.
Re-enter the Body
No matter the fidelity of a VR experience, it’s difficult to imagine that the deeply human desire to inhabit another skin would fade. The same could easily be said about new kinds of corporeal experience. Surrogates is a mediocre movie based on a slightly more compelling comic book series centering on an interesting, far-fetched premise: humans have begun to use remotely controlled robotic surrogates with full sensory capacities. Our flawed, meat sack selves have been superseded by robots with impossibly smooth skin; why even bother going outside when your surrogate can go outside flawlessly?
One of the more compelling facets of the story is the idea that, as with cars and computers and any other consumer good, the spectrum of value propositions for surrogate models is vast and widely variable. The Deus Ex video game series also hits on this point from another angle, with body augmentations and cybernetic enhancements at the center of a global socioeconomic class struggle. Augs, as owners of such enhancements are semi-derogatorily labeled, are regarded as wealthy opportunists looking to get an edge on their fellow man by gradually forfeiting their meat sack to new technologies. The workplace, the sports arena, the bedroom: no venue is unaffected by the growing classist divide.
Towards the end of the most recent installment in the series, Human Revolution, Augs worldwide suffer a momentary impairment of all inhibition control and react…violently. The unaugmented majority grows mistrustful of the “enhanced” minority, and members of a class formerly regarded as superior find themselves treated as second-class citizens. The game’s narrative is incredibly nuanced, and the notion that technology does not equal progress is an important one to consider as the relationship between humanity and technology grows increasingly inextricable.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer is a similarly complex and nuanced narrative, dealing largely with the rights and sentience afforded to artificial intelligences, but also with what becomes of us, the meat sacks, in a technologically advanced (but grimy) cyberpunk future. In one chapter, Case (the novel’s protagonist) finds himself in a dystopic brothel where prostitutes forfeit their consciousnesses and let their bodies become vessels for paying customers’ fantasies. They remember none of what happens on while they’re on the clock (most of the time), but often wake up bruised and abused.
Also mentioned in Neuromancer is sim-stim: a complete multisensory recording of someone else’s corporeal experience. Expectedly, such a groundbreaking technology is first used in secret by the military, then openly by the porn industry, then ubiquitously by the rest of the world. The cultural phenomena surrounding sim-stim—hinted at in Neuromancer, but by no means deeply explored—are of particular interest to me. Briefly, imagine a world where Instagram, Twitter, Vine and the many other tools of social media are joined by complete, replayable, multisensory experiences. Liking Kim Kardashian’s Earth Day bikini selfies pales in comparison to living it, however briefly, and it’s thereby easy to imagine a world where a small number of celebrities do much of our living for us. The theoretical technology being without limit, we might also conceive of a world where it’s possible to inhabit the body of an animal: first mammals, but with considerable improvements to the technology, perhaps even insects and other invertebrates.
The potential downsides to such a technology finding ubiquity are innumerable (“Humankind stops living, opting instead to stay on sim-stim Pornhub for eternity”), but there’s also something to be said for the potential good that living the experiences of another can do. Empathy is a concept far older than our species, but one that is hindered by the fact that we experience only our own reality continuously and without interruption; empathy, therefore, is possible only through leaps of the imagination. Actually experiencing the body of another creature, seeing with their eyes and feeling out the unfamiliar quirks of their being, leads to a very real kind of empathy. Barriers and prejudices are likely to (note that I won’t go so far as to say “certain to”) crumble under the universality of human experience.
Joe Haldeman’s The Forever Peace also treats with shared human experience, with the technology of a neural jack as a given. As with sim-stim, the military uses the jacks first, then the sex trade, then everyone else. The procedure to get a jack is costly and dangerous, meaning that the jacked are few and far between, but they have a very literal neural link to one another that no unjacked person has the capacity to fully understand, further isolating them from the rest of the world. Julian Class, the novel’s protagonist, is a physicist and a soldierboy operator, meaning that he deploys remotely around the world while jacked in with seven other operators, making them a completely cohesive fighting unit. They also know each other in as intimate a way as any human possibly can, giving each other unguarded access to their innermost thoughts, memories, musings, and aspirations. If any one of their number dies while jacked, they all experience death in the most real possible way, the only difference being that the survivors keep living with it.
As the novel progresses, Julian and his platoon eventually find that the military keeps soldierboy deployments at a short two weeks because any platoon that is jacked for even a few days longer loses the will to fight on account of being humanized: near-completely exposed to human experience beyond the self. Logically, humanization grows more powerful and affecting when more people are jacked in to one another. It is an ultimate kind of empathy, yielding a vision of the future where the problem of the meat sack has been transcended (though, presumably, humans do still need to eat and procreate).
While it’s difficult to conceive of a future where every human consents to undergoing the humanization process, Haldeman’s thought experiment points readers towards the simple act of imagining experience beyond the self with all the vividness our minds can muster. Idealistic, maybe a bit corny? Perhaps. But, when actually practiced instead of superficially discussed, compassion and empathy have the capacity to be deeply affecting, even without sim-stims and neural jacks to help us on our way. Together, humankind may one day (probably not soon) transcend the meat sack and, through the specifics of our collective being, arrive at the universal.