Saturday, October 6, 2007

Is hyperreality the new reality?

While searching for a different article (on which I'll probably comment if I run across it) I found a piece by Daniel Rourke on "hyperreality". It expresses a notion that I've run across from time to time, one which seems compelling at first blush. Jumping right into the middle:
Could Wikipedia at its broadest boundaries be a metaphor for the future of human society? Take away our cultural memes and humanity would quickly revert to the simple cultures seen in our monkey and ape relatives. It was the evolution of language which bound humanity into a shared consciousness - a cultural brain which did more thinking than any individual identity could do alone.
This is practically self-evident, which makes it automatically suspect. Are other primate cultures really so simple? A primatologist might well disagree. Is human culture really that different from primate culture? There's more in common than we like to admit

Is language so big a factor in propagating culture? A good deal of cultural behavior consists in things we "just know to do" (or not do), and which we often have trouble putting into words. Writing an etiquette guide is a difficult endeavor; getting people to follow it even more so.

What is this shared consciousness that we all have? How much of it is inborn? How much of it is absorbed by immersion or learned by example? When we talk about how we do things, to what extent are we just verbalizing what the non-verbal parts of our brains are doing without our say-so?

What aspect of our shared consciousness does the web stand to change? Yes, the web can bring the same experiences and ideas to large numbers of people very quickly, but so can radio and television. To some extent, so can mass assemblies.

In all the above, I'm not saying the non-web world is the same as the web, but I want a bit more detail on how the web is different.

Rourke continues the theme of the net as an agent of profound change a bit further on
Over the next few years as the internet becomes ever more a totality of culture rather than simply a referent the lines bordering reality, hyper-reality and pure imagination will dissolve around us. I would go so far as to suggest that many generations from now cyber-entities once labeled 'human' will find it impossible to distinguish what was past-real, what is present-hyper-real and what will never be real in the seething masses of datum [sic] the internet will have become.
In other words, in a few years we will be so immersed in the internet that we won't know or care what's real and what's not. I think this misses out two important points.

One is that we are physical creatures. No matter how far off into cyberspace we float, at least for the near to medium future, we will need to eat. We will not be able to physically be two places at once. The laws of physics will still apply.

Even generations from now, if we have somehow slipped the bonds of our physical chains, our cyber-heirs will still be embedded in time. It seems unlikely that the distinction between past and present will cease to be useful.

The other point, closely related, is that our brains are very much shaped around physical reality. We automatically and subconsciously make any number of assumptions about what perceive based on what tends to work in the real, physical world.

These things we know that ain't necessarily so go by the general name of cognitive biases, and the striking thing about them is how many (along with their cousins like optical illusions) make sense in the context of an embodied being scrabbling to find food and mate in an environment of relative scarcity and danger.

In short, no matter how powerful the communicative machinery of the web becomes, or how great the bandwidth, we experience it (and will continue to experience it for some time) through our human wiring, with all its quirks and limitations. It seems to me an unproven assumption at best that, as scenarios like the one Rourke describes tend to assume, we have some hidden potential within us just waiting for something like the web to unlock.

1 comment:

David Hull said...

Note to self: .The VR part hasn't moved much. The epistemology though ...