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  • Spencer Bennington

Experience or Escape?

That's the big question I walked away with from last night's seminar focused on Augmented and Virtual reality. When approaching technology of any kind, even something as simple as a hammer, it's important to ask a few questions:

  • Who is this designed for?

  • What does the technology/tool encourage me to do/think/feel etc. ?

  • What kinds of ideological assumptions impacted the design of this technology and how might the tool extend those assumptions to its users?

Many of these questions are derived from Heidegger's essay "The Question Concerning Technology" where technology is defined (roughly) as something which reveals a fundamental way humans see themselves as interacting with the world. Even the oldest and simplest tools can be assessed in this way.


For example, a bridge can be understood as revealing the exploratory nature of human beings. Bridges connect us and make the wide world easier to traverse. If I follow my questions above we can see that the bridge:

  • Is designed for people wanting to access new places more efficiently

  • Encourages people to believe routes can be manufactured instead of simply discovered

  • Reveals an ideological assumption that the natural world belongs to humanity as something to be tamed, improved upon, or made more suitable for society's needs

Similarly, the factory as a technology can be said to reveal humanities belief that natural resources are simply fodder or raw material to be handled, managed, sold, and produced into something "greater." More modern technologies like the railroad/airplanes/space shuttles reveal our belief that space-time is ours to manipulate. The internet of things might be said to reveal the 21st century belief that matter can be transduced to data and that data itself is the new ultimate commodity or natural resource.


But, last night, my DH class discussed what kinds of things Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) technologies might reveal about our belief systems.



Maybe it just reveals how stupid we all look with giant goggles covering our face...

For those that might be wondering, AR is any kind of technology that allows you to see the world in "layers." For example, Google Glass is (was?) a wearable technology that allows you to see the world around you superimposed with visuals that could aid in providing real-time navigation, provide search data based on visual recognition, or let you see through buildings. Wait...it didn't do that last thing? Hmmm...


Perhaps the most commonly used AR is the kind of GPS apps many of us use while driving. It allows you to see a map of the world with a little icon representing you and your vehicle moving along it in real time--additionally these maps provide "metadata" pertaining to surrounding landmarks. Metadata refers to any kind of information about things in the world. Last night we used the word annotations to refer to this kind of practice. In your common GPS apps, this metadata lets you know when a coffee shop, rest stop, or really cool national forest is nearby if you so desire.


And while that might be the most commonly used version of AR, certainly the most infamous is the beloved mobile game PokemonGo! Suddenly the reason you start seeing pink elephants flying around the pub has nothing to do with what's in your glass! What a wonderful world indeed...




VR, on the other hand, consists of systems where the user employs some kind of sensory deprivation technique (usually in the form of headgear or goggles) to more fully "immerse" themselves in a new world, game, or experience. VR is supposed to replace reality with something new.


So we circle back to the title of this week's blog and one of the larger points: it seems to me that the ideology supporting VR is that humanity desires a total escape or replacement effect whereas AR offers an approach of experiencing the world in novel ways. This comparison is important to make and to keep in mind for a variety of practices or activities, not excluding martial arts.


Much of the work of Rhetorical Roundhouse, especially on Twitter, is to provide new ways of thinking about the world, uplifting individuals with some of the lessons taught through martial arts training, and to spread a desire for enlightenment/self-cultivation to the masses. In doing this, I've realized that a lot of the "positive thinking" advice circulated on social media can be toxic. For example, the "don't worry just be happy" line of advice is something that seeks to escape or replace negative feelings instead of digging deeper to discover their roots.


This kind of advice can be like VR--sure, you can avoid feelings of inequity or grief momentarily, but eventually we all have to take the headset off and return to real life. True self-discovery follows more along the ideological path of AR. That is, if we tap into multiple ways of interacting with others, with ourselves, our own feelings, the world around us, etc. we may be able to develop more emotional maturity, empathy, and understanding.


Recently a friend told me they were angry with an upcoming change in their life and that they felt embarrassed. The martial artist is trained to be a critical thinker and to become attuned to these kinds of feelings by asking "why?" Where does anger come from, where does embarrassment come from, what does it mean? When we learn to come to terms with our feelings and reactions, when we understand that they are a natural part of ourselves, we don't need to escape them, hide, or replace them. Instead, we can accept them as feelings we need to explore further or ones we need to indulge less frequently--we can assign them a role regarding our own personal sense of balance.


Of course, I can never explain this as well as a Pixar film, so here's one of my favorite songs to play when I'm sorting through some intense feels, ones that I'm tempted to find some escape from.




To conclude this post, I wanted to share some really great quotes from a couple stories we read last night from the collection "An Aura of Familiarity." Not only is the writing creepy/thoughtful/provocative--there are some really cool video shorts to go with each one!


These quotes are from the stories "From Beyond the Coming Age of Networked Matter,” and "By His Things You Will Know Him."


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"It was dawning on me that “Man” didn’t belong in the Cosmos. The Cosmos belonged to something else entirely, something vast and dark and chaotic and pretty much glitchware, and we people, the human user base, we were just phantoms flitting by on the surface of that, like so many lolcats."


"The sense of wonder has a short shelf life. Cosmic horror, a more intense, more spiritual feeling, even shorter yet. Nobody human can perceive reality at that cosmic level and still persist in daily life. Bees do that, maybe. Bees have been around longer than we have, and bees generally do a better job of keeping their shit together."


---


"Things are wonderful, really. Things are potential"


"Somewhere in this house, there is an answer. Was there a moment when the grave robbers of ancient Egyptian pyramids found the plunder before them shimmer and change? Did they stand there, those wreckers with their hammers and shovels and treasure sacks, and gasp as the treasure before them became, for an instant, something naked and human and desperate, the terrified attempt of a dying aristocrat to put the world in a box, to make it behave itself? A moment when they found themselves standing not in a room full of gold and gems, but a room full of disastrous attempts to bring the universe to heel?"


---


Stay tuned--research updates and project ideas coming soon!


Kamsahamnida!