Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mind Interfaces

In order to understand why different psychoactive substances have functioned as great creativity accelerators during human history and why and how such psychoactives lead to greater creativity some metaphors from the world of computing my come in handy.

Drugs are a technology, but they are a mental technology. This technology enables us to think using a different interface. The kind of interface which tryptamines (LSD, Psilocybin Mushrooms, DMT etc.) create enables a much tighter interaction between the different parts which constitute consciousness.

Synesthesia, the mixing of different senses, is often induced by tryptamines. One can see sounds or hear landscapes (This btw. gives new meaning to the part in the Torah in which it is said that during their spiritual ascension on Mount Sinai the Israelites saw the sounds). Other forms of synesthesia are also possible. The interaction between different parts of the mind is much closer, more associative and free. Words become images, images become words, and different ideas are hyper connected to each other in surprising arrays. Whereas in the normal state of consciousness the different parts of the mind are kept sharply separated from each other using, psychoactives these machines become integrated and create a sort of hyper-thought. This in its turn allows new combinations which are the reason for the great creative powers attributed to psychoactives.

In actuality human senses and the patterns in which our brain perceives the world are our interface to the world. We as humans are used to work with one brain, the human brain which is a machine which allows one specific interface to reality. Humans all work with the same brain.

What psychoactives enable you to do is change your mind interface, they enable you to change your brain. Psychoactives illicit the awareness that we are experiencing the world through an interface. Using psychoactives one comes to the realization that the interface you usually work with, the so called concensus consciousness is only one kind of interface among many possible one.

Comparing "consensus consciousness" with alternative consiousness can be like comparing the DOS opearting system to Mac Os Leopard (only the difference is much much further and extremer). For example, using our normal interface solving any kind of simple problem is very tedious and requires much work. Using alternative mind interfaces the same problems might become as easy as copying a file.

The same mind codes which usually demand great mental labor are now already written as procedures, while other mind procedures and functions are erased. The concensus interface includes within it everything: greed for power, money, sex and more. It is filled with bugs that hinder the evolution of mankind. However if you change opeating system you can rid yourself of most of the problems of concensus interface to reality. Like the ShiftSpace Software psychoactives just demonstrate and make you aware that we can choose our interface, that we don't have to be stuck with just one interface to our computing machine, to the internet or to reality.

However, one is not able to be under the influence of psychoactives the whole time. This would be slavery and therefore we have the concept of the work. Working to make a lasting change in our interface. Beside the work, computing and BCI (Brain Control Interfaces), nanobots and virtual realities come to mind again as a future possibility which will enable us to change our interfaces, erase many of those human "software bugs" which many mistake for inevitable but which, as the psychoactives teach us, are only part of our operating system, a part of an interface which we as experienced hackers and pscychonauts should know – is always interchangable.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Matrix as an Ideological Network

Note: this article was first published in January 2004, in the Tel-Aviv Cinematheque Magazine.

Abstract: “what is the matrix?” This big question that Morpheus presents Neo and us in the first Matrix, has been a matter for debate over the last 5 years. Since then the Matrix has been interpreted as Marxist, Psychoanalytic, Platonist, Post-Modern, Buddhist, Chsristian, Jewish and what have you. This article tries a different approach to this question. While seeking to preserve former interpretive possibilities, it claims: The Matrix is a devouring ideological network. The capitalistic nature of this network is at the center of this piece.

The Matrix Trilogy may be the Star Wars of our generation, creating a new mythology in a new world. It is undoubtedly pretentious in its special effects, and more so in its theory and philosophy, to the point that some critics dismiss the film's lengthy philosophical discussions as hopelessly muddled. Others have looked for coherent meaning in its symbols and langauge, and found exactly what they were looking for - which is to say, they found what they had already believed. That list includes Matxists, Psychoanalysts, Platonists, post-modernists, and even the believers of the world: Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists. Each of them offered his own biased interpertation of the Matrix, like the six blind men who tried to describe an elephant - each was (partly) right, but also very wrong.

The truth is, the matrix is all of these things: seemingly incoherent, and yet Christian and psychoanalytic and post-modern. Yet everyone who has tried to analyze the film using any of these dogmas has have fallen prey to exactly the same deceptive Matrix with which the trilogy deals. The big question everyone is trying to answer -- the one Morpheus presents Neo and us in the first film – is, “what is the matrix?” This question cannot have a single answer because above all the Matrix is simply the Matrix itself, an irreducible term.

Like the Deleuzian idea of complexity, which claims reality has no simple source, the Matrix lacks any simple, ideologically homogeneous source. The meaning of this notion of “complexity” is that reality in itself is a complex being or experience, which is irreducible to the finite medium of words. The Matrix is likewise irreducible, and contains various ideological complexities as well as ideologically contradictory and complementary possibilities. The movie Matrix, much like the Matrix itself, presents us with an ideological network which is linked to all places. This is the meeting place for all places, an animate free market of religious, philosophical, political and social ideologies.

The plot

In the first Matrix, computer expert Neo is contacted by an enigmatic group of people who tell him that the world he knew is nothing but a simulation generated by an immense network of computers. The time isn’t the end of the 20th century, as he believes, but about 200 years later. The world is ruled by machines, which use the bodies of human beings to supply their energy needs. Machines grow people in isolated cells where they are connected to conductors that suck out their energy and transfer it to the machines. In parallel, people are also linked from their cells to a digital universe that simulates the world of the end of the 20th century: the Matrix. The only people living outside of this virtual world are a group of rebels who unplugged themselves from the matrix and built an underground world inside the earth called “Zion.” From this underground world they go on rescue missions across the matrix to save other prisoners of the Matrix.

In one of the classic scenes of the first movie, a scene that repeats in variations through the series, Neo is offered by Morpheus, the leader of the group, two pills which symbolize the choice he faces. If he takes the red pill, his mind and body will leave the Matrix and he will be pulled out into the fierce reality of the war against the machines. If he takes the blue pill, he would be able to get back into the Matrix, forget all that has occurred and continue a life of pleasant ignorance.

Neo chooses the truth, and here the plot starts to get complicated. Neo (an anagram of “one”) finds out that the leader of the rebels has nourished hopes that Neo is “the One,” the messiah, who will save people from the tyranny of the machines. Neo makes a good start in meeting their hopes. Soon he learns to look through the Matrix’s illusion of a world and see the Matrix as it is, a kabbalistic maze of letters that can be penetrated and altered, thus enabling the bending of the rules. Neo, as a digital “mekubal” (an adept of Jewish mysticism), acquires supernatural combat abilities inside the Matrix by playing and controlling the text that composes the world.

In his various adventures Neo also comes to know an array of curious characters, among which is the Oracle, a prophet who leads Neo in his way (although the credibility of her prophecies is constantly in doubt). Another important figure is the Architect, a creator and programmer of the Matrix, a dubious demiurge with dubious motives. The common factor among these various figures is that they are all computer programs, like sub-applications in the immense computer network that is the matrix.

The messiah is the one that lives in the real. And Neo, after learning to bend the rules of the virtual reality, develops similar abilities in the real world as well. The second and third movies have apocalyptic, almost Biblical, battles betweens the machines coming to destroy Zion and the rebels, while Neo – by contrast – goes on a peace mission to the machine city to bring peace with the machine world.

What narrative explains this story? There are several.

The messiah as a Christian, Jewish and Eastern hybrid

One of the Israeli critics who wrote about the third Matrix dismissed it as a Christian movie. This is understandable because that is the most prominent aspect of Neo: Neo arrives as a messiah around whom a small group is gathered. He has his Judas (Cypher), his girlfriend is called Trinity, and his last name is “Anderson,” which can be taken as “Son of Man,” using the Greek root andros for man. During the film Neo dies, is resurrected, and finally leaves the world as a cross of light. These are fairly obvious Christian symbols. But how can you call a movie Christian when it has an oracle, hand-reading, a spaceship called Icarus, and an underworld goddess called Persephone?

The word “messiah” is an example of the ideological network that the matrix presents to us in different aspects. Neo as a messiah, for instance, is not a monolithic figure at all, but rather a complex incarnation of the Christian, Jewish and eastern messianic figures.

Neo as a kabbalistic messiah

The Matrix is full of Jewish kabalistic and Hasidic ideas. The Wachowsky brothers have studied Kabbalah, now their ideas are being taught in Kabbalah schools in Israel. So it is no surprise that the concept of the Messiah in the Matrix borrows quite a lot from Jewish Kabbalah and Jewish theology.

For example, Neo’s perception of the world as a textual world, where knowing the textual source allows the bending of the rules, is reminiscent of ancient Kabbalistic books such as the ancient Sefer Yetzirah from the first century, where the creation of the world is described as a textual event. As in the Matrix, Sefer Yetzirah tells us that the world is created from a sea of letters. One could even compare Neo and the midrashic character of Abraham as a person who has the power to recreate the world by textual acts (see Golem, by Moshe Idel).

Neo first sees through the digital Matrix. What he learns there, he implements later in the real world, which he reveals as another matrix. Interestingly enough, where Neo once found a maze of digits he now finds a blaze of light. Neo perceives the real world as a stream of emanating light that surrounds all things, a worldview reminiscent of the Kabalistic emanation theories in Jewish sources. The Book of Splendor -- the Zohar -- and Lurianic Kabbalah see the whole universe as a creation of light which is immanent in all things.

Smith, that self-duplicating agent against whom Neo fights time and again, could be Kabbalistically interpreted as the klipot. Literally meaning peels or shells, klipot is the kabalistic explanation of why we don’t perceive the true existence of the world as a world of light, the way Neo does. The reason is that things are covered with the klipot, peels which hide and prevent us from seeing the real divine light that is present in all things. The klipot represent the raw exteriority of things, an exteriority that must be peeled away to reveal the true essence, which is light.

Furthermore, the Kabbalah says that the process of the peeling of the klipot is a dynamic process. A person has to peel the klipot his whole life, because the klipot duplicate by nature and put new barriers in men’s search of the truth of reality. Every day in which you don’t clean your eyes, you get new dust obscuring your vision. This is the endless duplication of Smith.

The way Neo gets rid of Smith, by infiltrating Smith’s body and filling it with light until it cracks from the inside and burns with the inner light, calls to mind the radical 17th-century Kabbalah of the false Messiah Shabbtai Zvi and his believers. Shabbtai Zvi was arrested by the Turkish authorities and given a choice: death, or conversion to Islam. He chose to convert, which was naturally a blow to many (though not all) of his followers. Trying to justify his action, his faithful came up with a new theological explanation which describes the messiah as a worm inside an apple, or a sacred spy. The messiah goes down inside of the source of impurity (Smith; the klipot) and fills it with light until it cracks from within.

Neo as an eastern mystic

Taoism and Buddhism are also very evident in the Matrix. Through the prism of Eastern religion, Neo is not only the Messiah but also “the Enlightened” – the Buddha. Smith tells Neo that the two of them are very similar, and they are. They both identify the self with the world, only in a fundamentally different way. Smith is the Ego, the impurity of Buddhism, the one that sees himself anywhere he looks - egocentricity. This is why, when Smith touches people or other agents, they turn into him. Smith sees himself everywhere. Neo (One), on the other hand, follows the Buddhist ideal of seeing himself as a part of the unity of the universe. Neo can control the world because he is devoid of the ego that separates us from the world and can identify with the universe totally.

Because Neo and Smith are so similar to each other – indeed, Smith is actually part of Neo’s self -- Smith also gets stronger every time Neo gets stronger, as in the old Jewish saying “The greater a person, the greater his temptations.” In other words, in parallel with Neo’s spiritual developments, the traps of Ego (Smith) become more and more dangerous. As in Buddhism, the erasure of the self and becoming one with the surrounding world lead to total control. The Zen Archer doesn’t aim, and this aims his arrow. When the blind Neo fights without looking, and sees his opponents in a mystic way as streams of energies in the world, one can’t help being reminded of the Buddhist Kung-fu series “Zatoichi,” about a blind warrior whose blindness is a background to his spiritual perfection and fighting ability.

Beyond the metaphors from Eastern religion, there are also ideas that are common to all religions such as peace and love. It is easy to forget that, aside from the Hollywood portrayal of these ideas, they have a deeply religious message. In the war of humanity against the machines in The Matrix, the underlying narrative is that the machines are not in themselves the true enemy of Neo. This fact becomes clearer as the Matrix series advances, when we encounter machines that feel (a breaking of the opposition between Machine vs. Man that could be the a subject of another whole article).

In the movie “Animatrix,” a collection of 9 animation movies written and produced by the Wachowsky brothers, the battle between the machines and the humans is actually an outcome following the oppression of the machines by people. The real enemy of Neo is therefore Smith, the klipot which separate machines from mankind in our perception and make them enemies. The difference between humans and machines is an external one that only Neo as the unified-unifier can abolish. This is why the destruction of Smith is in the movies the condition for peace.

In order to lose the klipot and see men and machine as one, Neo must discover love in its religious sense, the love Dostoevsky implies when he says “hell is the inability to love.” This is the love of acknowledging the oneness of things, of withdrawing yourself and making room for the Other: Neo’s ability to leave his city and go to the machine city and face the ultimate Other of the source, the code of all codes. When he totally gives himself over to the machine, when he lies on a bed of little machines, it is a token of that love.

It’s worth noting that the very fight with Smith, the ultimate redemption struggle, takes place within the boundaries of the Matrix. Salvation comes from inside the Matrix. This is the love that can bring the peace that Neo talks about – that peace which actually means the redemptive resolution of the opposition between man and machine, and between all oppositions.

The Meta-Religion and capitalism

Despite the abundance of religiousness in the Matrix, no orthodox clergyman would be content with these films. The Matrix accepts almost every spiritual direction that has ever been invented, and this total acceptance is a negation of every spiritual system that demands any sort of exclusiveness, or uniqueness. Take, for example, Neo’s conversation with the oracle in the second part of the Matrix. The oracle tells Neo that ghosts, angels, vampires, werewolves, UFOs and every unnatural phenomenon he has ever heard about all exist – their explanation is that they are trivial malfunctions in the digital system of the matrix.

So what religion do the rebels mean when they proclaim time and again that they “believe”? No other word is said so often in the Matrix as “belief.” Again and again Morpheus announces his belief in Neo; time and again the others are demanded to answer regarding their belief in Neo. And when Neo asks the oracle how he can be sure of the sincerity of her words, she tells him there is no way of knowing, nor any information which could help him decide whose prophet she is: Satan’s or God’s. The world is an equation composed exclusively of unknowns, and the question is – do you believe, or not? Neo, of course, chooses to believe.

Ultimately the only religion the Matrix is marketing is the meta-religion which is a radical expansion on the ecumenical idea. The Meta-religion is a name for perhaps the most widespread spiritual concept in today’s secular Western society. It is the religion without commandments or sacraments, the virtual-existence religion which is willing to abolish the form in order to reach the inner essence, symbolized by the letters-digits-symbol matrix (released from the klipot).

It therefore makes no difference if we call Neo Savior, Messiah or Buddha. The Meta religion is willing to assimilate all symbols without obliging itself to even one of them. This is a more sophisticated version of New Age. The believers of the Meta-religion don’t limit themselves to any discourse’s rules. The Meta-religion sucks in and makes a salad out of terms and ideas from different spiritual fields in order to reach the content it seeks. Hence the abundance of gods, symbols and ideologies with which the Matrix is saturated.

But whom does the Meta-religion serve? Whom is this Metaphor aimed after? The Matrix of the Meta-religion is first of all the capitalistic Matrix which profits from every commodity that passes through it and takes commission from every sale -- even the sale of Marxist books.

In the second movie Morpheus prepares his crowd of believers for the final battle against the machines in a Masada-style speech. Morpheus appears as the prophet of capitalism and calls to the audience: “Tonight, let us send a message to that army.” To explain what he means he adds, “Let us shake this cave! Tonight let us make them remember this is Zion.” The meaning of these words is conveyed in the next scene, maybe the most baffling in the Matrix series. For many long and seemingly meaningless minutes we watch the minimally dressed rebels dance to the sound of loud rock music and rub against each other sensuously in a sort of pagan fest. The combination of the glistening skin of the young sweaty youth and the rhythmically jumping human waves gives the scene the aesthetics of a commercial. This is the message of the people’s unification scene in Zion: a sex party and sensuality, the essence of capitalistic redemption.

It isn’t that the Matrix really says that capitalism represents redemption, but neither is it Marxist in the classical way. Perhaps The Matrix is a Marxist-capitalistic movie. It does criticize capitalism, but it also makes clear that resistance is futile. The end of any resistance is to be sucked inside the system. In other words, The Matrix is a Hollywood film. The criticism is also part of Hollywood. Without the stars, the production crew and the Hollywood marketing system, none of this would exist.

The cinematic matrix religion of capitalism

In a Marxist reading, one could see Neo’s fight against the agents as a fight against the salesmen of capitalism. Smith, the self-duplicating agent, does look much like one of the businessmen populating Manhattan, and indeed in the third Matrix we see huge skyscrapers full of duplicated Smiths. Smith is dressed in a black suit and impenetrable black sunglasses. In his hand he holds a James Bond suitcase, as if he’d come to sell you something. The commodity Smith would like us to see is of course the symbolic world, the digital simulation which he would like to force on everyone. One could interpret Neo as a sort of Marxist fighter against the duplicating sales agents, but on closer inspection the rebels aren’t any different from the salesmen.

Anyone who saw the first Matrix must remember the digital-visual presentation and the convincing speech Morpheus makes to Neo in their first meeting, when he explained the history of the matrix and tried to convince him to leave the Matrix and join the rebels. Later, when we are told that the rebels’ main occupation is freeing people, which means convincing people to move to their “real” world, one can understand that Morpheus and Neo are in a way also 9-to-5 salesmen, only with a more sexy product: they sell reality.

The matrix in that case is a battleground between two kinds of sales agents, and in capitalism it doesn’t matter what you buy, the house always wins. This immunity of the capitalistic network of the Matrix could be seen in the scene at the end of the third Matrix, where agent Neo and agent Smith fight the final battle between mythic skyscrapers. The interesting detail here is that, despite the huge shock waves rising from the ground during this titanic battle and moving as fierce storms between the skyscrapers, those skyscrapers continue to stand and the panes continue to shine.

The destructive forces of the titanic battle between the two salesmen move through and get swallowed inside the dark impenetrable skyscraper glass. Capitalism watches the great struggle between the symbolic and the real indifferently. At the movie’s end, when the long awaited redemption finally arrives, the only symbol of it is a little girl standing and looking at the glistening skyscrapers – this is the redemption of capitalism.

But ultimately, why should we immerse ourselves in illusions? After all, we are the ones living among symbolic but also very real skyscrapers. The battle between Neo and Smith symbolizes, perhaps improbably, the visit to the cinema, whose results are also capitalistically preordained. The cinema is then the very cell in which the Matrix imprisons us, where you sit as an inert puppet and produce energy for the capitalistic matrix.

What could be more ludicrous than Neo appearing on the screen, calling us to leave the illusion and selling us the world of the “real”? Neo’s voice comes from the inner depths of the simulation, Neo and Smith are both agents of the capitalistic Matrix, designed to keep us docile in our seat. Who would dare to rise up from his seat and go outside to “reality” after paying good money to get inside the matrix of cinema?

The commandment of the sequel

In a very striking way, the ending of the Matrix is a kind of combination between religious theory and pure commercial interests. The prominent feature of the redemption at the end of the Matrix series is that ultimate redemption has still not come. Religiously one could understand that from the existence of distinguishable entities and the occurrence of redemption within the boundaries of skyscrapers and the existing world. This is a restorative redemption, a redemption which brings things back to their functioning state at the past, but does not bring any new and radical message. Ultimate redemption should result in the world becoming One, eliminating any conflicts and dualities. The problem is made clearer in the conversation between the Oracle and the Architect, the Matrix’s demiurge. The Architect doubts the future of the peace that has been achieved. There is a big religious problem here. Is this the peace we have been waiting for? Or merely a ceasefire?

One possible answer can be found in the kabalistic theory of shmitot. According to this esoteric theory the world exists in 7 cycles of 7,000 years. At the end of each cycle there is a renewed creation. The 7th cycle is like the Jewish Shabbat (the seventh day of the week), the ultimate cycle, at the end of which comes the fiftieth-year jubilee of total redemption.

The Architect tells Neo that he is the sixth in a series of messiahs. The use of this number and the undetermined ending of the matrix make us think that the Wachowsky brothers plan another resurrection of Neo, a seventh redemption battle that would be the Matrix’s Sabbath. Or maybe this is a thought about redemption as a utopian concept which never does fulfill itself as a permanent state but only as a process, similar to the Jewish paradox of an always imminent, yet always absent, redemption.

Either way there is a striking combination of deep religious thought with pure commercial interests, a combination that characterizes the Matrix as a movie which is a meeting point of so many ideologies which coexist on an ideological net – the Matrix.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Gamer Messiah - Computer Games as a Medium for Redemption in Cinema

Abstract: In a series of movies from the last decades, cinema creates a fantasy over an ultimate computer game. The ultimate game begins as an escapist paradise and develops into a nightmare, an inescapable escapism. Ultimately the game reveals itself as an epistemological-spiritual journey which goal is to transcend the game and develop a new Weltanschauung. The new perception of reality as a game opens the path to understanding reality as a construct or as a vehicle for self-programming and to post-modern and new-age interpretations on the nature of computer games. The paper will discuss movies such as: The Matrix, eXsitenZ, Tron, Avalon, Hack/Sign and Serial Experiments Lain.

1 The computer game as a metaphor for life

Throughout the last decades, since the rise of computer games as a popular medium, there has been an increasing surge of films that deal with computer games. From Doom to Mortal Combat to Lara Croft – more and more successful computer games have been transferred to the big screen.

In this article, however, I would like to focus on a more specific genre of films. These are films that not only bring computer games images and heros to the big screen but also reflect on the meaning of computer games and virtual realities. These are films that deal with very notion of what is a computer game? What is reality? And what is the difference between the two?

The movies I will focus on in this article are 3 American movies: eXistenZ (1999), The Matrix (1999) and Tron (1982); and three Japanese movies and anime series: Serial Experiments Lain (1997), Avalon (2001) and Haack//Sign (2002).

The prevalence of Japanese movies and anime series within this list should not surprise us, as Japanese animation is known to be a highly futuristic genre which often confronts science-fictional themes on an extensive and philosophical manner.

These 7 movies, I argue, present us with the concept of the computer game as a metaphor for life. This idea is shown and developed in varying degrees of detail within these films. Moreover these films also present us with a dialectical process in which computer games teach us to do a better work as players in the game of life.

2 The Game of life

Ted Pikul: (About the virtual game-world eXistenZ) I don't like it here. I don't know what's going on. We're both stumbling around together in this unformed world whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly non-existent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don't understand.

Allegra Geller: That sounds like my game all right.

Ted Pikul: That sounds like a game that is not going to be easy to market

Allegra Geller: But it's a game everybody is already playing

(Out of David Cronenberg's eXistenZ)

Computer games are a virtual reality, however to the player of these games, this virtual reality is very real. People in virtual worlds develop identities, relationships, wealth and a distinct sense of existence. In short they are emotionally and ontologically invested in these virtual worlds. As Miroslav Filicak argues in his article Hyperidentities, "when I play I am more my own avatar than the person sitting by the console/computer." Reality and a sense of place are defined by where we focus our attention or in the words of Catalti S.L. "Places are spaces with meaning". Drawn to the extreme these kinds of virtual realities raise the questions: What is reality? Is reality even distinguishable from virtual reality when virtual reality actually not virtual at all for the person living inside it?

Makers of movies about computer games have dwelt on these questions extensively, and show the analogues between life and computer games in various ways.

In eXistenZ the idea that reality is a computer game is already prevalent in the name of the computer game eXistenZ which stands at the focus of the film by the same name. This name evokes the idea of a computer games which emulates the game of existence and throughout the film we are given various hints that reality is indeed a kind of computer game.

When Ted Pikul, the PR nerd, enters the eXistenZ game for the first time with the game designer Allegra Geller he naively asks "What precisely is the goal of the game that we're playing now?". "You have to play the game to find out why you're playing it" answers Geller, as if referring to the game of life. Later, when Pikul comments that "free will is obviously not a big factor in this little world" of the eXistenZ program, responds Geller "It's like real life. There is just enough to make it interesting".

Ash, the central Character in the movie Avalon from Mamoru Oshii, the maker of the Ghost in the Shell series asks similarly:"Which is the greater challenge? Which is the better game? Which game would you play? The sort of game you can win but can't, or alternatively one that seems impossible to win but isn't? Maintaining a precise delicate balance somewhere in between throughout every level of the game is what keeps it going".

Both citations refer obviously not just to the computer game but to the idea that life is a sort of computer game where each of us is a player with a limited amount of free will and with perfectly tuned goals just to keep us going.

In this spirit Mimiru in Hack//Sign asks the existential question "why did I start this game". This classic question about the meaning life, what it means to live and why one lives it, is now transferred into the realm of the game in a sort of virtual existentialism. One now asks not why one lives, but why one plays the game.

The Wachowsky Brothers' The Matrix doesn't even try to be subtle on the computer game vs. life analogy. The movie postulates that the reality which we consider as the real world is actually an intricate type of virtual reality. The whole of our known world is in the Matrix universe nothing but a big simulation, a sold out game.

Flynn the Hacker in Tron is drawn inside the computer and begins living with computer programs only to find out that computer programs aren't that different from real people. The computer programs around him look like his friends in the real world (They are played by the same actors). The computer world is actually very much like the outside world.

Accordingly the maker of the virtual realm, "The World", as it is called in Haack//Sign is often described in these films using theological terms as a kind of God. In eXistenZ Allegra Geller is referred to as the "game pod goddess" or alternatively as a "demoness". The Matrix has a figure called "The Architect" which is the creator and God of the matrix. In Lain it is Masami Eiri which created the 7th protocol that connects the real world with the wired world who calls himself a god. While in Avalon we have the nine sisters who created the Avalon game and are an in-game deity.

3 The Game-Life Dialectic

The virtual game is often first introduced as a possibility for escapism. eXistenZ is a game which promises to be better than "real life", sold in a world where car mechanics play God on a computer. In Serial Experiments Lain our hero Lain Iwakura, a socially dysfunctional youth enters the virtual realm and finds a new exciting kind of life there. Haack//Sign is a series about an Massive Multi Player Online Role Playing Game where people go to have fun.

This thesis of a virtual world as a place of recreational and escapist opportunities is then reversed by an anti-thesis in which this kind of escapism ends up becoming an inescapable escapism – a claustrophobic unreal realm which one cannot escape. The same limitless possibilities which first offered absolute freedom now create absolute and inescapable control. Cinema warns us that the idea of an easy escape from this world using computer games is a too easy idea, one that is bound to fail. This level, the second level and typically also the second act, becomes the center of the piece in most of the above mentioned works.

Haack//Sign is about a player who cannot log out of the game. Tron is about a computer Hacker who gets stuck inside a computer game and can not escape it. The players in eXistenZ move from one reality to another getting more and more confused as to where the reality they left is to be found. The movie actually ends with one of the players "Hey, tell me the truth, are we still in the game?". The Matrix is also about people trying to leave the Matrix and return to the "Real" reality.

Man has performed a kind of escape from his own reality into the boundless world of the virtual world , however the total limitlessness of the virtual world also enables total control and so it is there that slavery becomes even more acute. The player is stuck inside a matrix he knows to be false and still cannot exit.

The third part of this dialectical process is really a sort of 3rd act synthesis "Aufhebung" which is an equivalent of the theological idea of finding transcendence by entering the low depths of the world. Theology speaks in various traditions such as Kabbalah, Hasidism or New Age Evolutionism about a God who chooses to create a world of a lower order, a physical world, in order to descend into that world and emerge out of it with a better understanding of reality. Only through becoming immanent and manifesting itself in finite forms can the transcendent God achieve fullfillment and catharsis. In the same way, man which has descended into the depths of lower virtual realities finds salvation through the lower worlds.

How is this to be achieved? By confronting the false boundaries of the virtual world the player understands that all boundaries are indeed false. The game acts as a metaphor which helps us better understand the world. Once one can transcend the illusion of reality inside the game, one can also transcend the illusion that the outside world is a "real" reality.

By understanding that reality is a kind of code which can be manipulated and twisted at will, the player gains a precious understanding of this world. He realizes that all reality is programmable and so by learning to play the virtual game, he also learns how to play the game of life.

This sort of idea is prevalent in most of the works discussed. "All emotions are caused by impulses in the brain" says Lain in the end of Serial Experiments Lain after going through her virtual journey: "You just need to block the unpleasant impulses and than select only the happy pleasant ones". The idea of "blocking" certain impulses and then "selecting" other ones is reminiscent of computer jargon, only this time it is being used at the psychological existence. At another place Lain says "What isn't remembered never happened. Memory is merely a record. You just need to rewrite that record."

The player in Avalon is driven throughout the movie by a peculiar urge to transcend the game and ascend into a higher level. Finally she does gain a new perspective on life by playing the game. At the end of the movie she announces "Reality is what we choose to believe. As for who controls the game. I choose to believe it is me". Both in Avalon as in Lain, the player emerges from the game with a feeling of empowerment in his inner search, and a concept of reality as a rewritable, programmable construct.

Flynn the Hacker who gets sucked into the computer in Tron also emerges from the computer with a new understanding of life. At the end of the movie he has left his old destitute life and leads a new successful existence in which he sees his older friends as a kind of computer applications and accordingly calls them "programs".

In the Matrix the protagonist Neo, who is a computer hacker has to understand that the world he has been living in is a dream, to use the words of his mentor Morpheus, in order to learn how to redesign the code from which this world is made, and later in the 3rd part of the series even reassemble the code of the universe outside the computer world.

4 Reality Construction in Postmoderism and New-Age
The idea of reality as artificial construct is a central idea in postmodern theory. Reality in postmodernism is not accepted as a given unquestionable fact but as something which is composed out of arbitrary social or cultural constructs. As such it is an object for deconstruction and modular reassembly by the player. Thinkers such as Judith Butler tell us to engage in this game as if we are playing different roles and live life like players in the game. Actors in the Wachowsky brothers' The Matrix have told that "Simulacra and Simulation" by the French Postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard was required reading for those taking part in the film.

The idea of reality as a reprogrammable construct also touches upon another very postmodern stream of thought: namely the New Age movement. Wouter Hanegraaf who studied the New Age movement in his book New Age Religion and the Western Culture concludes that the idea that "we create our own reality" is a central new-age theme that appears throughout the writings of various new age thinkers and icons such as Jean Huston, Marilyn Ferguson, Eric Jantsch and many others. A variation on the idea of creating our own reality is the idea that we program our reality as if it were some kind of computer code, and such an idea is indeed found in the the above mentioned examples, however it certainly reaches it's culmination in the idea of the Messiah as an Hacker which one finds in The Matrix where Neo, the Hacker learns to decode the reality code and thus becomes a messiah.

The computer game-as-life metaphor in contemporary game theory
The computer games and virtual realities which feature in these movies are quite different from the computer games we know today. These computer games are highly advanced simulations which the contemporary game industry can only dream about. While it is much easier to implement and understand the computer-game-as-life metaphor in the context of these fictional games and virtual environments the idea that the computer game is a kind of metaphor for life which teaches us about life isn't limited to these films only. The same idea also appears in the writings of contemporary computer games theorists.

Douglas Rushkoff for example writes in his article "New Renaissance": "Gaming – as a metaphor but also as a lived experience – invites a renaissance perspective on the world in which we live in". Rushkoff goes on to write about the idea which features in films such as The Matrix or Serial Experiments Lain of moving from the position of playing in a pre-programmed world into programming your own reality. "As game programmers instead of game players, we begin to become aware of just how much of our reality is, indeed, open source – up for discussion".

At the end of his piece Rushkoff concludes "I'd predict that gamers will be the next to steer the direction of our renaissance, and that they may have entirely better results. For, unlike businessman or even politicans, gamers know that they reality they are engineering isn't real".

And Rushkoff is not alone. The highly successful and influential game designer Will Wright propagates the idea of players as creators as well. According to Wright the shift from passive media i.e. literature, cinema or television into mediums which create active involvements such as computer games, creates social change from a consumer society into a gamer society in which one is not a consumer but a "conducer", a consumer producer. In the ambitious evolutionary game Spore Wright seeks to give players a genuine feeling of the immenseness of the possibility space of existence. Wright says that he views his games as catalysts to broadening the mind's mental models. Wright therefore creates games with a conscious effort to make games the broaden our perspective on life and uses games as a consciousness expansion tool.

These are just two examples, however, it will be interesting to investigate how the way cinema envisions the idea of the computer games as a metaphor for life and as a tool for broadening our perspective of our existence influences game designers and game theorists and the way these three group interact between each other in propagating and further advancing this idea.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

How to Build a Time Machine: New Perspectives on Time Travel in the Age of Virtuality

How humanity will be able to travel through time sooner than you think.

The idea of building a time machine has captivated the minds of scientists and science fiction writers ever since it was first introduced in the 18th century. From writers such as H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein to films such as Back to the future, Terminator and 12 Monkeys - time travel has aroused human imagination like few other themes.

Unfortunately time travel is still considered one of the few domains that seem to be an almost purely fictional idea. There are of course other far reaching science fictional themes, a few of which are space travel, the building of an artificial intelligence, uploading consciousness into computers or even becoming invisible - but all of these ideas are conceivable in theory and all of them are being pursued today by different means and strategies.

Time Travel, on the other hand, still seems to defy all logic. From all the ideas mentioned above this is not only the most imaginative and bold idea, but also the one that seems to be the most purely science fictional idea. How is one supposed to move through time? Most of the theoretical ideas raised by physicists who tacked this issue involved traveling inside a black hole... This is not a very welcoming approach to time travel. And as Stephen Hawking noted -"If time travel was ever to be possible - how is it that we are not flooded by tourists from the future?"

A new perspective on time travel

These old ideas about time travel has left us with an impasse, however history never does stop. Certain odd impossibilities become possible when circumstances change and new medias evolved. The immigration of humanity into the new realm of cyberspace seems to break the boundaries of reality as we have known it before. I would therefore like to point out here on new possibilities for time travel which are being shaped these days.

On August 2006 Apple announced a new and intriguing feature for its future operating system Mac Os X v10.5 Leopard called "The Time Machine". This new and innovative feature allows users to "travel through time" within their computer. The time machine feature allows the user to visit his computer in the past, use his old settings, view old files which have been revised or deleted and bring them back to life.

During the last year since the announcement of the time machine (due for October) there has been another feature of the web which has created quite a bit of commotion. In this short period of time the number of registered users in the virtual world Second Life has bounced from less than one million to over 7 million leading to the creation of an unprecedented rich virtual environment in which people go to concerts, visit prayer houses, make social connections and even make a living. Other virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft, Runescape and Guild Wars have also seen a surging boom in the last few years leading to such generous assessments such as the one released by Gartner lately, stating that by 2011 80% of Internet users will have a second life in a virtual world.

Virtual worlds signify another long foreseen metamorphosis in the evolution of the net. Cyberspace is finally about to fulfill the old expectations - it is about to become a truly 3 dimensional space. More importantly it is becoming a 4 dimensional space, because virtual worlds are not only 3 dimensional they are a dynamic 4 dimensional space which constantly changes through time. By now the reader is sure to be seeing where I am heading - combine these two extending trends - humanity's immigration into the virtual realm and the first pursuits to enable time travel within computerized space and you get new perspectives for time travel. When humanity will be living in this virtual 4 dimensional space, will we be able to move through time?

Virtual time travel

The last few years, since the emergence of the web, we have seen a few different web archive projects which were aimed to preserve the web at different stages of its development. The most famous of which is the Internet Archive with it's WayBack Machine which enables users to view web pages such as google or wikipedia the way they were years in the past.

Visiting these versions of old web pages is indeed like visiting the web's past. What will happen if humanity creates a virtual world archive which will record in a clever way all objects, conversations and actions which took place in the virtual world, into which mankind has immigrated. This will be a time machine, which will allow us to move back through time and see our world (our virtual world) as it was before. It will allow us to visit places and events that took place in the past and view them again. We will be able to relive old experiences from virtual worlds but also experience different environments and developments which we were unable to experience as they first happened. A person will be able to take part in an historic event which he has missed whether common to all people or personal like watching your parent's first date (well actually some data might be better off left classified). Alternatively you could go back in time and view a beautiful moment from your own life: meeting a good friend for the first time, your first kiss, revisit an old concert you went to years ago.

A person would be able to choose different perspectives to all these events. He may pick his own first person perspective, or alternatively choose to view that same event from the point of view of another person or from a God-like third person view. His entire past and the past of humanity will be open for him to view in this virtual time machine.

This sort of virtual time travel will also open the way for a new kind of mash-up time travel. The same way one can use the leopard time machine tool to restore just his desktop wallpaper or restore everything about his old computer, excluding his desktop wallpaper - one would be able to view his first kiss but transplant it from New York to the Amazon or vice versa. Our memories and perceptions of the past might in this way become objects for mash up and creative DJ engineering, as we conjure our past in any desired fashion.


There are of course still two major limitations to this kind of time machine.

1. One cannot go further back in time than the time when the machine was built. One also can't visit the future.

2. One is not able to change reality. This time travel is a passive sort of time travel. One does not get to truly enter the fabric of time and change the way things happened. One can not change causality.

These limitations are major limitations and for that reason I believe one should still aspire to create a "real" time machine. However since that task seems much less achievable at the moment, to my mind humanity should first strive to create a virtual time machine which would, in the meanwhile, enable us some of the benefits of time travel.

Different sorts of time machines could be developed by different virtual reality worlds - or the same time machine feature could be included in all virtual worlds. The main thing is that time travel will, in my opinion, prove to be a very economical idea, would have great popularity among virtual world residents and would attract many new users to virtual worlds. Seeing that I have no doubt that the incentive to build it is already here and hope that it's emergence will be rapid as possible.