UnpreparedImagination

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This is something I tell people a lot, who I meet in the material world.

I tell them: The imagination of the US citizen is completely unprepared for the future we are marching towards. In other countries, there are people who know, and have been training themselves, on how things will go. But US citizens are completely out of the loop, with completely unrealistic hopes and expectations and dreams. They literally cannot imagine (come up with on their own) the sorts of things we are walking to. They are excited by the prospects of flying cars, powerful weapons, and, maybe, faster downloads and free calls.

I am not talking about the TransHumanists?, who hold the right sort of idea about where we are going.

Now, why do I single out the US? Maybe it’s Europe too, I don’t know. I don’t keep up with them.

Basically, my point of comparison is Japan. I believe China and Korea and Singapore are in the same boat, but I can’t prove it. It’s just a suspicion.

But let’s see what the Japanese have been doing.

  • In 1998, Serial Experiment Lain hits TV. In 1998, Serial Experiment Lain was lecturing the Japanese anime viewing public on NorbertWeiner?, DouglasEngelbart?, TedNelson, and several others. There is no US equivalent.
  • In 2003 (?), Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex comes out.

To our credit, we have:

  • BladeRunner? – genetic engineering
  • Johnny Mnemonic – so long ago, I hardly remember it
  • Terminator 3 – few realize it in these terms, but Terminator is basically about a runaway technological Singularity; Terminator 3 is unique for drawing attention to the human behavior of the friendly machines, and the mechanical behavior of almost all the humans (“why did X do it? it was his mission,” is a repeated theme)
  • I, Robot – robot labor and the control of robots, specifically – suggests that trying to strictly control AI’s may not be the way to go
  • A.I. – more robot labor
  • Minority Report – still more robot labor, government housing, interesting look at user interface & some augmented reality
  • recently, Battlestar Gallactica – which I have not seen yet
  • Global Frequency? – nope - cancelled (WTF?! - but they must have had a reason… perhaps the audience isn’t ready for this sort of show?)

But when you look at it from above, the US stuff focuses on labor and rights.

The Japanese focus more on integration of humans and machines, they focus on information systems, virtual realities, and the collective social cybernetic organism.

Notice how: There is no US equivalent to Serial Experiment Lain. Nothing. That is, there is nothing that explains history from the angle of computing, there is nothing that focuses on the types of very real social interactions coming out of computer-mediated interaction, there is nothing that focuses on the relationship between self, other (person), and machine, as a unity.

Why? Just why are our imaginations so dry in this respect?

Notice how: There is no US show that features the technology featured in Ghost in the Shell 2, Standalone Complex, which came out 2 years ago. The technology is just the starting point; Far more interesting are the social interactions, which only make sense in the context of that technology.

Specifically, I’m thinking of the dramatic changes that come from the ability to speak to directed targets without opening a mouth and saying syllables. The characters can and do speak to one another purely from within their minds. (Yes, it is strange to watch; Some new VisualLanguage will be required to show communication paths, if things get complicated. The Ghost in the Shell comic uses interesting techniques to segregate speaker, speaker-as-seen, listener-as-seen, and listener.)

How many Americans are imagining a future where people talk without opening their mouths? Just count the TV shows where it happens. None, unless you count Fantasy telepathy. How many Americans want to imagine a future of people talking without opening their mouths. Pretty close to zero. When I tell people that NASA's been working on just this technology, people get that sort of, “uh… that’s just creepy…” They are only a hair away, it feels, from saying: “That’s just wrong.” (As for the technology: It turns out that there are some very convenient short-cuts within the brain that make this thing relatively easy to do. If I understand right: The brain is automatically sending the signals, as you read, to say the words. They are just stopped at the end by some sort of suppressive signal, sort of like the chemicals that keep you from moving when you are dreaming. It’s still “hard,” but not as hard as completely understanding the contents of how brains store thoughts.)

Are Americans prepared for this stuff? Again, I can’t speak for Europe, but I can tell you, from first hand experience: No, they are not. I know from first hand experience, because I’ve talked with them about this stuff. And it takes a while to explain these kinds of ideas. And I can tell you: People look very confused when you tell them about this stuff. It would be much much much easier to tell them about flying cars or alien invaders. Because that’s already in the narrative of the imagination. But this stuff is straight out of left field for them.

See?

But I think if you go to Japan, and tell people about this stuff- I think they’ll be like: “Oh, yeah, of course. I know that. Everybody knows that.” If you tell them about the flying cars, they’ll probably respond, I imagine, with something like: “Why? You can just virtual reality your way to work, work in a virtual space.”

I believe they are better prepared for these ideas, because these ideas are on TV. They’re on TV because people have dropped en masse into the Internet. They have population density, and with it comes massive bandwith, and all these things.

But is that the whole story? I’m not so sure. They have a long history of thoughtful cybernetics in their TV shows. They took to robots and communication systems in a big way.

Chat rooms, bulletin board posting centers, 2 channel, audience participation, popular conventions, they all show up in a big way in even a cheap lame horrible anime called “Mugi Mugi” that my girlfriend rented on a whim. Horrible, lame, boring anime, but: Wow, they sure have the Internet in there. I’ve only seen a handful of Japanese anime, but it seems like it’s pouring with this kind of stuff.

All this said, I think that there is an aspect where the American imagination has made major leaps, beyond what I see from elsewhere: the super-hero comic. They are now becoming: the super-hero movies. Because our generation is growing older, and now the legends that were taught to us, we are putting on the silver screen.

Why are these so important? Because they address the young.

X-Men is all about the technologically empowered young. I don’t particularly care if it was intentionally written that way or not. (I happen to believe that it is.) The effect is the same. X-Men is about the intrinsicly transhumanist young. (Intrinsically, I believe, because they grow up with the technology, and can’t imagine living without it, nor would want to. “You can get my technology when you pry it out of my cold, dead, brain,” type thinking. There are people who would love to take them up on the offer.)

Xavier and Cerebro. Xavier is the wise professor. He uses Cerebro (Latin? Spanish? for “brain”) to find the mutants, and collect them together. Cerebro is basically Google Maps with the ability to pick out Transhumanists (read: InternetPeople? using FOAF, or whatever.) He can hear the people talking from afar: My personal inspiration for OverHear. He uses this psychic web browser to find the mutants, and help collect them together. This is a prediction of the Tribes.

There is a struggle between the mutants (transhumanists) and the non-mutants. Well, somewhat: It turns out that there are extropians and social transhumanists among the mutants- people who say “technology for those who can afford it, and who cares for the rest- they don’t deserve it,” and those who say “we need to use technology to help provide for everyone, including the non-mutants.” This mirrors what we are about to see in the material world around us: A struggle between the pro-technology forces, and the anti-technology forces. We’re going to see this in a big way, I believe, unless we better prepare our imaginations. That means TV shows showing things that the red states (in particular) haven’t quite planned for: The aforementioned technologies, cybernetics, etc.,.

Judging by what I’ve heard of Battlestar Gallactica? “Good luck.” It’s robots vs. humans, right? The robots are the bad guys. What’s worse, some are cyborgs that look just like us. (Beware the person who’s got robot inside of them!) Does anyone know better than I, and think it’s going to spin it a particular way?

Star Trek is positively conservative by sci-fi standards.

So strange that our TV and movies are so far behind, but our literature is top-notch, and has been for some time. That said, I can’t say I’ve read Japanese sci-fi literature. (Their Manga is very good as well.) Accelerando is without peer, as far as I know. We have a long history of very powerful sci-fi, though I don’t know that most people know about it. They imagine that sci-fi is following the TV and movie track. It’s not. Though there is of course still old-school sci-fi out there.

Another thing about Xavier’s school for the gifted- they educated themselves. They educated themselves just like how the Internet People are educating themselves, with Wikipedia, with all these things.

In these respects, X-men is good preparation material. The transhumanists will line up behind the super-hero stories, and be prepared by them. The plans, plays, legal moves, etc., will be loaded in by these movies. They will have the mental framing to talk and reason in.

I don’t know. This is just a rant. It would take forever to turn these ideas all into individual pages.

If something here interests someone, and it’s worth having a conversation about, I suppose that’s kind of cool.

If this just falls into the nothing, that’s fine too.

One notable exception: The Matrix. It touches upon pretty much every idea, and is basically all about cybernetics.

I like your phrase MaterialWorld? rather than RealWorld.

I watch Battlestar Galactica, and I think the show goes to interesting lengths to make the “robot bad guys” (aka the Cylons) seem sympathetic. The Cylons are the ones who have a monotheistic religion, for one thing, and the humans are polytheistic. In America, a country dominated by monotheism of various strains, I think this is an important distinction. But more than that, the Cylons are not a faceless enemy. They have emotions. Some of them defect to “our” side, or seem to. They have a plan, which I for one thinks involves something more than the destruction of humanity. I think the Cylons are trying to “mold” humanity, just as humanity has molded them.

N.B. - I have only discussed these conclusions with a few other people who are watching the show, but so far, I seem to be fairly unique in how sympathetic I think the Cylons are supposed to be.

I watch it too and I totally agree with you. I feel there is some air of needing to be accepted also.

I need to check that out.

I wish someone made an Internet short-cut version. You know, where they cut out all the walking in hallways, and play the important scenes at 150% speed.

I wrote this about half a year ago.

My subjective feeling is that things have changed in the last 6 months: It seems to me that the general public is catching up. I suspect by 2008, most people will know about robots, cyborgs, and have some idea of mixed & augmented & virtual reality. Nintendo seems to be a pretty good teacher. :)

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