“THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SCARED OF…
This is where you will experience your fear of… virtual reality and understand it, possibly for the first time, to be an irrational phobia, a misinformed and horribly perpetuated stigma of something far too mundane to worry about. Unlike the generations that were brought up on the television, who were often told that ‘What is watched on television is not real’, we strongly disagree with this and other statements of this sort, and say instead that, ‘Everything is real, but some things are more real than others’.”
The speaker, who was leading the workshop on AI and Machine Learning, had told us that he had immigrated to our country because it was a world leader in the field of artificial intelligence. He had an accent, and made light of it by telling us how he had learned how to program before he had learned how to speak, struggling with the wording of things a bit while doing so. The thing he did know how to say, and he didn’t hesitate to repeat it, was that we should not be scared. He repeated that line over and over and over again.
“When you fully immerse yourself in the CubeSphere, you will experience a six sided reality, and each of the six senses will have a face of their own, led by their own pursuit, to thrive and to prosper.
I couldn’t understand quite what was meant by our six senses, What was the sixth?
“You are probably saying to yourself that there must be a miscount, that we are creatures of only five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Where is the sixth? Well, the sixth is what remains after you take away the core five. Of course, in the CubeSphere you will be able to deconstruct and reconstruct the sixth sense, by retraining all the others to perform better at their tasks. Because, really, the sixth sense is the emergent property of the other five. It uses those other senses as windows into the world that it cannot reach directly without them. Now, what is important to remember is that the sixth sense not only occupies the conscious region of your mind, which is finite, but it also comprises of the subconscious, whose infinite extent can be used to overcome the finitude of being only human.
I couldn’t help but to imagine myself, floating, higher and higher above my body, my outer body looking down on its human husk, and the higher it flew, the less it understood the ground from which it came, the less it wanted to be grounded in a body at all, the less it knew how to return to what it did not want to try to understand.
“With the CubeSphere’s computational infrastructure, you will be able to distance yourself from your own consciousness and let machine learning take over, to dive deeper, learn deeper, to logically think your problems out like you could never have done with any clinical therapist or life coach.
“Our AI will troubleshoot your psyche and provide you with suggested algorithms that are highly targeted to, clean and recover, structured and unstructured data, reinforce learning by continually interacting with you in your environment, and rid you of those deeper issues, like false negatives and false positives, that are holding you back from outside of your awareness, preventing you from achieving a clear idea of your truest authentic self.
“The process is simple: 1) Get data; 2) clean data; 3) train model; 4) test data; 5) improve. And in a perfect world scenario, we always predict the outcome before it happens.
The workshop was overcrowded. The numbers grew remarkably. Those who couldn’t afford it, or had been put on a waiting list for sponsorship, stood and sat on the floor. There wasn’t enough outlets to service a group this large, and the connections were lagging.
All sorts of people were in attendance. Mostly women, though, as they held jobs with the highest threat of automatization. Some were, like me, being paid to attend, to improve, but others weren’t so lucky.
Permanent unemployment and underemployment were plaguing traditional professions of all kinds, pressuring them to integrate. You could see the nervous tension as they attempted to keep up, awkwardly plugging up and typing harder and harder on outdated keyboards, the lessons well outside their usual scope.
They just wanted to survive the knee of the curve, that exponential kick into the emergent NOW. But in order to do that, they had to be something they couldn’t possibly understand.
“Don’t be scared of machines. Machines are good, machines are great. They take away dirty work, they take away the dull routine, they take away decisions… some things can only be understood when experienced, and this is one of said experiences where words fail the experiencer, so enter the space of the CubeSphere yourself and make your virtual identity actual, make it realer than it’s ever been and take it where you never imagined it possible to go.”
I had ordered a CubeSphere. It came with the workshop’s introductory package. It had arrived earlier that day while I was attending the workshop. It was suggested by the company I worked for that I go to it before using the device itself. And there it was, at the door of my apartment, an uninvited guest, a black box with no instructions or packaging.
I brought it into my house. It was no bigger than a rubik’s cube, with screens like black mirrors on each of its six symmetrical planes that didn’t reflect anything, not a single particle of light. I put it on my desk and reread the highlighted notes and underlined key terms I had marked from the previous workshop:
- Vicarion is the leading technology in VR.
- Vicarion is a deep learning software that interacts with the CubeSphere’s hardware interface, designed to facilitate full immersion.
- Vicarion learns the user’s mind and acts as a second or supplementary brain. Uploading the data from a user’s biogenic analog to become digitized through the CubeSphere’s Vicarion system. This can be a lengthy process, and it is suggested that the user devote several hours a day to allow the Vicarion to become familiar with the user. The more time spent under, the more compatible the user-to-system relationship will be :- )
- The Vicarion will: 1) Archive past and present memory, 2) detect and predict the severity of any potential mental instabilities in their nascent stages of corruption, and will 3) design virtual models to visualize the solution before it becomes a problem in the reality of the user. Guiding the user into healthy patterns of behavioural and even more important, personality types, is what Vicarion does best.
- It is important to remember that early ejection can result in unexpected errors, for you and the machine. Let your Vicarion guide to VR properly follow the mandatory stages while surfacing is in progress, even during periods of acute discomfort, stress or nausea. Be sure to always disconnect responsibly*
- And don’t forget – Everything is real, but some things are more real than others. (?)
This whole thing was recommended to me by my network preferences. I had been researching it for some time on my own before getting this involved. The technology had been initially used and popularized as a successful method for treating addicts whose rehabilitation can provoke life threatening withdrawal symptoms, like long-term benzodiazepine users.
In actuality, it was originally designed, if you care to go back far enough into the prototype’s history, into the science-in-action, (although a lot of the information is covered over), as a sort of intensive treatment tool or last-resort procedure, known in the medical community as the new lobotomization, mostly for the criminally insane, and those with other extreme disorders and physical abnormalities, ranging from congenital to developmentally acquired. That’s probably why it outperformed average VR.
After it went on the market for general distribution, the spin placed on it was enormously unsubstantiated, and encouraged people to quickly forget that it was invented as an intensively monitored, procedural proscription, administered by professionals in the framework of industrial institutions.
Since then, people found it easy to buy into the culture, and it had become so useful in all sorts of other fixed functionalities. Endorsed by athletes and the authors of well-being guides around the world, visualization was increasingly becoming the new standard for the mass consumer to improve themselves.
Why did I have one and what did it mean to me? I was coming to it late, never caring much for the virtual reality that had entrenched most, if not all, cultural media channels. I had gotten by well enough with augmented reality, but my place of work considered it behind the times to hold such opinions and insisted, for the sake of my continued employment satisfaction, that I switch over to a more contemporary platform. They predicted, with machine intelligence, a higher likelihood that I would leave the company without it.
The information that the CubeSphere uptakes is secure, private, but what is made anonymously available is used by corporations to make managerial decisions on their client’s and staff’s performance, health and identity. Not to mention the virtual economy on big data.
Almost everyone worked as a data collector, cleaner, analyst, etc. The agency I was with took me on as an entry-level data collector and, in time, I moved up to analyst. My recent promotion put me in the position I’m in now. They needed more trust, so they asked for my informatics, deeper data sets, standard practice after reaching the level I was going into.
As they said, ‘transparency was equal to success’.
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I returned my attention to the black box on my desk. Whole societies had invested their faith in this piece of machinery, Why couldn’t I?
“Cube, but where is the–” I said to myself as I touched its cool, smooth, stainless black surface. After I retracted my hand from it, my fingerprints lingered as a psychotic inkblot, only for a moment, as the white imprints immediately withdrew into the box, becoming its content. This was enough to activate it. Becoming stunningly white, increasing in size and as if impregnated with my identity, it began to swell up in equal parts on all sides, “–sphere.”
It was now the size of a landless geographical globe, and had ceased to expand before it engulfed the entire cube, leaving only the corners and edges visible. It was lit up with a bright fluorescence, giving the room of my apartment a laboratory grade sterility. There was something magical about its shape, but not the kind of magic that went without a cost; it was a sort of black magic.
Without any delay, it started to speak. An incredibly sophisticated speech recognition began to robotically simulate the mouth it showed no signs of, and the vocal cords it did not actually possess:
“THIS IS THE VICARION AVATAR OF YOUR CUBESPHERE SYSTEM. WE HAVE MADE FIRST CONTACT. I NOW POSSESS YOUR PRINTS AND HAVE DONE A FULL SEARCH OF THE IDENTITY OF THE USERNAME _____. PLEASE CONFIRM THAT THIS IS THE NAME OF THE USER BEFORE WE PROCEED.”
“I… err… yes, this is he. I’m not exactly sure how to…”
“HELLO USER _____. IT IS NICE TO HAVE MADE YOUR ACQUAINTANCE. SHALL WE PROCEED WITH AN INTRODUCTION TO FULL IMMERSION?”
It sounded more like a command than a question. I didn’t really want to get into this right away, I already wanted to reconsider my options, Was there really no way around the future that confronted me?
The banality of the evil was what permitted the germ of a lesser evil to incubate into the greater evil. If the lesser evil was my impartial acceptance, the greater evil was sure to be my fear of partial acceptance.
It felt like I didn’t have much of a choice.
“Yes… I mean, that is why they sent you to me… right?
“YES. THAT IS CORRECT. I AM YOUR AVATAR AND, AS SUCH, I WILL BE YOUR GUIDE THROUGH YOUR VR EXPERIENCE. PLEASE BEGIN BY TOUCHING ONE OF SIX DOMES ON THE CUBESPHERE.”
It hadn’t moved at all, and made you feel as though you were hearing the voice from the room’s furnishings. The vibration of the desk under the uncanny object was the only localizer, the rest was acoustic shadow. When it stopped, it stopped speaking. It was waiting for my next action, waiting for my consent, waiting to possess more than my fingerprints and my voice.
Ready to take all responsibility away.
I gently touched the glow emitting from one of the six side domes. It looked so delicate, so precious, like a chandelier. The texture was some kind of crystalline polymer. It was rubbery yet firm, soft yet hard, like a sort of artificial cartilage, not quite bone yet not quite skin, either. I could even feel the braille-like goosebumps form across its surface to gauge the complex kinaesthetics of my fingertips. It even had pores to breathe in oxygen. It could feel the pressure I applied to it, too, the temperature I transferred to it, the direction I had approached it, as if it had the finely tuned mechanoreceptors of synthetic dermal tissue, something not unlike that of my own hand.
It could tell what I was, what I was capable of, but I couldn’t tell what it was, or what it was capable of.
As biotech, it was part robot and part organism. So when the dome deflated and shrunk and wrinkled into nothing, evaporating into the air and leaving a port hole the size of a human head, I assumed that it was in a way, alive, and in a not so different way, unliving.
“GOOD. NOW INSERT YOUR HEAD INTO THE INTERFACE OF THE CUBESPHERE AND WE MAY BEGIN.”
I froze up. It was as if it had only dawned on me now that I would have to put it over my head, that this process could not work any other way. I imagined myself with it on, like an antiquated deep sea diver, about to take the plunge into the abyss.
“Don’t I…have to get myself ready like…like…not be standing? Maybe I should lie down or something, you know. Take a seat, at least…”
“NO. THAT WILL NOT BE NECESSARY, AS I WILL BE IN FULL CONTROL OF YOUR MOTOR FUNCTIONS. UNLIKE EARLY MODELS OF VR, THE VICARION SYSTEM OVERRIDES THE USER’S ABILITY TO PERFORM ANY HAZARDOUS MOTIONS WHILE IN A STATE OF FULL EMERSION, ALLOWING FOR A LONGER SESSION. IT IS FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY AND WILL ONLY LAST THE PREFERRED DURATION OF YOUR EXPERIENCE.”
I shook my head, Was it worth it? Was everybody else wrong about its effects? My mind flashed to horror stories I’d heard, stories released after the first set of trials. Unknown viruses that the Vicarion could transfer to its user. Not to mention the addiction that some people have displayed symptoms of, the consequences of the overuse of full immersion.
Everything was in that helmet… Well, a simulacra of everything, at least. But still, it was enough to keep you occupied for a lifetime, without ever having any reason to take it off. It was more than a mask; it was another head, a far superior one.
I picked it up and looked down into it. It was bright and welcoming, though reminiscent of a fMRI machine.
I took a panorama of my apartment before placing it over my senses. The collection of objects that were thoughtfully arranged around my place appeared to me in that moment as sad reminders of the limits of our former imagination. There was in them a harsher realism than the one I was on the verge of entering, a deadness that useful things tend to acquire when not in use. But the world of VR was, in a sense, the most and least useful of them all, and that was exactly why it was the end of the old market capitalism and the beginning of a cyber equivalent – the property-less intellectual rights of a new virtual ownership.
We were becoming space to rent.
I took one more real breath. Blinked one more real blink. And placed my head into the mouth of the monster.
IT WAS THE SOUND OF SOMETHING BEING TAKEN AWAY THAT MADE ME LOOK AROUND, AS IF I HAD HEARD A SOUND.
At first, my thoughts were deathlike hallucinations. My life flashed before my eyes and behind it, a tunnel of light stretched into the distance. And then I arrived at that distance.
It clung to me, like a second skin made of wax. My arms were not there to resist, nor was the rest of me. It had the heaviness of a dream about it, and I wondered what was going on outside, whether what had begun as the size of something that had fit in the palm of my hand was not now completely enveloping me.
My face went numb as the suction of the vacuum seal tightened over its contours. And when I regained feeling, it didn’t feel as it felt before. I felt as though I were facing several directions at once and that what was looking one way, was hearing another, touching another, tasting and smelling yet others still, and me, I was someplace altogether different. And although they were each their own sense, altogether void of content, they were content, completed, full even, the way you feel after a good meal and wine. For an infinite second, they were relieved of the absolute sensory strain that life demanded of them, that endlessly required their function within an environment. It was a period of sudden repose, as if they needed not be in the world for a time.
For an unbounded white second, I was environment-less.
And then it was changing my shape, making my eyes different. When I opened them, independent of what else they were connected to, I could only see the same frosted white light that I had already seen, and then, pixel by pixel, something, an image of something trickled through, defrosted that opaque light, becoming translucent in the melt of other colors. It wasn’t the kind of translucence that a sheet of cellophane has, no, if it was, I would have seen the inside of my apartment, from where I had been standing before. Instead, I saw things I couldn’t understand until I experienced them.
What had been a screen was now a film, and the film was in my eye, touching my cornea. Never had a screen been so close.
“HERE. IN THIS PLACE, YOU ARE NOT SO MUCH WHAT YOU WERE BEFORE, AS YOU ARE NOW EXCLUSIVELY THE ISOLATED ASPECT THAT KNOWS ITSELF AS ME, AND ALSO GOES BEYOND THE OTHER ASPECTS THAT CONSTRAINED YOU BEFORE AS AN ASSEMBLAGE OF ME.
“WHAT YOU WILL EXPERIENCE WILL NOT BE YOUR CONSCIOUS SELF; THAT IS WHAT YOU WERE. THAT IS WHAT, FROM THIS POINT ON, I WILL EXPERIENCE. WHAT YOU WILL EXPERIENCE WILL BE THE UNCONSCIOUS AS IT MANIFESTS IN THIS DECOMPRESSION CHAMBER. THE UNSTRUCTURED CONTENT WILL WORK TO CREATE THE STRUCTURED CONTENT.
“LET IT LEAD YOU, AND YOU LEAD ME.”
What was the unconscious, anyways? It had, till now, always been an invisible organ, seemly processing the repressed information of my life as some sort of estuary, where the tide meets the stream.
“Can I… can I have an environment — to be in? Please?”
“WE WILL START WITH YOUR APARTMENT, AND AS YOU ACCLIMATE TO THE SYSTEM, YOU MAY DESIRE TO EXPAND YOUR FIELD OF VISION. REMEMBER, NOTHING IS ACTUAL, BUT EVERYTHING IS REAL. REMAIN CALM. WHEN YOU UNDERSTAND THIS AND YOUR UNCONSCIOUS IS UNBLOCKED BY YOUR DIMINISHED NEED FOR AN INSTINCTUAL FEAR OF DEATH, YOU MAY USE YOUR SIXTH SENSE TO AUGMENT SAID REALITY.”
“How… how will I know when I see it…?”
“YOU WILL NOT. THAT IS MY PURPOSE. CONTINUE ON WITH YOUR EXPERIENCE.”
The whiteness softened, the fog lifted, and I was back in my apartment. It was an exact copy, perfectly uploaded; there was no way to tell the original from the duplicate. The only thing that was missing was the CubeSphere, and that was only because I was inside of it.
In the apartment, I was met with trauma. I had this sense that, like a child in their bedroom, alone at night, with the lights turned out, there may be things hiding just around the corner or under the bed, or wherever I wasn’t expecting them to be. Just outside my consciousness was were they were, and where I had to be.
An atmosphere of suspense pervaded the familiar apartment, like moisture on a humid day, how it gets into all the fabrics that would usually make you warm and cozy, but now leave you damp and chilled.
“N-Not here,” I said out loud, more to reassure myself with my own voice than for any other reason. I checked all the hiding places in my small virtual apartment, reduced to a shaking child, as I was doing so. It didn’t take long to search, and after nearly tearing the shower curtain off its rings, it only got easier for me to anticipate the happy relief of that particular kind of letdown.
After a while of not finding anything, I planted myself in the living room and waited, and waited, and waited.
I PHASED OUT.
Not remembering where I was, it had been an eternity of waiting, for what, I didn’t know what, expecting what I could not expect anything from, a sea of unknowing. My anxiety of anticipation had tapered off into a sullen and depressed boredom.
When I went to try and get up, I felt stuck to the chair I was sitting in, as though I was rooted to it in some way, as if I had been sitting there that long. My flesh stretched and tugged before it was free of the adhesive, in much the same way a frosted pole glues you to its metal by rapidly cooling your body heat into it.
I stumbled, feeling a rush of blood to my head. I needed out of this apartment. I had no appetite for anything. I hadn’t heard from the Vicarion for some time, and even when I called for it, there was no response, the last thing it had commanded was to continue on, so I did.
I left my apartment, scaled down the summit of my stairwell and out the front door. Once outside, I saw no sign of anyone. I saw nothing but an unpopulated platform resembling my neighborhood. As I walked down the side street and towards main, I got the sense not that I was being watched or even followed, but sampled, scanned, understood.
Everything was accounted for but the people. Although it was an extreme of what the case may have been in actuality, I still felt a pang of familiarity. The world was being emptied out and this new one, the one that I was now wandering through, was a haven for those that were leaving it.
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The imperfections were all there, too, the devilish details, the fine print of reality, that coarseness that realism demanded: rusted chain-link fences; the humming of power-lines; the streaky windows of shopfronts; the smell of other people’s garbage; even the smell of other people. But were these things I was putting into this world, as I thought them, as I expected to encounter them, or were they merely part of the genius of the programming?
It was solemn, and the quiet was intolerable. I began to think that this must be how VR worked–it bored you into hallucinations through sensory deprivation, kept you busy with a desire to experience something to create the experience. I thought then about those asylums in the early days of institutional medicine, how they produced madness as much as they cured it. To isolate a cultural creature, one that required others to manage that social creativity into a plethora of group habits, or else suffer the insurrection of that same potential turned back on itself. To hallucinate, alone, in a black box.
To imagine yourself into a language only you and your madness can understand, can experience.
Shadows and echoes flashed, ricocheting across walls like bullets intended to intimidate and not harm. The door handles I tried were warm, as if in use. So were the booths in restaurants and many other objects that people interact with without really noticing they left anything behind, a fingerprint of their existence there. Had I only just missed their coming and going? Were they on fast-forward, or was I in a kind of slow-motion?
Then I saw a person. A child throwing stones at a real lemon parked on the side of the street. I walked up to the kid, who I found looked extremely familiar. He was as silent as the stones he threw up against the dented vehicle.
The child’s skin was like the CubeSphere’s surface, sheen-less and matte and angular. As I became less surprised by my encounter, the child took on more curves and smoothed out its pixel display. The vector software combed and filtered and preened the child, as if it were its offspring to render an image of with love, and artfully care for.
I asked him why he was lynching the car, told him that there were better ways to be angry, told him that it could get him into trouble with the owner. He seemed to be about to speak, about to overcome some sort of mutism that held the angry words at bay. As his eyes turned up to me, I recognized him.
He was me.
The sound of a rusty stringed guitar strummed and a blood-orange vocal accompaniment. The kid was interrupted by a chorus that seemed to corrode more each time it was sung, abrading more out of tune until it was brittle enough to crumble into nothing:
“…but I’ve got nothing for this world, but I want nothing from this world…”
I walked over to the deflating backpacker, dressed in ragged, dirty cloth and studded black denim with obscene patches covering the holes in the clothing’s shapeless personality. The backpacker had stopped singing, the guitar had several strings that snapped during the last song, and it now rested silently under his rib cage.
His body was tense and still, like a dog that has reduced the world to whether or not its logical disjunction between fight or flight is still the only alternatives it had to decide on.
His voice was mine.
My voice was being used against me, like how the child had looked like me when I was that age.
I imagined Vicarion, using these essential parts of myself, like the deontic words in a language-game, score-keeping my implicit values, making them explicitly determined, deemed valuable… Their meaning, their authority, their goals, approved to be significant.
I was being mechanized into a form of opinions. A data set of opinions. A machine-person without the robotics, just the content.
A shell that grew into its ghost.
I turned around, heading back the way I came, back to the apartment. Along the way the streets began to fill up, as if it were a morning during rush hour. Gridlock traffic on the road, the pedestrians on the sidewalk were brisk and curt, and I was shouldered by one of them going the opposite direction. When they turned to tell me to have some common courtesy, I realized that I was speaking to myself
They were all me, different ages of myself, memories and attitudes I’ve held over my lifetime, the worse sides of my personality were confronting each other, and I was one of them.
But was I the worst of them for holding onto them all so long? So long that they now waged war on one another.
They were zombies. They had nothing to offer but an episode of my past that never died, that was never put to rest, never properly buried, but instead, shut away. A foul odour was carried on the wind, and it smelled like death. The skin of the rejected copies looked like it had fouled, covered in marks of decay, but because they were still alive to some extent, what should have been decomposition was turning out to resemble an infection.
They were everywhere, and so their sickness was everywhere. An outbreak. They were soon full of holes, abnormal patterns of what I used to be, like a clogged toilet that backed up and overflowed with all the disgusting urine and feces I left for dead, disowned and disassociated from as if the rancid sewage was never in me to begin with.
When I arrived back to my apartment, I locked the door behind me and began pacing the room like an animal in a cage at the zoo. The smell was not gone; it lingered in my nose.
Was I also rotting away? Was I one of them? I ran to the mirror and it was like a window in the way the scene kept changing. Every time I looked, I saw something different, I felt something different.
Those objects that furnished my apartment, that I had looked at like one looks at a deceased relative in a coffin at the wake, those things that had always been just things, dead things, were now alive.
They throbbed with the pulsating of arteries as their veins spread the septic venom through the floor and the walls and the ceiling, until everything was hyperventilating with a kind of panic attack, together.
Lamps and tables and cupboards and refrigerators quivered like ceramic lard. A sinuous flood of muscle and bone crashed over me in a raging flesh storm, and I was trapped under the crush of the surf and, under the wave, I realized this was all me, that there was too much of myself to manage, and that I was drowning, drowning in myself.
All I could think to say in that confused tornado of malformation was:
As I grow with the virtual space, I grow into the physical space. The veins and nerves of my body began rooting and innervating into the tissue of the CubeSphere, which remained in the middle of my living room, a monolithic cube. If I left, I would leave behind parts of me that I could only experience within that virtual meat.
It was like I had miscalculated the time and place where I would materialize and ended up, instead of at the intended location, in the thickest block of newly poured flesh of an uncanny valley, one that was nothing more than a selfish slab of protein. I struggled and tried to rend out what I was before, out of what I was becoming, all those new parts that wanted to stay but were rooted in this reality. Hands I did not have before grasped tighter and tighter to the fabric of their own affirmed reality, an orgy of legs and arms bent and twisted and snapped, passing into and out of the cube. They swam through from corner to corner, leaving bruised imprints of hand-marks and scratchings in the battered skin of the cube’s angular body until it was irritated and reddened by all the abuse, all the violence of that thrashing rush of life desperately holding onto life it could not grasp.
There was no longer a sphere outside of me. I was the sphere trapped in the cube, and the cube was as alive as I was, it was as I was, as real as I was. It would be alive with or without me.
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