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How will virtual reality change your mind's consciousness?
You are who you are because of your environment. What happens in a virtual world in an environment created by another mind?
Over a half-century ago, Canadian professor and philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote one of the most influential books on media theory ever. Understanding Media introduced a number of ideas and phrases that now seem commonplace: “hot” and “cool” media; global village; and, of course, “the medium is the message.” He is credited with predicting the emergence of the World Wide Web three decades before its invention.
In McLuhan’s understanding, the terms medium, technology, and media are interchangeable. The subtitle of his book, The Extensions of Man, posits that any technology (and therefore medium and media) is effectively an extension of our bodies and consciousness. When I’m driving, the car is an extension of myself: its boundaries are now my own; my awareness must now take its full size and power into consideration.
This also includes smartphones, in which people walk around unaware of their environmental boundaries because their consciousness has been subsumed by a device. Where the technology ends and “I” begin becomes hazy. According to McLuhan, there is essentially no such distance. The content of the medium is not nearly as important as the medium itself, for it is the medium that changes societies, much more so than any specific content.
In some ways, the content can even distract us. Facebook is a fitting example. As McLuhan writes, “the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” We might assume technology is always progressing, but that’s not necessarily the case. Notice the other term he assigns to our creations:
Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body.
GPS is a wonderful technology, but it comes at a cost. Its long-term effect on our memory and visual systems force us to confront its true value. Studies have shown that the more you use maps, the smaller your hippocampus, your brain’s memory center. You are now the only landmark, which is quite useless if you have no idea where you actually are. Don’t misunderstand: using GPS to find your way around new territories is a wonderful advancement. Continual reliance on it in the same neighborhoods is another story.
You are already a cyborg
Technologies don’t necessarily make us useless, however. If anything, the opposite: philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark believes we are all cyborgs, “in the most natural way.” We are what we are as animals thanks to our environment and the technologies we’ve created to engage with it. This is as true for the Uber driver and GPS as the wheelchair-bound and ramps. Our technologies define our realities, as Clark expressed when co-writing a famous paper (with Australian philosopher Dave Chalmers) that expanded the definition of “mind” beyond the body.
A gamer wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles plays a game at a newly-opened VR park at The Dubai Mall on March 6, 2018. (Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)
While Clark appears more optimistic about mediums than McLuhan, he recognizes the dark side of, say, algorithms, and the invasion of privacy. Yet overall he feels that such “radical honesty” promotes liberalism and democracy—a theory being tested in the age of social media. Essentially, he’s saying you should be able to defend the reality you’ve constructed. The problem is, at least in digital space, we’re not always engaging with an environment whose boundaries we understand, making us vulnerable in a way we’ve never quite experienced.
Clark’s theory of “extended mind” and McLuhan’s media extensions remind us that consciousness is not confined to the body. There need not be any mysticism to this. As journalist Michael Pollan argues in his forthcoming book on psychedelics, if any of us were to experience another person’s mental state it would likely feel like a psychedelic trip, given how foreign the sensations and observations would be.
How will virtual reality change this?
In a sense, we’ve been living in virtual reality as long as we’ve been human beings. The constructs of consciousness demand that our observations and memories inform the reality we create. I can empathize with ideas foreign to me, but I can’t truly understand them. It’s unlikely I’ll consider their potential for inclusion in my comprehension of reality. Debates over facts or “fake news” aside, I live in a very different construct than a Trump supporter. Our ideas on a great many things are divergent.
Yet I share a great many ideas with the Trump supporters I am friends with. When together we rarely discuss politics, but even when we do, our conversations are never belligerent. When occupying the same physical space we are bound together by a shared experience of environment. Trump supporters (or trolls) that have commented on my social media handles are not nearly so kind. With no shared environment, it’s easy to forgo humanity because at that moment your only environment is you.
You need not be physically removed from someone to understand how important environment is. Simply observe the next person you follow that's staring at their phone. They never walk in straight lines; their cadence is off; they often stop randomly and bump into objects or people. When reality—the shared reality we occupy in a social space—snaps them back to attention, you can recognize the attentional lag in their eyes, at least for the brief moment before they return to their phones.
The society we inhabit affords certain luxuries, such as not having to always pay attention, but is this really a valuable trade-off? As of now, the virtual realities we enter are constructed by other minds. The experience might feel personal, but the contours of the environment are completely new. The 1.0 versions—phones; video games—already hint at the attentional lag between technology and reality. What happens when we truly enter new worlds, ones in which we have no free will because the environment was never shared to begin with?
A young gamer wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles plays in a mock city set-up at a newly opened VR park at The Dubai Mall on March 6, 2018. (Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)
Recently a close friend bought a new gaming system. At one point, when we were walking around outside, he started laughing. For a moment he thought he noticed a mushroom that would give him a few points. He even took a step in its direction to pick it. The simulated world became part of his direct experience even though his immediate environment did not offer what he believed to be part of it. The more immersive our technologies become, the harder it will be to pull ourselves out of them.
In Understanding Media, McLuhan quotes the poet, W.B. Yeats: “The visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” This idea might seem new as we approach a world dominated by A.I. and virtual reality, yet it’s long been part of our experience. Our imagination has long offered new and strange worlds, yet in some way we are always in control. As other minds construct our environments, what will be left of us?
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.
Image: Global Risks Report 2021<h3>Widespread effects</h3><p>"The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe," the report says. "They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation."</p><p>For those reasons, the pandemic demonstrates why infectious diseases hits the top of the impact list. Not only has COVID-19 led to widespread loss of life, it is holding back economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world, while amplifying wealth inequalities across the globe.</p><p>At the same time, there are concerns the fight against the pandemic is taking resources away from other critical health challenges - including a <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/charts-covid19-malnutrition-educaion-mental-health-children-world/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">disruption to measles vaccination programmes</a>.</p>
A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.
- In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
- A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
- The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
The ergosphere<p>The ergosphere is a region just outside a black hole's event horizon, the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. But light and matter just outside the event horizon, in the ergosphere, would also be affected by the immense gravity of the black hole. Objects in this zone would spin in the same direction as the black hole at incredibly fast speeds, similar to objects floating around the center of a whirlpool.</p><p>The Penrose process states, in simple terms, that an object could enter the ergosphere and break into two pieces. One piece would head toward the event horizon, swallowed by the black hole. But if the other piece managed to escape the ergosphere, it could emerge with more energy than it entered with.</p><p>The movie "Interstellar" provides an example of the Penrose process. Facing a fuel shortage on a deep-space mission, the crew makes a last-ditch effort to return home by entering the ergosphere of a blackhole, ditching part of their spacecraft, and "slingshotting" away from the black hole with vast amounts of energy.</p><p>In a recent study published in the American Physical Society's <a href="https://journals.aps.org/prd/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevD.103.023014" target="_blank" style="">Physical Review D</a><em>, </em>physicists Luca Comisso and Felipe A. Asenjo used similar ideas to describe another way energy could be extracted from a black hole. The idea centers on the magnetic fields of black holes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Black holes are commonly surrounded by a hot 'soup' of plasma particles that carry a magnetic field," Comisso, a research scientist at Columbia University and lead study author, told <a href="https://news.columbia.edu/energy-particles-magnetic-fields-black-holes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Columbia News</a>.</p>
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration<p>While there might not be immediate applications for the theory, it could help scientists better understand and observe black holes. On an abstract level, the findings may expand the limits of what scientists imagine is possible in deep space.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Thousands or millions of years from now, humanity might be able to survive around a black hole without harnessing energy from stars," Comisso said. "It is essentially a technological problem. If we look at the physics, there is nothing that prevents it."</p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.