The Book Club

When the God Game Gets Real the Game Is Over

Dear Jim:

I was surprised by your response–you still cling to the idea that computers haven’t added anything to the “sum of human happiness.” And you say that I responded to your “hard evidence” of economic statistics with anecdotal evidence. Well, fine. I did. So? At the end of the day, the point I was trying to make was that I do not care if computers help, or do not help, General Motors build better widgets. That measure for me has little to do with proving, or disproving, the idea that computers have, or have not, added to the “sum of human happiness.” I can’t speak for humanity; all I can do is speak to my own experience, and that of the people I know around me.

I find the whole question strange–“happiness” is not about technology, or media, or tools. It is an emotion triggered by the mind, by our internal monologue, stimulated by events in the outside world. For all I know, computers make some people wither in abject horror, sort of what I would feel like were I to come upon a corpse in my bed. I guess you sometimes feel that way around these machines. I do not. There are moments, like last week when everyone was on vacation, and I was forced to not work, that all I wanted to do was play video games. I am particularly eager to play Myth II, a violent strategy game involving a realistic 3D model of the world, with a complete set of physics guiding the movement of all objects, from the limbs of exploded dwarves, to the movement of scared chickens, all compounded with realistic weather effects, like snow, rain, and wind. For me computers are extensions of fantasy. They are vessels we can go to for illusion, much as we can go to a book for the immersion of a story.

I see very little difference between the joys of a well-crafted computer game and the joys of a good book. They both evoke imaginary worlds–except one does it with the language of words, and the other does it with the language of visual objects, a kind of dynamic pictograph, the gif as glyph. Which partly explains the seduction of Kurtzweil and Gershenfeld’s fantasies. Kurzweil understands that the computer, as a modeling machine, can model reality, and that with the right good fortune (for him, that is), the machine could eventually manufacture authentic reality. His image of a “utility fog”–a set of microscopic machines, acting in unison to produce objects atom by atom on demand–is really a version of the “holodeck” on Star Trek. The utility fog goes one step beyond modeling reality: It makes it. But the link to that fantasy comes from computer games.

The desire I have to lose myself in the new version of Myth–the weird way a good game seems to take you out of the body, and to another place (much as a book does)–is a cousin, perhaps an ancestor, to Kurtzweil’s desire to lose himself in a utility fog, or upload his brain into some sort of new container. But where we differ is in the belief that this is either feasible, or worth doing. What Kurtzweil reveals is how seductive computers can be, especially the desire to use them to (re)model reality.

Kurtzweil’s book has everything to do with computer games. Known as “god-games,” this is a branch of computer games where the player runs a society (SimCity is a famous god-game). The Age of Spiritual Machines is a literary god-game, with Kurtzweil laying out his fantasy for the future. Sadly, these sorts of games tend to reveal the same thing: The god is capricious, and the ultimate authority on what’s good or bad. Spiritual Stalinism. Kurtzweil’s desire to obliterate the old reminds me of turning on the “natural disaster” button in SimCity, to see what happens when the tsunami crashes into your carefully crafted metropolis. You ask whether Kurtzweil’s fantasy may happen. I can’t imagine it will. At least not the way he thinks.

We are far more likely to see the fusion of humans and machines through medicine, not virtual reality, cyberspace, or computers. Prosthetic limbs, enhanced cochlear implants, corrective lenses sewn into the eyeballs, improved pacemakers–these lead to the mechanically enhanced body (why not let the new lens pick up infrared, along with the regular spectrum?). Oddly, genetic engineering is missing from Kurtzweil’s book. Which is very strange. But then again, messy stuff like genetic engineering is too “body based.” Kurtzweil likes to think about the brain foremost, and plugging computers right into our synapses has a higher nobility for him. It’s more “spiritual.”

I am not worried about Kurtzweil’s ideas–they’ve been written before, as I mentioned in my previous message. Gershenfeld is far more of a doer. He is a man with funding, a team of smart students, and a plan that’s not too ambitious. If you want to look at a far more plausible future, albeit a less sexy one than Kurtzweil’s, Gershenfeld is the author to look to. We haven’t talked much about this book, but it deserves some attention. His fundamental premise that the interface between us and computers must be rendered physical, and that computers should be given the “senses” to “sense” their surroundings, is right. It’s right because it’s useful. I remember seeing a demonstration at the Media Lab of two people exchanging business cards through the electric field in their skin as they shook hands, and thinking: Yes, this makes sense. Does it make sense to you?