The hollow promise of a virtual world with Brasher and Rowe | Rock Candy

Monday, January 25, 2016

The hollow promise of a virtual world with Brasher and Rowe

Posted By and on Mon, Jan 25, 2016 at 3:05 PM

click to enlarge Have you like, ever looked at your virtual hands, man? - HTTPS://WWW.FLICKR.COM/PHOTOS/PESTOVERDE/
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  • Have you like, ever looked at your virtual hands, man?


PREVIOUSLY ON BRASHER AND ROWE: Brasher went to the land of hobbits and Rowe looked at some blogs. We now present the premiere of the second season of BRASHER AND ROWE:


BRASHER: Well we're back to you reporting from deep within our palatial underground lair, within a computer simulation, somewhere in the vastness of the infotubes. Electricity and ones and zeros are flying around like bats, and it’s a soothing feeling to be back from my vacation and finally somewhere with a stable Internet connection. I can actually relax now. No weird animals or long hikes here, just information and power!

ROWE: Ah yes, the matrix of VIRTUAL WORLD. I usually surround myself with incredibly diverse sources of news and information that I have carefully curated, served to me by people who look like me, think like me and make choices like me. We’re not talking about that virtual world that denies the existence of 95 percent of the world’s population — we’re talking about worlds even more exclusive but that no one would want to be caught dead in, the world of computer avatars and virtual stand-ins.

BRASHER: My avatar is a Sesame Street Elmo with an M16 and a hat that says 420. I am riding a dragon whose skin appears to be the Gucci logo repeated hundreds of times. For the uninitiated, an avatar is a computer world version of you if you were a 12-year-old’s idea of cool.

ROWE: If you type “how do I make my avatar better” into Google, you get over 215 million results, proving that Google search result numbers mean nothing. The second result is a forum for users of the (once?) popular online world Second Life, where a user asks, “How do I make my avatar better without paying lots of money for add ons?” The first response is this, verbatim: “I created my avi from bits and pieces. A shape from one place, a skin from another, eyes from another, clothes and hair from tons of different places…”  The tagline to Second Life should have been about living the dream of Ed Gein.

BRASHER: In 2006 maybe for a couple of weeks I started messing around with some of these virtual world things. I made some characters, I wandered, I didn’t talk to anyone and I basically accomplished nothing. So kind of like real life in that respect. This was three years or so after Second Life had launched. If you don’t know, Second Life is/was sort of a glitchy garbage version of a multi user “virtual world.” Rubbish as it is, it probably still is the biggest entity as far as stuff like that goes. In 2006, it was getting a lot of media attention. Reporters were tripping over themselves trying to find ways to talk about it. Even then, though, it felt like Second Life had already peaked. The “world” to me seemed pretty empty and everyone that was there was trying to sell you something, or take your money, or kill you. So again, pretty much like real life. So it goes.

ROWE: Chamillionaire. Chamillionaire is the best. And his record label, The Island Def Jam Bertlesmann Music Group and Now That’s What I Call Universal Republic Matsushita and EMI CDNow Record Group, thought that users on Second Life would like to have a meet and greet with Chamillionaire, so on a random Sunday at 1 p.m. EST, a virtual Chamillionaire avatar was available for users to get virtual tickets to interact with. You wonder why this fell out of fashion at all.

BRASHER:
If y’all been sleeping this whole time, you might not know that we like some science fiction stuff. When I was younger, the Cyberpunk genre was this incredible huge and seemingly prescient thing. I could just feel it — we were going to live in computers, playing out our lives and adventures in badass virtual worlds where everyone would look awesome, and it was going to be like real life but with better powers and stuff. So what happened? Sure, there are great games and incredible computer graphics but we're still mostly stuck here in the real world just messing with our phones. Some people are disappointed we don’t have flying cars, like science has failed us because such things did not materialize. I understand that disappointment, because a vast immersive beautiful virtual world is my flying car.

ROWE: Near futurism is a funny thing. Much of it assumes that first-world humanity will follow its obsessions to inappropriate social conclusions. IN THE FUTURE, ALL AMERICANS WILL HAVE A PERSONAL CB RADIO AND HANDLE. EIGHT-TRACK TAPES WILL HOLD 20 VOLUMES OF ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA. HUMANITY WILL BE CONNECTED AND EDUCATED WHILE WE CARAVAN ON THE HIGHWAY FROM WASTELAND TO WASTELAND. Of course, we all are connected to the Internet through our phones or watches or pacemakers, many of us have unique handles to manage the myriad of online services, and we can access Encyclopedia Britannica by having our grandmothers Facetime us with their collection, now gathering dust.

BRASHER: In this regard, my short sighted prediction for the future is something mixing dating apps and self driving cars and it is as freaky as you can imagine.

ROWE: Dr. Ray Kurzweil, inventor, pioneering computer scientist, and director of engineering at Google said this to the Huffington Post in a navel-gazing interview about the future:

"We will spend considerable time in virtual and augmented realities, allowing us to visit with each other even if hundreds of miles apart. We'll even be able to touch each other. Some of the 'people' we visit with in these new realities will be avatars. They will be compelling but not quite human level by 2025 — that will take to the 2030s."

BRASHER: Ray Kurzweil also teamed up with fellow innovative genius Stevie Wonder in the '80s to create Kurzweil Music Systems, the keyboard and synthesizer company. They had great success with that, but you will not find Stevie Wonder in the virtual world because to the blind that world at this point is basically as cool as a complicated conference call. Don’t worry Stevie, you aren’t missing out! Oh, also I just changed my avatar to be a vampire bong with wings. 

ROWE: It’s easy to laugh at people sticking their necks out about the future, but this follows the obsession with seeing our avatars on screen. Dr. Kurzweil offers a future where distance is no matter to communication and togetherness. I reject this future. If anything, as the Internet has grown, it’s given the illusion of being connected with the world even though most folks just use the World Wide Web to enhance or degrade the very close places around them. Twenty years ago, people would marvel about being able to chat with others around the world about their shared interests. Now we mainly use it to complain about restaurants in our neighborhoods that don’t operate the way we think they should and to reconnect with people we never wanted to connect with in our pasts. Kurzweil’s version of how people will use technology assumes the best in a humanity that has chosen every opportunity to use technology in the smallest and cruelest ways. Also, this passes for a humor column. If only Kurzweil had said something funny —

“We will be able to create avatars of people who have passed away from all of the information they have left behind (their emails and other documents, images, videos, interviews with people who remember them),” [Kurzweil said.] “These will be compelling but not fully realistic, not until the mid 2030s, so some people will find this 'replicant' technology to be in the 'uncanny valley,' that is, disconcerting." 

Perfect! We can finally desecrate the memory of the dead by making facsimiles of them and pairing them with predictive texts from emails. “I love you,” the grieving will say. “STAY STRONGER LONGER FREE HERBAL VIAGRA CIALIS PILLS?” the recently deceased will say, their email address having been taken over by spambots years ago. Also, Kurzweil says that people will find it disconcerting, not because of how weird and morbid it is, but because it won’t be until around 2030 when the technology is perfected. Thanks, Ray!

BRASHER: Hey, as long as we continue to perfect Pepper's Ghost Artificial Intelligence Tupac over the next 15 years, we might be okay. When we enter this virtual world, though, there is a side effect: the virtual world enters our lives. I mean I don’t know whether to blame William Gibson, Yamaha corporation, or our own failed species for whatever this situation is, but can we just skip ahead to the inevitable and vote for this terrifyingly adorable cartoon lady to be the president? (Hologram Tupac could be VP.)

Another way the virtual world infiltrates ours is through wearable technology. In Neal Stephenson’s Cyberpunk classic "Snowcrash," there are these people known as Gargoyles. These are folks who are covered with computing technology devices who walk around the actual world while simultaneously immersed in the virtual or “metaverse” world. I would not be the first person to make the observation that we are attempting to head in this direction. I also may not be the first person to note that we are sucking pretty badly at heading in this direction. I changed my avatar again; now I’m an anatomically correct dog-head man in black leather hip boots and a corset.

BRASHER: I first noticed the advent of our modern gargoyle culture when I was in the EZ Mart a few years back and someone in the line was speaking very loudly at me. I thought, “Sheesh this lady is crazy as getout” until I slowly realized this was a conversation she was having, and a very involved one at that, and not with me, or anyone else in the room for that matter. I took another glance at her and spied a black box latched precariously onto her ear. This Borg thing was the culprit. It has been like 10 years since I first saw a bluetooth ear piece and every interaction I have with someone wearing one is just as weird as the first one.

ROWE: For some, why keep the avatar to the virtual world? Businesses are pushing wearable devices and trackers and Google glasses so you can tell the world, "I BELONG HERE." Or you know, people aren’t buying wearable devices at all.

BRASHER: I’m in a local pizza establishment several months back and I see a couple of guys sitting there and one of them is kind of staring off into the distance in a detached manner while his buddy is laptopping it hard across from him. I did a double take because the dude staring off had on glasses, more specifically he had The Google Glasses. I was really curious. What did they do? Could you see The Predator heat vision with them? Or just be like sitting there on the low reading Andy Borowitz columns chuckling smugly to yourself? Could other people know that you were watching Christmas-themed porn all the time? I had all these questions, but I am not the kind of person who goes up and asks a stranger questions about Google Glass because then you have to have a conversation about Google Glass. It’s like you how don’t ask questions about crossfit.

ROWE: Anyone fearing a world where humanity fades into the machine just needs to remember that being on the cutting edge of technology is rarely cool.

If you want to boost your paper trail of Brasher and Rowe so you can virtually recreate them when they're gone, please support us by visiting the archive of previous columns, sharing and commenting on our articles on social media, and following Brasher and/or Rowe on Twitter. Send us mail us at brasherandrowe@gmail.com. Your support lets us know we should keep doing this, and will help us convince the AT to upload our brains to the mainframe.

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