Sunday, June 11, 2017

Can we derive meaning and value from virtual reality? An Analysis of the Postwork Future

Image courtesy of BagoGames via Flickr

Yuval Noah Harari wrote an article in the Guardian a couple of months back entitled ‘The meaning of life in a world without work’. I was intrigued. Harari has gained a great deal of notoriety for his books Sapiens and Homo Deus. They are ambitious books, both in scope and intent. Harari’s subject is nothing less than the entire history and future of humanity. He wants to show us where we have come from, how we got here, and where we are going. He writes in a sweeping, breathless and occasionally grandiose style. As you read, you can’t help but get caught up in the epic sense of scale.

The Guardian article was somewhat different. It was a narrower, more provocative thinkpiece, dealing with a theme raised in his second book Homo Deus: What happens when machines take over all forms of work? What will the ‘useless class’ of humans have left to do? These are questions that interest me greatly too. I have published a couple of articles about the meaning of life in a world without work, and I am always interested to hear others opine on the same topic.

Unfortunately, I was less than whelmed by Harari’s article. It seemed a little flippant and shallow in its argumentation. To some extent, I figured this was unavoidable: you can’t cover all the nuance and detail in a short newspaper piece. But I tend to think a better job could, nevertheless, have been done, whatever the word limits on the Guardian might have been. I want to explain why in the remainder of this post. I’ll start by outlining what I take to be Harari’s main thesis. I’ll then analyse and evaluate what I see as the two main arguments in his piece, highlighting flaws in both. I’ll conclude by explaining what I think Harari gets right.

1. Harari’s Thesis: Video Games Might be Good Enough
Interestingly, Harari starts his discussion in much the same place that I started my discussion in my paper ‘Technological Unemployment and the Search for Meaning’. He starts by pondering the role of immersive video games in the lives of those rendered obsolete by automation:

People must engage in purposeful activities, or they go crazy. So what will the useless class do all day? One answer might be computer games. Economically redundant people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual reality worlds, which would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the “real world” outside. 
(Harari 2017)

This isn’t purely idle, armchair speculation. Research by the economist Erik Hurst (and his colleagues) already suggests that young men in the US (specifically non-college educated men in their 20s) are opting for leisure activities, such as video games, over low paid and precarious forms of work. If the preference profiles of these young men carry over to others, then the automated future could be one in which the economically displaced live out their lives in virtual fantasies.

Is this a good or bad thing? Will it allow for human flourishing and meaning? Many will be inclined to say ‘no’. They will argue that spending your time in an immersive virtual reality world is deeply inhuman, perhaps even tragic. Harari’s central thesis is that it is neither. If we understand the lessons of human history, and if we play close attention to our different cultural practices and beliefs, we see that playing virtual reality games has always been at the core of human flourishing and meaning.

Harari’s Thesis: A future where those rendered economically useless spend their time playing virtual reality games is neither bizarre nor tragic; virtual reality games have always been central to human flourishing and meaning.

This is provocative stuff. It seems so counterintuitive and yet he might be on to something. We’ve all had the sense that there is something slightly unreal and fantastical about the trivial tasks that make up our daily lives. But can we put this on a firmer, intellectual footing? Perhaps. The way I read him, Harari offers two main arguments in support of his thesis. Let’s look at them both now.

2. The Big Argument: It’s All Virtual
Isaiah Berlin famously divided the intellectual world into two camps: the foxes and the hedgehogs. The foxes knew many little things and used them all, in various ways, to chisel away at the world of ideas, not giving much thought to how it all fit together in the process. The hedgehogs knew one big thing — they had one big idea or theory — through which everything was filtered and regurgitated. They had a hammer and everything was a nail.

Harari is definitely a hedgehog. His scope may be vast, but he has one big idea that he uses to elucidate the tapestry of human history. The idea is almost Kantian in nature. It is that the reality in which we live (i.e. the one that we really experience and engage with) is largely virtual in nature. That is to say: we don’t experience the world as it is in itself (in the ‘noumenal’ sense, to use Kant’s words), but rather through a set of virtual/augmented reality lenses that are generated by our intellects. Harari explains the idea by reference to his own experiences of Pokeman Go and the similarity between it and the perceived religious conflicts in the city of Jerusalem:

It struck me how similar the situation [playing Pokemon Go with his nephew] was to the conflict between Jews and Muslims in the holy city of Jerusalem. When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qu’ran) you see holy places and angels everywhere. 
(Harari 2017

Later he supports this observation by appealing to his big idea:

In the end, the real action always takes place inside the human brain…In all cases, the meaning we ascribe to what we see is generated by our own minds. 
(Harari 2017)

Which leads me to formulate something I’m going to call ‘Harari’s General Principle’:

Harari’s General Principle: Much of the reality we experience (particularly the value and meaning we ascribe to it) is virtual in nature.

This general principle provides existential reassurance when it comes to contemplating a future spent living inside a virtual reality game. The idea is that there is nothing bizarre or tragic about this possibility because we already live inside a big virtual reality game and we seem to derive great meaning from that irrespective of its virtuality. That’s his main argument. It seems to work like this (this formulation is mine, not Harari’s)

  • (1) If it turns out that we already derive great meaning and value from virtual reality games, then a future in which we live out our lives in virtual reality games will also provide great meaning and value.

  • (2) It turns out that we already derive great meaning and value from virtual reality games.

  • (3) Therefore, a future in which we live out our lives in virtual reality games will provide great meaning and value.

Premise (1) is practically tautologous. It’s hard to see how one could object to it. There is, however, one important, perhaps pedantic, objection that could be raised: there may be differences in the quality of the experience provided by different virtual reality games. So the mere fact that we derive great meaning and value from the current crop of virtual reality games provides no guarantee that we will continue to derive meaning and value from a future crop. This is significant, but I won’t belabour this objection since I’m the one who formulated premise (1) and you could rectify the problem by arguing that the future crop of games will be broadly analogous to the current crop, though that may turn out to be contentious.

Premise (2) is supported by Harari’s general principle, but he also uses some case studies to show how it works in practice. One is that religion is a big virtual reality game; the other is that consumerism is a virtual reality game.

Religion: “What is religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together. Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth…Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game…If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).” (Harari 2017)

Consumerism: “Consumerism too is a virtual reality game. You gain points by acquiring new cars, buying expensive brands and taking vacations abroad, and if you have more points than everybody else, you tell yourself you won the game.” (Harari 2017)

You can probably see why I used the word ‘flippant’ to describe Harari’s argumentation earlier on, but let me give him his due. To someone like me — a religious sceptic and an agnostic capitalist — there something quite attractive in what he is saying. I think religion really is a bit of a virtual reality game: that all the rules and regulations are fake and illusory. But I am attracted to this line of reasoning only because it disproves the very point that Harari is trying to make. His view of religion and consumerism is deflationist in nature. To say that both practices are virtual reality games is to denude them of value; to rob them of their meaning and significance. It’s like ripping the mask off the ghost at the end of Scooby Doo.

And this is the critical point. Harari’s big argument doesn’t work because it isn’t true to the lived experiences of devoted religious believers and avid consumerists. They don’t think that the reality in which they live is virtual. They think the rules and regulations are real — handed down to them by God — and that the angels and demons they believe to exist are part of some deeper reality. They also probably don’t experience their daily practice in the gamified sense that Harari ascribes to them. It’s not about gaining points or levelling up; it’s about being true to the commitments and requirements of authentic religious practice. His perspective is that of the outsider — someone who has seen through the sham — not that of the insider.

This means that it is very difficult to draw any solace from Harari’s general principle, or the two case studies he uses to support his argument. The cultural practices and beliefs from which we currently derive great meaning and value are not normally understood by us to be either virtual or gamelike in nature (Perhaps some few people do understand them in that way) and we may not continue to derive meaning and value from them if we perceive them in this way. This matters. Presumably, in the virtual reality future, we will know that the reality we experience is virtual, and that the activities we engage in are part of one big game. To assume that we can still derive meaning and value from our activities when we have this knowledge requires a different, narrower argument.

Fortunately, Harari might have one.

3. The Narrower Argument: The Value of Deep Play
To this point, we have been trading on an ambiguity about the meaning of ‘virtual reality game’. Harari never defines it in his article, but we can get a sense of how he understands the term by reading between the lines. Harari seems to view religion and consumerism as ‘games’ because they involve goal-seeking and competitiveness (getting to heaven; acquiring more stuff than your peers) and ‘virtual’ because the rules by which people play these games involve constructs (beliefs, laws etc) that are not ‘out there’ but are generated by the brain.

I do not think this is a good way to understand the concept of a virtual reality game. It doesn’t really track with ordinary usage of the relevant terms. As per the argument just outlined, religious believers don’t think of their religious belief as ‘virtual’ or their practice as a ‘game’. And there seem to me to be decent reasons to reject the notion that goal-seeking and competitiveness are necessary properties of games — some of the goals that we pursue competitively (say knowledge or truth) might be objectively valuable — and that the reality we experience is virtual simply because it relies on internally-generated constructs — if for no other reason than accepting this leads to the absurdity that Harari seems to want to lead us to: that everything is virtual.

My preferred understanding of the concept ‘virtual reality game’, essentially collapses both ‘game’ and ‘virtual’ into the same thing. Following the work of the philosopher Bernard Suits, I would define a game as the ‘voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’. (Suits actually has a longer definition that I discuss here) In other words, it involves picking arbitrary or value neutral goals and imposing a set of constraints on the pursuit of those goals that are not required or dictated by reality (the ‘rules’). Thus the world constructed by the game is ‘virtual’ in nature. It floats free from objectively valuable ends and layers additional rules on top of those provided by objective reality. An example would be 100m freestyle swimming. There, the arbitrary goal is traversing 100m in water in the fastest time. The constraints are that you must do this using a particular stroke, wearing a particular costume, and without the aid of propellant technologies (such as flippers or underwater motors). These rules effectively construct a ‘virtual world’ within the swimming pool.

Admittedly this is still a pretty broad definition. If you are really cynical and nihilistic then it could well turn out that everything is a game. But if you retain any objectivist bent — i.e. still maintain that there is a reality beyond your head and that there are objective values — then it does narrow the concept of the game quite a bit. This is useful for the debate about the postwork future. As I see it, the future in which we all play virtual reality games would involve playing games in the Suitsian sense. The critical question then is whether if we know that we are playing Suitsian games, are we still living lives of meaning and value?

Although he doesn’t use any of this conceptual apparatus, Harari does offer an argument that answers that question in the affirmative. This is his narrower argument. The argument still follows the logic of the argument I laid out in the previous section (i.e. premises (1) - (3) are still the relevant ones), but uses a narrower understanding of what a virtual reality game is to motivate its central claims. Once again, Harari uses a case study to support his point: the Balinese Cockfight. The example comes from the work of Clifford Geertz:

Balinese Cockfight: “In his groundbreaking essay, Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight (1973), the anthropologist Clifford Geertz describes how on the island of Bali, people spent much time and money betting on cockfights. The betting and fights involved elaborate rituals, and the outcomes had a substantial impact on the social, economic and political standing of both players and spectators. The cockfights were so important to the Balinese that when the Indonesian government declared the practice illegal, people ignored the law and risked arrest and hefty fines.” (Harari 2017).

The cockfight is clearly a game (a cruel and inhumane one, to be sure) and presumably is understood as such by the Balinese people (it’s unlike religious practice and belief in this sense). Furthermore, it is just one example of a far more general phenomenon. Soccer, American football, tennis, rugby, and golf are all games from which many people derive great meaning and value. Indeed, they become so important to people that the games — artificial and virtual though they may be — become a new and important part of people’s lives. When this happens the distinction between what was once virtual and what is real starts to breakdown:

For the Balinese, cockfights were “deep play” - a made up game that is invested with so much meaning that it becomes reality. 
(Harari 2017)

There is certainly something to this. For many people, games (that are clearly understood to be games) are central to their existence. They live for their sports and hobbies and leisure pursuits. They talk about them constantly with their peers. They dedicate themselves to understanding the intricacies of these games. Playing and conversing about them are their major social activities. It is how they achieve a sense of community and belonging, perhaps even a degree of social status. Does this, then, provide a proof of principle for the future? If we can find so much meaning and value in these forms of ‘deep play’, can we expect to find much meaning and value in a future of virtual reality games?

Perhaps. I definitely think that focusing on these examples of deep play is more persuasive than trying to argue that pretty much everything we do is a virtual reality game. But I don’t know if these examples of deep play are going to be sufficient. I suspect that every historical instance of deep play takes place in a world in which the games in question are merely a part of life, not the totality of life. In other words, although people derive significant meaning and value from those games, the games are only part of what they do. They still have jobs and families and other projects that seem (to them) to have some connection to the objective world. What will happen when they shift from a world in which the games are merely part of life to a world in which games are the majority (perhaps even the totality) of life?

I think it is hard to say.

4. Conclusion
I have suggested that Harari presents two arguments for thinking that a future in which we play virtual reality games would provide us with great meaning and value. I have argued that his second argument is more persuasive than the first. To argue that pretty much everything we do is a virtual reality game does violence to the lived experiences of those who derive meaning and value from what we currently do. On the other hand, to argue that we currently derive great meaning and value from pursuits that are clearly game-like in nature, is undoubtedly correct. The problem is that, at the moment, these games make up part of our reality, not its totality.

In conclusion, let me highlight something that I think Harari’s article gets right and that is worthy of serious reflection. Harari’s article reveals how troubled the distinction between the ‘virtual reality’ and ‘real reality’ really is. Some things that seem real to us may, already, be largely virtual; and some things that are clearly virtual have the tendency to become so important to us that they might as well be real. Even my attempt to clarify the distinction by appealing to Suits’s definition of game doesn’t eliminate all the problems. Within a Suitsian game, there are definitely things that happen that are ‘real’. The emotional responses one has to the game are real; the skills and knowledge that one develops are real; the social interactions and friendships are real; the virtues one acquires are real; and so on.

When it comes to discussions about meaning and value in a world without work, we need to consider whether it is worth continuing with the virtual/real distinction, or whether an alternative conceptual vocabulary is needed.

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