I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.
As I slowly lowered the goggles over my eyes my formerly drab surroundings were suddenly transfigured, exploding into a swirl of cartoonish low-fi technicolors. I stumbled forward towards the door in front of me. Its surreal coloring giving me pause, I reached for the handle and felt my fingers grip the cold metal door knob. As I twist and open it I heard the shrill yet masculine voice of Melissa Mccarthy, that gelatinous saint of America’s Progressive Faith and chief representative of contemporary Warpig feminism, shatter what had been up until that moment a relatively pleasant, if strange, experience.
“Something, Something, Something, Ghostbusters, Something, Mission, Something, Something” the voice screeched as I opened the door into the first room. My stomach curled into a knot as the obese harpy’s voice sliced through me and I knew then, at that moment, that I had made a terrible mistake.
I walked into what appeared to be a long hallway, my “proton gun” shimmering in front of me as I gripped it nervously. I walked forward towards the old-timey New York style elevator at the end. As I enter and the gate shuts in front of me, a smiling green blob enters my vision. It is “Slimer,” the green ghost made famous in the iconic Ghostbusters film franchise. As he glides down the hall towards me I feel a draft of wind begin to blow into my face, for some reason the “proton gun” i’ve been given refuses to fire, and as Slimer’s spectre accelerates and “passes” through me I feel the disgusting sensation of moisture all over my face and hands as I get “slimed.”
The next 11 minutes of my life continue in a similar fashion as I walk into technicolor rooms full of digital ghosts which I zap with my phantasmic “proton gun,” walk out onto the creaky scaffolding of a NYC skyscraper which literally sways ominously beneath me while actual wind blows through my hair, and finally face down the Stay Puft Marshmallow man in single combat. When I finally exit, unstrap the pack weighing on my shoulders and take off my Virtual Reality headset I find myself back where I had begun 12 minutes before, inside the entryway of The Void Toronto.
The Void — based in, of all places, Utah — is a production company dedicated to producing what they describe as a “Hyper Reality” experience that goes beyond the limits of current pedestrian VR technology. Pedestrian technology which, while quite immersive in and of itself, suffers from the obvious limitations of only appealing to a single sense organ and also being limited by the space of the (usually 6x6 rooms) in which it is typically played. The void is designed to correct these shortcomings by building physical environments which correspond exactly with the game (or experience) in question. Thus instead of interacting via handheld controllers with the virtual world before you, as is currently the standard with regular VR, and being confined within a small physical space. Many objects within your vision exist in both the virtual and physical worlds simultaneously and can be interacted with as such. Patching the last remaining sensory holes in the VR experience. The ambition of the void is to eventually create an experience in which every human sense can take part. To create a literal “experience machine,” that can seamlessly blur the line between fantasy and reality until they are essentially indistinguishable.
The Experience Machine
In 1974 the Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick famously made the claim that, given a choice between a simulated reality of limitless pleasure and stimulation or an authentic, if pedestrian existence, rational beings would (or rather should) almost always choose the latter. In 1974 such a machine remained safely in the realm of speculative science fiction, “The Experience Machine” was a thought experiment based on a wild premise: that a machine could one day be built which could create such novel and satisfying experiences (living the life of a mythical hero, a globe trotting lothario, a captain of a spaceship, etc.) for its subjects that they could be tempted to potentially abandon reality altogether in favor of a totally simulated life on an ethereal plane of cybernetic pleasures.
Nozick’s primary conceit, which he believed refuted the outlook of the Benthamite Utilitarian Hedonism, was that, ultimately, human beings would naturally prioritize other goods over the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake. And that reality, at the end of the day, is more appealing than illusion, however seductive it may appear.
The primary problem with Nozick’s thesis, of course, was that it was wrong.
For, contra the abstract anthropological assertions of Libertarian and Liberal philosophers the world over, there is no universal human nature that can be looked to as a central reference point for what human behavior can or should be in any particular situation. Rather human beings exist within symbolic orders of meaning and significance, that are shaped by language, ritual, and culture which vary widely and help frame the response of particular groups of human beings to particular stimuli.
Thus, while perhaps in a society comprised of virtuous Athenian hoplites or Mongol horsemen and governed by those particular symbolic orders, the answer given by most to the proposition of the Experience Machine would be a firm “no,” within the confines of modern neoliberal society the answer is, as we shall see, an unambiguous and uproarious “yes.”
With the triumph of Liberal Managerial society (at least within the Western World), essentially a fait accompli, the world (the “reality”) in which the very real individuals now making the choice between Nozick’s alternatives comes into stark focus. It is a reality of exhaustion and alienation. Of days spent in sterile offices where the same rote and meaningless tasks are accomplished every day in an endless cycle of boredom followed by a tedious commute back to an empty apartment where release is only found in takeout and Netflix. Or, if one is unlucky enough to not have attended the appropriate credentialing institution, of nights spent endlessly frying pre-cooked chicken patties and washing dishes, where the only release to be found is in the taste of tobacco and rush of nicotine during the 15 minute smoke breaks in which a thin glimmer of solidarity can sometimes be found between the wageslaves as they bond over the only thing they have in common: their loneliness and alienation.
Religious institutions, by and large, are abandoned, or, at best, now serve as therapeutic cults of health, prosperity and positive thinking. The family, though long lionized with lip service by an endless stream of political entrepreneurs American Statesman, has seen a well documented and similar decline. Outside of Upper Middle Class enclaves, where marriage and 1.5 children are merely viewed as a status signifier of having “made it,” the venerable institution has declined into de facto irrelevance, with divorce and single parenthood having become the rule and not the exception.
Thus with family, community and meaningful work in decline, the calculations being made by America’s class of liberated individuals has changed radically from what it may have been presumed to have been during Nozick’s time. A time that seems like it was a thousand centuries removed from our present situation, where we all stand at the edge of history, and collectively gaze over it into the digital void beyond.
The problem for those quixotic individuals who may choose to defend Nozick’s thesis is that we no longer have to theorize in the abstract about the how real people would respond to Nozick’s question, as they are already providing a massive amount of data in the affirmative. Video games have for years outperformed movie ticket sales and the gulf between the two has only grown in the former’s favor. The biggest opening weekend haul for any film ever was 2017’s “Fate of the Furious” which pulled in $541,937,239. In 2015 Bethesda Softworks shipped over 12 million units of its iconic, open world RPG Fallout 4 which represented a total of $750,000,000 dollars in sales on its first day.
While video games have for years represented an easy and cheap escape from boredom they also represent, especially with the rise of more complex game types like RPGs, much more than that. Games, unlike Movies, are able to provide, not only an enjoyable, if temporary, distraction from the soul crushing daily grind of the modern wage slave. But also, and more importantly they provide something which most of its players have a hard time finding anywhere else. Namely: purpose and a sense of accomplishment.
In 1844, in describing the conditions faced by workers in the new environs of industrial society, Marx famously observed (not incorrectly) the following concerning what he, famously, referred to as “The Alienation of Labor:”
If this general alienation of the worker from his labor, as traditional craftsmanship declined and was replaced by rote, tedious factory work, was true during the industrial era, how much more must it be true of our Post-Industrial one? In spite of being engaged in repetitive, craftless physical labor the industrial workers of the 19th and 20th centuries could at least see the end result of their labor: in the form of an automobile, a refrigerator or a piece of steel. The so-called white collar “knowledge workers” and/or “service workers” have no such luxury. For the majority everyday is, if not a fresh hell, at least a fresh purgatory. David Foster Wallace in his last, unfinished novel about life working at a regional IRS office The Pale King described this purgatory with an uncomfortable precision:
I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.
But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.
Wallace’s insight from 2008 is an echo of Albert Camus’s own, from half a century earlier, which he lucidly stated in his brilliant and brief essay Helen’s Exile:
Our Europe, on the other hand, off in the pursuit of totality, is the child of disproportion. She negates beauty, as she negates whatever she does not glorify. And, through all her diverse ways, she glorifies but one thing, which is the future rule of reason…We turn our backs on nature; we are ashamed of beauty. Our wretched tragedies have a smell of the office clinging to them, and the blood that trickles from them is the color of printer’s ink.
The absurd situation described in prose by both Wallace and Camus is a brutal reality for the atomized everymen who comprise the bulk of the working populations of Western Society. Who shuffle off everyday from their concrete and steel hives to cubicles and cash registers like so many anonymous insects, ever busy in their journeys to nowhere. Who awake, like Gregor Samsa, from anxious dreams to discover that they “have been changed into a monstrous bug.” Into a Bugman.
They are the Underground men of the 21st century, who are unable to “become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man” eking out their days in the corner. They are a hundred million latter day Prufrocks, measuring out their days with coffee spoons. They are men whose great war is a spiritual one.
Contra so much of the supposed wisdom spouted by our professional moralists of all political flavors (or rather, all political flavors of Liberalism), who constantly bemoan the incredible amount of time spent by Post-Boomer generations on video games and other distractions, the problem is not to be found in a lack of moral fiber among the younger generations, per se. For while lack of moral fiber and virtue is certainly a problem it is not, ultimately, the problem.
The problem isn’t that these gamers are making an irrational choice by choosing to spend, quite literally, many millions of collective hours enraptured in artificial and illusory activities instead of engaging in the “real world.” Such kinds of superficial assertions merely end up begging the question i.e. they assume the intrinsic superiority of the very value which has now been called into question. The problem isn’t that gamers believe the digital worlds of their video games appear to be better than the “real world,” rather the problem (which represents, perhaps the one true crisis of our age) is that, for many of them, these digital worlds, objectively, are better.
One of the more interesting aspects of modern role playing games, such as the aforementioned Bethesda titles like Fallout 4 (as well as many other game genres), is the focus on “skill building” and level progression. As players progress through quest lines and accomplish tasks they gain “experience points” which add up and allow the player to “level up” which in turn grants them access to new skills, items and rewards.
This process of “leveling up” can become remarkably addicting for many, as it stimulates an experience of real accomplishment and personal progress which has become, de facto, inaccessible for so many of the Wageslaves who are stuck in unchanging and tedious dead end jobs. For them, life doesn’t proceed in a linear direction of personal growth and progress but rather one of the stasis and tedium that Mencken spoke of when he observed that: “The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking in sense.”
Just as the plains indians once butchered the Bison, making sure to use every part of their prey, down to the very marrow of the bones so too do our own modern tribes of technological savages make use of their own digital quarry. Patiently sifting through the, sometimes quite detailed and intricate, game narratives and storylines in search of some kind of structure, however flimsy or cheap, around which to construct a kind of personal narrative of their own. A metaphysical shelter from the End of History’s great spiritual dust bowl, which turned what had once been soil into a great American Sahara of the soul.
A spiritual desert society that, as Dugin described it from his perch outside the West, is without a spiritual soil in which to grow any sort of meaningful culture, thus the culture of America and much of the West now grows: “without roots — without space in the middle of a fully artificial landscape under an electric sky.”
Ultimately though it was probably David Bentley Hart who best articulated the predicament of man in the modern West:
Modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.
Hence, in conclusion, we can ask, is really such a surprise that, confronted by this spiritual desert society, modern men and women have turned away from traditional modes of life? Traditional Modes of life which, if they haven’t already been utterly demolished by modernity, now usually exist solely as roadside curiosities, like amish pie stands. Or as the possession of certain sects of Upper Middle Class Bohemian Bourgeois who may seek to “rebrand” their own lifestyles with organic produce, rustic, artisanal furniture, or the occasional High Anglican Liturgy.
Can we really blame the majority of citizens for simply tuning out under such conditions? For attempting to seek solace and comfort in something, in anything,that can distract them from their daily drudgery and alienation. All of us, ultimately, insofar as we are members of this society are all in the process of seeking our own “exit,” regardless of whether or not we are able to articulate it as such.
Once seen from the proper perspective it becomes increasingly obvious that so many of the commonly known social pathologies of our age — drugs, obesity, violence, promiscuity, social alienation and yes, gaming — are in many ways, merely manifestations of the spiritual squalor caused by the social and economic conditions created by a Liberal Managerial society. The poison harvest of human beings being forced to live in conditions not appropriate to their social, physical and spiritual well-being.
Thus, it is no real surprise or scandal that billions upon billions of dollars are spent and millions upon millions of hours are played, all in an attempt to escape the tedium and emptiness of their modern lives, if only for a few hours at a time. All things considered, for many, it may appear to be the right choice after all.
Another remarkable facet of the rise of video games to such a place of prominence, within the span of a mere quarter century or so is the fact that they remain an experience which is actually quite limited i.e. they are primarily played on television or computer screens and with the use of keyboards or controllers. While they may be compelling for many players, as is evidenced by the immense amount of time and money they invest into them every year, and while some aspects of gameplay may create satisfying dopamine hits (“leveling up” etc.) at the end of the day it is very much an experience which is easily distinguishable from “real life.”
Just within the past half year, however, this traditional calculus has begun to change dramatically with the introduction of the “Science Fictiony” technology of Virtual Reality. Long imagined by Science Fiction writers and dreamt of by tech geeks for decades, VR has finally arrived in a meaningful and very real way with, not only fully functional software and hardware, but also the beginnings of a full-fledged commercial industry. Beginning in the Spring of 2017 Virtual Reality Arcades have begun sprouting up all across North America, taking advantage of the present high price points of the systems which discourage most private gamers from owning their own.
The first generation of Software has been a combination of both relatively simple games like Elven Assassin and Batman as well as VR “experiences” like The Blue, in which “The Player” simply observes the impressively vivid ocean Floor in which they have been placed. Though obviously still quite primitive (being the very first generation of games released for the platform), the experience still represents a serious departure from that of traditional gaming systems. As it still manages to sometimes feel uncannily real, despite only relying on two senses (sight and sound) and being limited to approximately a 6x6 movement area.
The real story of VR however, at present, is the incredible and terrifying potential it has to not merely reshape entertainment, but potentially the entire human experience itself. In potentially unexpected ways which many may prefer not to contemplate.
This potential goes far beyond the obvious implications, like the potential ability for companies to train employees and hold transatlantic meetings in a virtual space or for schools to use VR as a learning tool for students, etc. Such developments would not really be a profound improvement over presently existing computing and telecommunications technologies, and would merely represent an improvement of degree and not of kind.
The actual true paradigm shift for VR tech will be, not simply its ability to project fantasies out into the ether, but to project and integrate them with the very fabric of reality itself. Or as Werner Herzog put it when asked about his experiences with VR for his documentary films:
I am convinced that this is not going to be an extension of cinema or 3-D cinema or video games. It is something new, different, and not experienced yet… It’s a form of space that we haven’t experienced yet. It is a form of space that occurs in our nightmares.
Thus our story begins to end, like all true circles, back where it first began: an encounter with the “Hyperreal.”
While in many ways it is no more than a glorified, hyper-modern amusement park ride, the Hyperreal technology currently being tested at places like the Void is already poised to radically transform human life. It is pure technological potential, waiting for the right innovator to properly bring about its realization.
While it could serve as an answer to a myriad of potential questions, the one it is most likely to answer may be the existential one the last men of the West now find themselves in. How to live in a world which has become so alienating and unsatisfying that almost any escape or distraction, however base or depraved, seems preferable to the reality. The reality our last men are already, perhaps with the help of the Hyperreal, plotting their exit from.
Much has already been written about the thriving market for online pornography and the nascent one for realistic sex dolls. But the real opportunity for the vice entrepreneurs of the, very near, future will be the Hyperreal technology, already on display at places like The Void, which merges them. Providing the the user with both the physical sensations of the sex robot and the dynamic audio and visual experience of VR. Thus while, in reality, the user is actually just copulating with a lifeless piece of fleshy silicone molded into the shape of a woman, he will experience making love to a fully realized woman. A woman who can take on, thanks to VR, whatever characteristics the user could ever desire or imagine.
Potential applications for Hyperreal tech don’t stop merely at the erotic, of course. Theoretically, almost every facet of a person’s life could be modified and “enhanced” by it. The drab and spartan one bedroom apartments of the modern wageslave could be transformed instantly into a medieval castle, or the bridge of a starship or the set of their own sitcom where everyone knows their name. Into worlds full of compelling narratives and stimulating adventures. Worlds limited only by the user’s own imagination, however deviant or perverse it may ultimately be, and could be experienced again and again.
Slavoj Zizek, the famous Slovenian philosopher and noted cocaine enthusiast, when discussing the phenomenon of modern video games and virtual space observed the following:
This new form of subjectivity, it is something that is very interesting. It is an undead subjectivity. A subject which is open to the unending cycle of dying resurfacing so on and so on. Just think about cartoons, you remember tom and jerry and those. It’s the same magic universe. You remember like Tom or Jerry, cat mice gets run over by a truck, cut into pieces, no problem. In the next scene it’s again here, you can begin again and again. You know who was the author of this? Who articulated this fantasy. As far as I know It was Marquis De Sade. This is how victims like Juliette in his novels function. They are endlessly tortured in multiple ways but magically they survive their ordeal and in the next chapter return fresh and so on. So my point is that this also explains another aspect of video games, of our civilization. Which is and it’s a very important phenomenon…something which we call today “undeadness” you know all this phenomenon I call it “obscene immortality.” All these figures of persons whose tragedy isn’t that they die but that they cannot die, they always return.
Indeed, when looking for the spiritual or philosophical grandfathers of our potential hyperreal future one could do far worse than De Sade. A figure who has always fit awkwardly into histories of philosophy. Being neither truly Right or Left Wing Sade has always defied easy classification. Too obviously mad and depraved to be taught, yet far too lucid to be dismissed as a mere lunatic.
Beyond the pages of modern chick lit, where Sade’s unquenchable passion for torture, rape, murder and Universal annihilation has been commodified into a product diluted enough to titillate the nether regions of America’s legions of bored housewives and lonely career women, his thought has been mostly forgotten. With the notable exception of the 20th century Communist Peter Weiss’s brilliant play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, usually referred to simply as Marat/Sade.
The play (which is actually a play within a play) is set 16 years after the French Revolution during the reign of Napoleon in the asylum De Sade has once again been confined to. An asylum in which Sade has been allowed organized a play, using the inmates as actors (something he was actually allowed to do) dramatizing the assassination of the revolutionary icon Jean Paul Marat.
The play (a musical) is ultimately a confrontation between Sade’s aristocratic nihilism and Marat’s revolutionary zeal. Marat, like so many of our internet would-be revolutionaries, responded to the injustice and banality he saw in society (and by extension nature itself) by seeking to change it, by whatever means necessary and available, however violently:
“Against nature’s silence, I use action. In the vast indifference I invent a meaning. I don’t watch unmoved, I intervene. And I say that this, and this are wrong and I work to alter them and to improve them…The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair, to turn yourself inside out and see the whole world with fresh eyes.”
Sade’s own response to the silence of nature and eternal alienation from the society of men, on the other hand, is an inverse, though no less violent form of revolution:
Man has given a false importance to death. Any animal, man or plant that dies adds to Nature’s compost heap, becomes the manure without which nothing could grow, nothing could be created. Death is simply part of the process. Every death, even the cruelest death, drowns in the total indifference of Nature. Nature would watch unmoved if we destroyed the entire human race. I hate Nature! This passionless spectator, this unbreakable iceberg face that can bear everything. This goads us to greater and greater acts.
Sade’s revolution, like that of our Last Men, is an internal one. Instead of seeking to physically alter a world they find unsatisfactory and contemptible like Marat, he instead seeks solace in the contemplation of a new virtual frontier he finds in his own imagination. A frontier without gods or masters, whose only supervisor is the very changing impulses of an ever becoming and undirected Will-to-power:
When I lay in the Bastille, my ideas were already formed. In prison I created, in my mind monstrous representatives of a dying class. My imaginary giants committed descretions and tortures. I committed them myself. And like them allowed myself to be bound and beaten…And now Marat, now I see where your revolution is leading. To the withering of the individual man, to the death of choice, to uniformity. To deadly weakness in a state which has no contact with the individual but which is impregnable. And so I turn away. I am one of those who has to be defeated, but out of my defeat I want to seize everything I can get with my own strength. I step out of my place and I watch what happens without joining in, observing, noting down my observations. And all around me…stillness. And when I vanish, I want all trace of my existence to be wiped out
In contemplating the potential dangers to the “End of History” which he believed to be essentially irreversible, Francis Fukuyama identified the boredom and meaninglessness of modern life — which would be the inevitable result of the End of History’s universal victory — as a likely culprit if the crime of restarting history was ever committed. New revolutionaries would arise who, like Marat, would seek to change a world they found unacceptable with “axes and knives,” thus restarting the great historical cycle over again.
But perhaps in the final analysis this fear of Fukuyama’s, despite the discontent and tumult of our age, may prove unfounded. One of the primary conceits of Neoliberal technocracy has been that many of the inevitable social problems caused by the modern society they have created can merely be patched, “fixed” by a technological “hack.” Tedious work and social isolation can be made more bearable through the generous use of antidepressants and amphetamines, the synthetic calories of a delicious soylent beverage can substitute for natural foods that are too expensive and rare to be enjoyed by most, the biological clocks of career women can be made irrelevant by the perfection of the artificial womb, etc.
Thus, the technology of Hyperreal VR may one day be viewed, in retrospect, as Neoliberal society’s ultimate “hack.” The final piece of tech that finally silenced dissent, that would forever obscure the gaping spiritual hole that had been dug through our long centuries of “progress.” A “hack” that would forever silence the Marats of the world, who would put down their “axes and knives,” abandon their revolutionary mobs and instead follow Sade, alone, into their own virtual Chateaus. Who, after partaking in the final Neoliberal sacrament and drinking from the chalice of pure atomization, receive their gift of “obscene immortality” and become, in Sade’s words: “he who would submerge in the imagination…seeking a personal annihilation.”
Till human voices wake us, and we drown