Technology

Pokémon No

It’s time to ban Pokémon Go.

The ridiculously popular smartphone app is taking off across America. With already more users than the boinking-made-easy app Tinder, Pokémon Go has gone “viral,” in the non-STD kind of way.

The app, which is an off-shoot of the Nintendo franchise that pits cute creatures against each other in non-lethal bloodsport, turns smartphone-owners into real-life hunters. The mechanics are clever: The game buzzes your phone when a Pokémon is near, and imputes a graphic of the beast on the environment using the phone’s camera. The goal is to catch the bugger by swiping your finger across the screen. Collect enough of these colorful monsters and you become king of the nerds, or something.

The game’s seamless blend of technological fantasy and reality is wickedly simple—and extremely addicting. Pokémon Go is so simple that it’s beginning to infiltrate all manner of public places. Players complain the game is making them late for work. Thugs are robbing unwitting competitors glued to their screen. American soldiers arecatching them all” on the frontline. The Holocaust Museum had to chastise attendees for playing the game in a place of mourning. Ditto for Arlington National Cemetery.

At a local coffee shop, I recently had to experience the maddening frustration of two patrons taking forever to order because they had to catch a “Bulbasaur.” After unsuccessfully snagging the thing, they finally got on with their order, aloof to what happened. They were oblivious of the fact they held everyone up to play a video game. In public. As fully-grown adults.

Can you say, “pika pika, screw you”?

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Predicting the (Virtual) Future

Writing at his Forbes blog Modeled Behavior, Adam Ozimek offers a few speculative thoughts on what the year 2045 might look like.  While his piece is brief and interesting throughout, and should therefore be read in full, his prediction concerning virtual reality caught my attention.

My second prediction is we will spend a disturbing (to us) amount of time in virtual reality. Right now humans spend a tremendous amount of time staring at screens that basically amount to a moving flat picture. Perhaps eventually brains will adapt and learn to not trust virtual reality, but the early reports are suggesting the coming VR is very good at tricking us into feeling strong emotional and even physical responses. What will happen to the demand for the virtual world when it goes from flat moving pictures to immersive experiences capable of inducing emotional responses that closely mimic real life? I believe it will explode, for good and for bad. Importantly, our sphere of empathy will expand as we have the opportunity to “walk in other people’s shoes” in a very realistic way.

This is dead-on in my view.  The answer to his question “what will happen to demand?” is that it will explode, of course. We can probably shave fifteen years off the predictive timeframe as well and find virtual reality use to be not only common in wealthier nations but quite consuming as well, especially among the younger demographics.

Widespread use of virtual reality matters…a lot…and for a variety of reasons.   The most important is that, a lot of sticky and tough questions notwithstanding, certain VR experiences could amount to a referendum on actual reality.  About a year ago, on this blog, I made the case that even early versions of VR technology were likely to meet the minimum hurdles to become just that.  Effectively, they’d be real-life incarnations of low-level experience machines, famed philosopher Robert Nozick’s term for his made-up contraptions that can trick you into believing you are actually experiencing any thing you can imagine happening in reality, all while your physical body floats, lifeless, in the machine.  His point was that most people would not choose to live in the machine the rest of their lives, but rather, people value something beyond just felt experiences alone; most people aren’t hedonists.  Here’s the gist of why VR might actually qualify as an experience machine sometime soon:

More interesting for the philosophical ramifications of early VR however, is that it does not have to match Nozick’s experience inventory to claim the title of “an” experience machine. Once the realism requirement is met in a single experience, any experience, then we have a limited version of the full-blown thing.

Unraveling Nozick’s selection criterion revealed that those who choose not to plug into a prototype machine could be doing so for multiple reasons, which spoils the thought experiment. The flip side is that, by logical extension, those who do in fact choose to plug into a crude, work-in-progress machine have answered Nozick’s fundamental question. If your benchmark for plugging in is already met with the options of experiences A, B, and C, then the additional options of experiences D or E won’t cause you to change your mind. This simple point allows for virtual reality to provide hard data on the thought experiment in the (very?) near future. If there is even one experience that today’s VR can clear the realism hurdle on, then I submit that we are already beyond the hypothetical.

As Adam correctly points out, virtual reality will deliver both benefits and costs to humankind.  Since his only example (increasing empathy) lands on the benefit side of the equation, allow me to offer an opposing one to balance the scales:  Widespread use of certain VR experiences in 2045 will represent hard evidence that, contra Nozick, many people are merely closet hedonists, and the fundamental value of acting in reality will be, directionally, devalued and marginalized relative to today.

Of course, this prediction doesn’t merely balance the scales, it sends one end crashing down under tremendous weight.  Any benefits introduced by VR in the “real” world will implicitly be marginalized as well since they occur in actual reality.  If, on average, members of global society determine reality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, whether they realize they are saying so or not, then those benefits are undermined to some extent.

In the end, the thorny philosophical issues that VR raises require more investigation, and soon, in my opinion.  In the meantime, if we are slouching towards hidden referendums on reality, then that should be discussed in detail as well.  And if others aren’t quite as concerned about the consequences, then shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

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D.C. cyclists are the worst

The 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta has got me thinking a lot about our society’s interconnectedness. There is a great scene in Jerome K. Jerome’s comedy tale Three Men in a Boat where the weary boating men come across the riverbank where King John, surrounded by indignant bishops and barons, was forced to grant Englishmen their God-given liberties. That one moment can be traced to today, and all the arguments we Americans have over keeping our country intact.

Here in Washington D.C., the ancient lineage upon which our country was founded is practically forgotten. The typical American no longer sees himself as a part of unfolding history. Instead, thanks to liberalism, he is a hyper-autonomous individual who works for himself and no one else.

This point is best illustrated by a recent article in Washington City Paper. The topic is bicycling, a favorite activity among the yuppy, progressive D.C. denizens. With total obliviousness, author Will Sommer asks, “Riding a Bike on the Sidewalk Makes Sense. Why the Hate?” Sommer is dismayed at the anti-bicycle attitude so prevalent in the city. He’s also perturbed that a police officer once stopped him for the crime of riding his bike on a sidewalk. To him, non-cyclists don’t get it. Even though it’s illegal to bike down the sidewalk in some parts of the city, Sommer is undeterred. “I still bike on the sidewalk…because riding on the sidewalk has its place everywhere in the city,” he asserts.

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Pete Davis on the Soul of Facebook Venting

Over at the porch:

“Perhaps we see in those upsetting anecdotes a post-Protestant demon — social sin peeking out from behind the social order. Perhaps the tension that must be vented is our uncertainty in the presence of such sin: Am I going to be tricked by this evil or am I going to be aware enough to see it at work? Am I going to become part of it or am I going to reject it? Am I on its side of the great divide or am I on the side of the redeemed?

Facebook venting resolves this uncertainty. By pasting a link to a news story and properly identifying the social evil at work – “This is racism!” “This is bigotry!” “This is evil!” – you stand at the digital altar and testify to your awareness of social sin. By ranting against the news story, you validate that you have rejected this sin, broadcasting that you belong among the redeemed. When you click submit, your uncertainty about your moral goodness is temporarily washed away: you can proceed with confidence that you are one of the elect. …

Of course, the reality is that we cannot be deeply involved in addressing every social ill that bothers us and we are still going to be tempted to rant on Facebook when we see upsetting news. For such moments, here’s an idea for an alternative form of Facebook venting: the next time we want to release the tension from an upsetting news story, we should (1) take time to find and research a person or organization actively working to heal the underlying social ill about which we are upset, (2) donate $5-10 to them and then (3) post about their work and our donation to them.”

The only attacks worth listening to are the ones nobody hears

Last night I was checking out a #gamergate meetup where Milo Yiannopoulos and Christina Hoff Sommers were appearing at, taking place at a bar called Local 16. I walk up the stairs and see the crowd, and suddenly memories of Magic: the Gathering tournaments come rushing back to me. I leave early, only to find out that at 12:15 people are evacuated for a “fire drill” which turns out to be a bomb threat. The threat was made by a throwaway Twitter account and not by phone call.

A lot of people implicated Arthur Chu, who was making cryptic tweets beforehand:

He also sent a weird email to Local 16, trying to shame them for hosting what he calls “a right wing hate group.”

These are definitely the kinds of bizarre communications you’d expect from an ideological fanatic, but overheated rhetoric claiming that Arthur Chu made the bomb threat is ridiculous and everyone should know better. Almost as ridiculous is claiming that anyone would give their ideological opposition the much-coveted victim card to wear as a badge of martyrdom.

Someone who hates #gamergate making this bomb threat doesn’t make sense. Without specific knowledge, we can only deal with general knowledge of who has what kinds of incentives. I can see two possibilities. It was either a third-party prankster trying to stir up drama or a pro-gamergate figure trying to get a slice of his the victim pie for his comrades.

In either case, there is going to be a rude awakening. It’s going to be interesting to observe the complete asymmetry in mainstream coverage of this bomb threat. Even the least credible threats to anti-gamergate personalities get massive mainstream coverage. That just isn’t going to happen this time or any time that the ideologically misaligned are on the receiving end of such things. Bias isn’t always a conscious thing. It’s often expressed by what the editorial board isn’t thinking about. No amount of social media flailing is going to change that.

While everyone else on social media seem to take the most unfounded threats with the grace of a diving soccer player, what’s actually interesting are the quiet attacks. The website that I edit for, TechRaptor, has been DDoS’d four times. Nobody announced it. The only reason I know this is because the owner of the site told me privately. The perpetrators didn’t announce their evil intentions on social media. We also gets threats in the comments which are quickly and quietly removed. TechRaptor doesn’t malinger about it. That’s what it looks like when angry fanatics are genuinely trying to silence you. It looks like nothing.

Put down your phone and stop and smell the flowers

How I admire Andy Crouch. The Christian author recently took a vacation from the hardest thing to escape: the digital realm. For two months, he eschewed the screens that keep us permanently attached to the internet. He didn’t succumb to the fear of “missing out.” Rather, he was able to live more fully in the moment, enjoy himself, and focus on much-neglected hobbies. He even experienced a real rarity in the hyper-connected world: “just quiet and an absence of hurry to get to the next thing.”

I thought about Crouch’s sojourn away from modernity while paying visit to D.C.’s annual blooming of the cherry blossoms. Situated around the Tidal Basin, the springtime event is a tradition that goes back over a century when Tokyo Mayor Yukio Ozaki gifted our country with prunus serrulata (Japanese cherry) trees to signify improving relations between the U.S. and Japan. Clearly, Franklin Roosevelt didn’t get the memo when he interned nearly 100,000 Japanese citizens and non-citizens following the Pearl Harbor attacks. But that’s neither here nor there.

Visiting the cherry blossoms trees is a pleasant experience if you can ignore one thing: rude, absentminded crowds. I can’t stand them. Running around without regard for rules, or basic decency, the typical tourist to the National Mall is the embodiment of modern America. Crude, self-centered, and wholly unconcerned with the well-being of everyone around them – this is the American ethos. Some call it a “me me me” pathology. I call it mass consumerism and individualism run amok.

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