The launch of Philip Rosedale's High Fidelity last week reminded me of a conversation I had with him last year, as I was preparing my Wired Magazine/Conde Nast story on VR and happiness. John Carmack told me, “If people are having a virtually happy life, they are having a happy life. Period.” Philip had a similar answer, but also threw me a Cartesian curveball I'm still thinking about.
"If someone spent most of their life in a VR rig and had pleasant experiences in it, would you say they lived a happy, meaningful life?" I asked him. "Do you think there's a meaningful difference between virtual experiences versus real, material ones?
"It's the right question," Philip answered. "My short answer is: NO. There is no difference between a life lived in virtual reality versus real reality. We already live in a virtual world -- it's called our brain. The difference between subjective experience and sensation that is already happening in your brain (caused by your past experiences) is certainly bigger than the difference is going to be between hanging out in the virtual Smithsonian Museum versus the real one. Living a happy meaningful life is a function of your internal state, not the nature or diversity of your sense inputs -- just ask a blind person!"
Emphasis mine, because it bears emphasizing, since Philip is basically arguing that our real lives might as well be an illusion created by Descartes' Evil Deceiver. I'm inclined to disagree, but that'd take a whole other post (or book) to discuss.
In any case, this isn't just a philosophical problem, because Philip is part of an industry currently investing billions on the premise that there really is no meaningful "VR versus RR" distinction. And in his particular case, he thinks virtual worlds like High Fidelity will eventually be more interesting than the one we were born into:
"I personally believe that the VR worlds that we can (and will) create in the near future will be a bigger and better place for us all, and likely represent the place where we will ultimately spend most of our time... Because of exponentially accelerating technology trends, the computers of the near future will be able to simulate the laws of physics in a way that will allow them to become a kind of 'inner space' that will be more interesting to us than the real world. For example, the laws of physics regarding information theory and computation tell us that a laptop-sized device could ultimately simulate a world as rich and complex as the entire surface of the our planet, including all of us!"
I put it to readers: Is that the kind of world you'd prefer live in, rather than the one we're currently confined to?
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