Living Appropriately: Musings From a History Teacher in Colombia

So last spring I began to hear more and more about a book called Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. A couple friends in particular had told me that if you’re a fan of 80’s pop culture and video games (ummm…check), it was a definite must-read. Once I got around to picking it up in April I read it within a week or so and I gotta say that it was everything it was cracked up to be, i.e., a non-stop nostalgic trip about virtually everything under the 80’s sun: Star Wars, Space Invaders, Family Ties, John Hughes movies, Dungeons & Dragons, sci-fi references galore (notably Snow Crash, Neuromancer, and Dune), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Back to the Future (turns out the author actually drives a DeLorean in real life), the Rubik’s Cube, GhostbustersThe Dark Crystal, Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes,” Blade Runner (definitely my favorite sci-fi movie ever), G.I. Joe, Thundarr the BarbarianI think you get the idea.

How the author manages to cram all of these references into one book is because the plot runs as follows: set about 30 years in a future dystopian America well past its vital prime, the narrator is like most people in that he spends virtually all of his free time connected to the “OASIS,” or a massively multiplayer virtual reality game that takes advantage of the hyper-advanced technology of the mid-21st century. The tech is so advanced that the simulation itself is virtually indistinguishable from waking reality, and many people predictably become completely addicted to it. You can see how they might become addicted if you imagine the game essentially as living in our own solar system, only you can–and go with me here, really try hard to imagine this, because it’s coming sooner than you think (more about that later)–equip heavy armor, jet packs, and Vorpal swords; buy your own Millenium Falcon-style spaceship and cruise around from planet to planet at your whim; have your own house to return to and as many perfect-looking, pre-fabricated, Sim City-esque friends as you want…and the craziest part is that you have to envision your brain literally being unable to distinguish this simulation from your own waking life! Not only is the tech impossibly advanced 30 years down the road, but people also don’t just sit in front of a computer and keyboard to play this game; rather, they actually don a headset and a full bodysuit with haptic sensors giving your entire nervous system instantaneous, hyper-realistic feedback. Now you can perhaps just begin to see how advanced and completely revolutionary this sort of immersive experience would be. It’s pretty trippy to ponder–it’s like crossing The Matrix with all the electronic entertainment you’ve ever watched in your lifetime.

Anyway, the story begins as the founder of the company that created the OASIS dies and has decided to leave 100% of his net worth–hundreds of billions of dollars–to whomever can find the Easter egg he has hidden behind a series of three gates inside the simulation. The hunt for the egg turns into a game that leads all the would-be discoverers down a maze of clues involving all of his favorite 80’s obsessions, including Nintendo and Super Mario Brothers:

 

A couple of my favorite things

A couple of my favorite things

 

So yeah, I loved it. I have always had a huge infatuation for all things 80’s–the music especially (I’m listening to Tears for Fears, Howard Jones, and the Thompson Twins at the moment while writing this), but all the rest just about as much. Reading this brought to mind a number of things that I hadn’t thought of for untold years, like going over to Lonnie Whelan’s house when I was about eight years old. We grew up near the end of a dead-end dirt road in the country, and Lonnie’s house was about a quarter mile and a couple bends down the road. Whenever I went to stay over at Lonnie’s, we spent the night doing three things and three things only: playing Monopoly for hours on end; throwing the Nerf football outside at night while blasting Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, winging it back and forth up over the single lamppost that lit up the night about 20 feet in the air, with thousands of bugs constantly buzzing around it; and playing copious amounts of Atari 2600. I’m sure it was mostly because we never had an Atari and only had four channels of TV at our house, but whenever I went over to a friend’s house in those days who had an Atari, I geeked out over it so much that I couldn’t ever get enough…I always wanted to play until the parents made us go to bed. And at Lonnie’s house in particular, I recall a couple times where I was able to sneak back out to the living room and play some Missile Command type game–I don’t remember what it was called but it was even more simplistic and monotonous than Missile Command, just firing a single laser down from a ship to the ground over and over again–until about 3am. I told you I couldn’t get enough.

Another thing this book got me reminiscing about was the Rubik’s Cube. In Christmas of 1982 or ’83 my dad and grandpa gave me a Rubik’s Cube, and the three of us spent the next few days reading through a guidebook, figuring out how to solve it from the top down. By the end of our school break I was–and I say this with all due humility, but simply just telling it like it was–shredding the cube. For a 2nd grader anyway, I got pretty good at solving it quickly. It has kind of become part of our family lore; my grandpa loves to tell the story to this day. I remember sitting in front of a clock and timing myself but don’t remember how long it took, perhaps around a minute I would guess. I also recall watching the TV show That’s Incredible! and watching three different guys solve it simultaneously in a contest–I think it took them around 15 seconds back then, although the current world record is down to somewhere around five seconds–and being completely mesmerized. Those dorky dudes, for the entire year of 1983 anyway, were my heroes.

My old friend

My old friend, revisited

I have to mention one last thing that this book made me think of: playing Dungeons & Dragons. I’m talking about the original pen-and-paper version here, where one of your friends would play the role of Dungeon Master, design a slew of dungeons on graph paper in pencil, and then try his best to scare the crap out of you and your adventuring buddies (in a dark bedroom, typically) as he has to verbally describe to you the dungeon he has designed: the corridors you are walking down, the rooms and caverns you are entering, and what the monsters you encounter look like. There was something classic, and dare I say, even artful about it; this was not merely mashing buttons for hours on end as with today’s video games. There was a lot of genuine creativity and storytelling that went into being a good Dungeon Master.

So reading Ready Player One also led me to recall all the time that I spent at my friend Adam DuPuy’s house from about 4th through 6th grade. Along with his brother Aaron, we played tons of nerf hoop over there, quite a bit of Crossbows and Catapults, and this was also the only place I experienced the original, authentic Dungeons & Dragons in all its nerdiest glory. Aaron was a few years older than us–he was around 14 and we were about 10–and he would lead us through the intricate dungeons he made with as much in his suspense in his voice as he could muster. I can still hear his voice in my head saying something almost exactly like “…and as you walk down this long, dark corridor, you encounter…a giant spider. You can either a) attack him with your composite bow +3, b) attack him with your short sword +1 vs. arachnids, c) turn around and run, or d) stand still against the wall and hope it doesn’t see you. Then you would roll from an assortment of 10-, 12-, and 20-sided dice to determine your fate.

I mean…all I have to say is that for me personally, as far as childhood memories are concerned, it really doesn’t get much better than that. Great times.

 

An original D&D-style maze: huge dorks need only apply.

An original D&D-style maze: serious dorks need only apply.

 

In any case, here is the most interesting takeaway about this book and the entire concept of virtual reality: it’s about to happen. Not yet on the same level as depicted in this novel of course, but a company called Oculus has recently perfected a VR headset to the point where there is no noticeable lag. In other words, it can effectively hack your brain well enough that it has trouble discerning the simulation from reality. This is the “next big thing” on the tech horizon; they will be sold on the mass retail market in the near future (unfortunately, Oculus was just purchased by Facebook a few months ago. Oh, I haven’t mentioned my feelings about Facebook before? Yeah, I don’t much care for it).  Here is a recent cover story from Wired about the Oculus Rift headset: 

The Inside Story of Oculus Rift and How Virtual Reality Became Reality | WIRED.

All of which begs the question: how should we feel about this? Excited? For many, absolutely. Indifferent? Probably some. A bit apprehensive regarding our collective ability to properly use this technology as a society? My sense is that probably not nearly enough people feel this way.

I say this as someone fully capable of abusing technology myself. After I finished RP1 last spring, I (probably inevitably) got the hankering to fire up Diablo III again, which had been my guilty pleasure over the past few years but hadn’t played for quite a while, and ended up playing it more than I would care to admit over the following month or two. It’s a traditional dungeon-crawling hack-and-slash video game where you kill monsters over and over (and over!) again, always in search of better and more powerful magical items than the ones you have equipped. Most fully mature human beings would consider it to be a spectacular waste of time and symptomatic of the vapid cesspool of nihilism that often passes for modern “culture.” And this it most assuredly is. It is also, however, a ton of fun and highly addicting if you’re in the proper frame of mind for it.

All of this is, I think, worthy of contemplation.

In the widest possible sense, I think we are all in need of some serious reflection regarding what Heidegger called “the question concerning technology.” Martin Heidegger passed away in 1976 and was arguably the most profound Western philosophical mind of the 20th century (if it wasn’t him, it was almost surely Wittgenstein). He wrote: “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it.” As our identities become increasingly entwined with technology in the 21st century, I think it’s important for us to strip away the unessential and keep a clear mind as to what is important in our lives and what, at the end of the day, is trivial. I think we also need to ask a question that the ancients often asked but we seldom do today: what is the right way to live? This question implies making a value judgment that many of us today are uncomfortable making, but sooner or later we will need to confront these issues, lest we all end up living in a simulated reality that would have Descartes gaping down on all of us in horror at our “brains in a vat.”

Descartes and The Matrix, inter alia

Descartes and The Matrix, inter alia

For me personally, I have started to sense over the past year or so that I have reached my peak point of saturation with technology. I can feel myself starting to want to disentangle from it as much as possible in order to lead a simpler life; one less mentally cluttered, frenzied and hectic; one with more of a semblance of dignity. Of course I am writing this blog entry on my laptop now, and the irony of what I just wrote is not lost on me. As Heidegger said, we are trapped inside this amber of technology whether we affirm or deny it.

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger

But the thing that I really can’t stand is when technology causes us to lose our social grace, and when it acts as a socially disconnecting force, even though we often think of it as a unifying one. The classic example is one that we all encounter most every day: a large group of people together in some type of setting, and all of them are looking down and fidgeting with their cell phones. In Taiwan there is actually a slang term for these types of people: dī tóu zú (低头族) or “low-headers.” Of course there are times when we all really do “need” to check our phones for something or other, but as a general rule of thumb I would advise when in doubt, maybe put down the phone, raise your head and take a look around you.

In social situations like this I always find it interesting to imagine what the ancients would have thought of the way we act. The ancient Greeks, for example, who many would claim lived with the most vitality, with the most passionate intensity of any group of people in recorded history: what would they have thought of us and our finicky cell phone habits? I would submit to you that they would have thought us a laughingstock, as a mockery of full-fledged humanity. Nobody can know for sure, of course, but my intuition is virtually certain they would have felt this way.

So the next time you see a big techie mega-announcement from the likes of Apple, or Alibaba, or whomever, take a step back and try to keep it all in perspective. Because it’s easy to lose it these days.

For a completely fresh and healthy perspective–and I say “healthy” only because it’s good to think against the grain from time to time–I will end with the following quote from Max Weber, the great German sociologist who did much of his work around the turn of the 20th century, when many major technological innovations, as well as the epoch-changing Great War, were looming just over the horizon:

“No one knows who will live in this cage of the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural development, it might well truly be said: ‘Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved’.”

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

 

Max Weber

Max Weber

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Andrew Leniton