Almost Zuck: Newsletter #33
There's a cricket world cup underway. India is doing quite well, much better than I had expected. It's been many years since I played cricket but I used to be obsessed with the game. While cricket is usually considered to be a batsman's game, I preferred bowling to batting. I was a decent enough fast bowler, modeling my run up and action on the great West Indian pacer, Malcolm Marshall. Watching Marshall bowl and then copying him, I understood why the curved run-up was superior to the straight one for many purposes.
Sadly, I was nowhere near as good as Marshall. Fast, but not fast enough, bouncy but not bouncy enough. I retired a hated professor in a friendly match between students and faculty. That was the best ball I ever bowled. Back in the day when Indians didn't have much experience facing genuine pace, our batsmen would take half a step backward towards the stumps as they saw Marshall running towards them. I can only imagine the feeling in the pit of their stomachs. If only, I wondered, if only I could bowl like he did.
The modern world runs on speed. Everywhere we look, there's yet another stream of information vying for attention. From social media updates to email alerts, we are always responding to the world. Our brains love the rush, for the new information world is superficially like the primeval savannah with the lion hiding in the bushes. There are no digital lions yet; instead we are beset by alarms that beep "watch out." Our addiction to pornography - including ISIS beheadings - is the natural culmination of this development. A life lived in a state of frustrated arousal.
It's mostly frustrated arousal because the digital replicates some aspects of the savannah but not others. That violent first person shooter might make your heart rush, but your head isn't really about to be blown away is it? We had a phrase for this feeling in school and college: KLPD. I can't expand the acronym in a newsletter devoted to family values, so look it up!
You might object that the situation is temporary, that full blown virtual reality mediated by headsets such as the Oculus Rift will make the virtual tangible. I don't know when ubiquitous VR will surround us, but it's coming soon, along with seamless augmented reality. The time isn't far away when we will point at the moon and a hologram with a wikipedia article about the satellite will float six inches in front of our eyes. For all I know, eye-hand coordinated digital reality has already been implemented in google glass.
Imagine a VR system consisting of a headset and a spiderman like bodysuit with sensors all over its surface, along with a mouthguard like the ones that rugby and lacrosse players wear. Now imagine playing a virtual game of cricket in that suit. Except that you're inhabiting Sachin Tendulkars body and facing Wasim Akram at his best.
Akram was famous for his bouncers. When the ball hits your (virtual) helmet, the sensors convey the shock to your head through the bodysuit. Your mouthguard stimulates your salivary glands and your nostrils. The fear and the excitement is real. Half the crowd is roaring for your blood while the other half is cheering you on. Is this the real deal? If you spent a few days in the game, would the boundary start blurring?
Let's move on to an even more powerful system: a system that uses deep learning and TV footage of every one of Sachin's games to learn the great mans style. Imagine that the body suit transfers those patterns to you as you play, so that you're playing as if you were Sachin. You can't get enough of this VR. You spend a whole month embedded in the cave, sustaining yourself with drops of vitamin fortified juice piped in through the mouth guard. At the end of the month, your real muscles have adapted to Sachin's batting style. You're sharper, more agile and more strategic than you ever were on your own.
If you play your college mates tomorrow, you're likely to hit them out of the park. You aren't quite Sachin Tendulkar, but you're close enough. Why stop with Sachin? Why not play tennis like Federer, football like Messi and basketball like Jordan? Why stop with athletics? Imagine loading up the Steve Jobs cave and seeing the world through new eyes and spotting new product trends before anyone else.
Now that the train has left the station, why stop at famous people? In fact, what does it mean to be someone, anyone, if you can also be someone else? You see, I pulled a trick on you. You thought I was talking about technology, when my real concern is with identity. There are many many versions of identity, but perhaps the most intimate sense of identity is about being oneself. We wear ourselves so intimately that we don't even notice it. I am me and not someone else. When I stub my toe on a protruding rock, the pain reverberates through me. When I recollect the day a girl I fancied ran away as I approached her, I relive that shame. That my experiences are mine and no one else's is at the foundation of identity. It's the reason why we think identity theft is possible online, but not for real.
But what if you could indeed experience what it's like to be Sachin Tendulkar? What if the wicketkeeper's taunt plays in your head as you recover from the blow to the helmet? Do you start owning Sachin's experience? Or, reversing the gaze, what if Mark Zuckerberg trains a legion of almost-Zucks in China and then appoints the top almost-Zuck as the head of Facebook in China? The almost-Zuck is like the head eunuch in the Shah's harem - holding immense power within the confines of a circumscribed world but regretful of the irretrievable loss of potency. Living one's life trying to touch something that's just a finger tip away is the greatest frustration of all.
Or is it? The vast majority of the world might prefer to be almost-Zuck than fully-Joe. I imagine a future department of identity immigration services. Just as people clamor to get green cards today, we will start seeing lines in front of the Zuckerberg window of the IIS. The first few almost-Zucks will petition for strict immigration controls. There will be illegal Zuck border crossings. Descartes' "I think therefore I am" will be fleshed out as "I think I am Zuck therefore I am Zuck."
Descartes was willing to concede that the devil might fool you into experiencing a smelly rag as a perfumed cloth; what he wasn't willing to concede was the experience of the perfumed cloth itself. You experienced a perfumed cloth even if it was really a smelly rag. What would Descartes say if the devil -or VR designer- claims you didn't even experience the perfumed cloth? In fact, the cloth was experienced by Marilyn Monroe and you are only borrowing the experience at ten dollars a pop. The capitalist devil is a lot cleverer than the christian one.