M23: Reality Media VII.
I don’t have a proper definition of ‘reality media’ but I am willing to live with this one:
Reality media is any system of signs (natural or artificial) that immerse us in a shared world.
Children sitting around a campfire as an adult tells them a story: reality media. Watching a movie on release night, reality media. Reading a novel with a flashlight under the covers: not reality media.
That’s the first cut. Of course, even when reading a novel by ourselves, we always have other readers in the background - you might be looking forward to talking about the book you just read with a friend who recommended it to you. Synchronous immersion is the paradigmatic case, but asynchronous reality media can also be valuable. Ultimately, we are interested in having access to a shared world and sharing that world with others.
By those criteria, money has been reality media for a very long time; it’s the dominant mechanism through which we participate in production and consumption, which, in turn, are the dominant acts of society.
Money has been a signifier of wealth and power ever since it was invented in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago. IOUs came before novels, since text started as record of fact and record of value - inscriptions that can be read as data or as money depending on context. Code could bring those two divergent streams together after a couple of thousand years.
XR technologies are at the other end; we couldn’t imagine working versions until a few decades ago. A simultaneous reading of the history of money and XR tech is necessary. It’s also whiplash inducing as we race from past to present. I am working to narrate this tapestry as a seamless whole. Not there yet, so forgive the jerky presentation.
Reality Media Notes
In case you need a refresher, that’s this book.
VR and XR are obviously technologies. Money is so deeply embedded in our psyche that it doesn’t feel like technology; cryptocurrency is reviving that memory since it’s clearly a fast moving technical sphere. Both the Bolter et. al. and Ferguson books are about the cultural impact of these technologies. As Reality Media says:
This is a book about augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). We focus on AR and VR not as technologies, but as part of our complex digital media culture (preface page ix).
XR will not disappear as technology but will it make an impact on society? Will we ever become addicted to immersive environments like how we are with touch screens? Film is a good precedent: while the first moving pictures were received with delight (as VR would today) it took a while for an industry to emerge out of it. We are much better now at creating new entertainment industries, but will XR be one of them?
Film became one of the most important reality media of the twentieth century, and in some ways, it is a forerunner of virtual reality (introduction, page xv).
People still go to movie theaters and there’s something magical about being immersed in a story. Was it much better than live theater? No, and at the beginning it was no more than a filmed version of theater, but once new storytelling techniques emerged, it became possible to make movies that could only be movies.
Ascent of Money Notes
Empires have existed throughout history and peoples have been invaded for their wealth too, but what’s special about the modern era is how money making drives the imperial system as a whole. That’s the core of Niall Ferguson’s thesis, but be warned, he’s on the imperialist’s side: Ferguson thinks it’s a fundamentally good thing we are built that way, unlike others who might say capitalism and the search for profit are uniquely modern forms of oppression.
financial innovation has been an indispensable factor in man's advance from wretched subsistence to the giddy heights of material prosperity that so many people know today. (page 3)
Our global, interconnected society is dependent on coordinating mechanisms: data flows and finance in particular. The ‘giddy heights of material prosperity’ that Ferguson praises has been extracted at great cost, and the original sin here is the Spanish invasion of the Americas:
The Incas could not understand the insatiable lust for gold and silver that seemed to grip Europeans. 'Even if all the snow in the Andes turned to gold, still they would not be satisfied,' complained Manco Capac. (page 21).
'Every peso coin minted in Potosi has cost the life of ten Indians who have died in the depths of the mines.' As the indigenous workforce was depleted, thousands of African slaves were imported to take their places as 'human mules' (page 22).
A place of death for those compelled to work there, Potosi was where Spain struck it rich. Between 1556 and 1783, the 'rich hill' yielded 45,000 tons of pure silver to be transformed into bars and coins in the Casa de Moneda (mint), and shipped to Seville (page 23).
Money mania is far more durable than Tulip mania even as silver is replaced by other financial instruments. The extraction and management of silver from the Americas is foundational to the modern system. That silver was the first transnational ‘control commodity,’ i.e., a resource that can be used to coordinate transactions across large distances, which brings us to the basic dilemma of this system: the volatility and inequality built into this control commodity (which is also true of data, BTW). That volatility carries over to crypto even with the artificial scarcity of Bitcoin.
Like King Midas, the Spanish monarchs of the sixteenth century, Charles V and Philip II, found that an abundance of precious metal could be as much a curse as a blessing. The reason? They dug up so much silver to pay for their wars of conquest that the metal itself dramatically declined in value - that is to say, in its purchasing power with respect to other goods (page 26).
The modern system is predicated on the conquest of risk, but that very process accumulates risk and uncertainty until it explodes into the world - as depressions and wars.