Wednesday, May 10, 2017

In your head

Consider the following paragraph:
Some time ago I went with my six-year-old nephew Matan to hunt for Pokémon. As we walked down the street, Matan kept looking at his smartphone, which enabled him to spot Pokémon all around us. I didn’t see any Pokémon at all, because I didn’t carry a smartphone. Then we saw two others kids on the street who were hunting the same Pokémon, and we almost got into a fight with them. It struck me how similar the situation was to the conflict between Jews and Muslims about the holy city of Jerusalem. When you look at the objective reality of Jerusalem, all you see are stones and buildings. There is no holiness anywhere. But when you look through the medium of smartbooks (such as the Bible and the Qur’an), you see holy places and angels everywhere.
What a wonderful analogy!  No wonder the author is a celebrated thinker, futurist!

I have quoted the author, Yuval Noah Harari, in a previous blog-post.  I am now all the more convinced that Harari is now my go-to-guy to think about the future.

So, yes, those strange critters are invisible to me because I don't play that game, even though I carry a smartphone.  A technological approach to understanding maya too?  Nah, I don't want to digress.

If it were not for those religious "smartbooks" the stones of Jerusalem will be mere stone and nobody would fight over them.  Of course, this fight over the stones is not a new insight.  What is awesome about Harari's essay--read it in full because I am doing injustice to it by excerpting to tell my own stories--is how he compares religions to multiplayer virtual reality computer games:
What is a religion if not a big virtual reality game played by millions of people together? Religions such as Islam and Christianity invent imaginary laws, such as “don’t eat pork”, “repeat the same prayers a set number of times each day”, “don’t have sex with somebody from your own gender” and so forth. These laws exist only in the human imagination. No natural law requires the repetition of magical formulas, and no natural law forbids homosexuality or eating pork. Muslims and Christians go through life trying to gain points in their favorite virtual reality game. If you pray every day, you get points. If you forget to pray, you lose points. If by the end of your life you gain enough points, then after you die you go to the next level of the game (aka heaven).
Can one get addicted to such a virtual reality game that religion is?  Harari has thought this through:
n Israel, a significant percentage of ultra-orthodox Jewish men never work. They spend their entire lives studying holy scriptures and performing religion rituals.
Talk about game addicts!

Harari's essay is awesome.  Lemme say it again--read the entire essay.  Do not base your thoughts on whatever I have excerpted for my own selfish reasons.

Harari's point is that in the near future, when computers/AI will make more and more among us unemployable--the useless class, as he calls them--sophisticated video games will keep them busy and entertained, just like how religions have forever kept humans busy and addicted.

Harari ends the essay with quite a flourish:
In any case, the end of work will not necessarily mean the end of meaning, because meaning is generated by imagining rather than by working. Work is essential for meaning only according to some ideologies and lifestyles. Eighteenth-century English country squires, present-day ultra-orthodox Jews, and children in all cultures and eras have found a lot of interest and meaning in life even without working. People in 2050 will probably be able to play deeper games and to construct more complex virtual worlds than in any previous time in history.
But what about truth? What about reality? Do we really want to live in a world in which billions of people are immersed in fantasies, pursuing make-believe goals and obeying imaginary laws? Well, like it or not, that’s the world we have been living in for thousands of years already.
It is all in our imagination!  It is maya!


Ramesh said...

I will read the piece in its entirety, but I profoundly disagree about Jerusalem.

I've been there and I am not from one of the three religions that are the cornerstone of the walled city. - so I am as unbiased as can be, except perhaps that I am moderately religious.

The one square kilometer inside the walled city is a place of intense faith. You can "feel" it. You could say that is also virtual reality, but I was surprised by how I felt there. I challenge anybody to go there with an open mind and not come back impacted. Especially an open minded atheist such as you; who knows more about religions than the religious and is willing to be open minded. You really should go there.

Many people come from all over the world simply to be. They are good people finding their own peace and comfort. The fanatics are in the minority. But yes, violence is never far away.

I will comment on the ideas in the piece after reading it fully.

Ramesh said...

But why Bolero ?

Sriram Khé said...

Why Bolero? Simple. That complex, entertaining, addictive, and perhaps meaning-giving, music too came out of human imagination.

As for your substantive comment, yes, we might end up disagreeing only because the framework of religions as "virtual reality games" awesomely appeals to me, and might (will?) not appeal to you. Once we differ on this, then there is no common ground. You feel deeply influenced because you are a participant in that video game. As much as Pokémon has no effect on me, as much as NBA finals have no effect on me, as much as Baahubali has no effect on me, all of which have significant effect on the players and participants including spectators, a Jerusalem or a Varanasi will not have the kind of influence that you experience.
The essay is not about faith or fundamentalism--I hope you will read it in full ...

Sriram Khé said...

In the real world, Pokémon and religion intersect in an authoritarian's regime ... ;)

Ramesh said...

I did read the entire article. The comments on religion which you have used in this post, seem to not be the basic thrust of the article. It seems to argue that for the out of work, the only option is virtual reality of some sort - be it religion, be it whatever.

With all due respect, this is a very poor piece. Firstly the logic that most of the world's population will be unemployed and unemployable is utter crap. This has been predicted on every technological revolution in the past and has not happened. For sure, automation will have profound impact on employment, but to believe that human beings cannot adapt and will fall part is nonsense.

Equally, everything can be argued to be a virtual reality, by the standards of this piece's argument. Working is. Playing is. Music is. Doing anything of interest is. Pleeeaaassseee .

On the religion front, which is really what you wanted to draw attention to, the argument is very selective. He rails against ritual. That is absolutely fair. But would following the Ten Commandments, for example, be considered a virtual reality game ? If so, I am delighted to participate in it. There is also much good that religions do. To completely dismiss it is as unacceptable as saying everything about religion is good.

Sriram Khé said...

Because we are talking about future possibilities, you may as well be on the mark when you refer to the future that some of us worry about as "utter crap." But, there are plenty of people--real experts, not the pretenders like me--worried about the possibility because the digital revolution is different from the industrial revolution. The video that I had embedded in the previous Harari post talks more about this.

And, yes, everything can be argued to be virtual reality. That is the point. And that is also why I made the references to "maya" in my post. So, yes, if we peel back the layers of religion and automation and everything else, the core is about our very existence and its meaning. And, therefore, Harari's point that making meaning of our lives is all in our imaginations. In our heads.

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