So the High Overlord of Facebook apparently vowed last week to bring about the death of the smartphone. This is the way things go these days. No sooner has something become arguably the most powerful device in the Universe than someone, somewhere starts plotting to kill it. It’s like a hyper tech version of Game of Thrones.
According to those who claim to understand these things, Mark Zuckerberg wants more and more of his customers to have more and more of their reality mediated directly through Facebook.
It’s not enough anymore to groan murderously at yet another pic of a puppy in trouble, or yet another PC rant from someone who wants to sue reality for making them swallow yet another bottle of pills, Facebook has bigger plans for you, or at least for the way you perceive the Universe.
Basically, you’ll get yourself some kind of mobile device, like a camera or, I don’t know, a paper clip or a pair of glasses, just anything but a smartphone, hold it up against some everyday scene or object, and instead of the simple object or everyday scene, you’ll see all kinds of things that Facebook has put there.
Life will become a sort of waking hallucination. Maybe you’ll see fairies or dragons or Donald Trump chasing some co-ed around a cloud. You will – presumably after paying your few dollars – be enabled to have all kinds of experiences that used to get people labelled as schizophrenics.
You’ll be tripping without mushrooms, having visions without being, you know, a visionary. You can become your own DIY Nostradamus. You can be like William Blake watching angels singing in a tree.
It will seem strange to some, but the technology to do what Zuckerberg is talking about has actually been around for a while. For some years now, Nintendo have been producing so called AR (‘Augmented Reality’) cards. They look for all the world like ordinary collector cards, but place them on a table or other flat, bright surface, point a DS at them, and all sorts of outlandish 3-D figures start mushrooming out of the table.
The same thinking went into the global, but bizarrely brief craze known as Pokémon Go. Nintendo seeded a virtual version of the entire globe with Pokémon figures, and teenagers and arrested developers the world over caused thousands of traffic calamities every day by running around trying to snap them with their smartphones.
It seized the world for four weeks and then stopped. In retrospect, the most amazing thing about the Pokémon Go craze was its brevity. People lost interest so quickly. Presumably, billions are being poured into trying to find out why.
One further presumes that Zuckerberg has something more elaborate in mind, but what? The most likely way to access his new reality would be through some kind of goggles, gizmos that look and weigh the same as a pair of glasses, or maybe even contact lenses. The reality they bring you has to be a great deal more absorbing than a simple hunt for cartoon figures.
Maybe you’ll be lost inside your own insanely detailed version of ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Star Wars.’ Maybe you’ll turn a corner in your favourite park and be assaulted by some kind of dragon, or chased down the street after the pub by a gang of Stormtroopers.
There’s no point, by the way, in wondering whether any of this is a good idea or not. People gave up doing that about tech a long time ago.
But it does raise some interesting questions. One size won’t fit all. The short life of Pokémon Go seems to prove that, so maybe we’ll all have to sign up to our own, individualised realities. Maybe I want to go exploring Ursa Minor while I’m at the gym, or hike up Olympus Mons while sipping coffee in the shopping mall.
The longer we all become absorbed in these ‘realities,’ and let’s face it, focusing on that ‘reality which is supposed to be real’ is already tough, it’s so damned boring and unpleasant for so much of the time, the more we will cease to agree on the basics of what is real or not.
Most political fractures at the moment are fuelled by the fact that opposing parties don’t even share a common definition of reality anymore. Your ‘fake news’ is my ground breaking revelation. ISIL inhabit a different Universe to the one inhabited by everyone else. Even in so called western democracies, it has become virtually impossible to verify a single objective fact.
The generations are already warping away from each other at light speed, like galaxies in a speeded up Big Bang. The life experience of someone who grew up as recently as the 1960’s is as alien to that of someone growing up now as putative life forms under the ice sheet of Enceladus. Not alone is this going to continue, it will accelerate in ways we can’t even imagine.
Every age has its prophet. Every day that passes seems to prove that the prophet of ours was Philip K Dick, the American sci fi author who wrote what ultimately became ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘Total Recall,’ ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and others.
Most of Dick’s writing is preoccupied, even obsessed with, with the question of what, if anything, can truly be called ‘real.’ One of his most famous short stories involves a man who discovers by accident that he is a robot, and that what he thinks of as reality is actually contained in a stream of punched tape moving through a chamber in his chest.
He tries sticking a pen in one of the holes on the tape, and the walls of his house disappear, another hole, and a flock of pigeons flies through his kitchen etc.
In a lecture delivered at Berkeley College (where else?), Dick spoke of his interest in Gnosticism which, very roughly speaking, holds that most of the small, day to day ‘reality’ you see around you is an invention of the Devil, and exists simply to blind you to the ‘Higher Reality’ of the kingdom of God.
Dick tells the students that he went on to have a full blown Gnostic experience. A girl called to his door, selling or surveying something. She wore a fish symbol around her neck, something Dick recognized as an emblem of the early Christians.
The way he tells it, he instantly knew that all of the reality – the America of the 1970’s – around him was fake, that in the higher reality, it was but a short time after the death of Christ. The Procurator Felix ruled in Jerusalem, and Dick and his fellow early Christians knew that Christ would be coming back soon.
Any bios of Dick you find on the Internet will say that this episode occurred as the result of a period of pretty heavy drug use, but I wonder. Was he just ages ahead of his time? Did he somehow acquire an early version of Zuckerberg’s glasses?