Virtually: a story
According to Siloist psychology one of the key functions of the form we call allegory is to unify the diverse. A single allegorical image can capture many diverse nuances. Consider the image (a visual one in this case) of justice one might see as a statue outside a courthouse. Often she is feminine (compassion) holding a scale (balanced judgment), blind folded (impartial) armed with a sword (capable of protecting herself and enforcing her judgments) etc. And so when stymied with how to explain in a synthetic fashion a complex of otherwise very abstract ideas I turned to this form to see if I could make things clearer. At first this was just a story notion that I’d tell people in conversation. Later it became more elaborated resulting in this weird tale I titled A Virtual Story.
So this tale came about largely for pedagogic reasons. Specifically, I was looking for a way to clarify for myself and perhaps to open a discussion about a certain path or approach that made possible the transformation of daily life into a spiritual path – or closer to how I actually would phrase it to myself “seeing the transferential potential in every situation”.
Over the years I had noticed that the idea of seeing your everyday experience as a spiritual manifestation or opportunity is, how ever you phrase it, one of those things to which the “spiritually inclined” tend to pay lip service. But to understand and really practice this extraordinary art where daily life itself the means of transformation… there’s the rub.
But this is above all an old-fashioned sci-fi romp and not a psychological, spiritual or existential text, though the opening few paragraphs seem to be setting one up for an historical narrative. That’s an expectation that quickly dissolves as the reader begins to suspect that this is going to be something else entirely. Those misgivings are soon confirmed as the story veers off again into something unexpected (and hopefully satisfying or at least intriguing) in its form and content. The actual thrust of the story stands as a sort of tribute to the Day of the Winged Lion a story Silo dedicated to me.
The version of the tale outlined here has some differences from the original. None of those additions or modifications impact on the central theme or the underlying interest of trying to capture a particular approach to my daily life.
You think road rage is bad? Add in the idea of an arms race. What if that pissed off driver pulls out a handgun instead of a tire iron, or an assault rifle instead of a pistol, or a hand grenade instead of that machine gun or stinger missile or a dirty bomb, or a vial of anthrax leprosy mu? What if their rage wasn’t unleashed against just another individual? What if any one person could unleash a weapon that would destroy millions and millions of lives? With no way to limit the spread of the technology or knowledge to use it how could you possibly change things so people wouldn’t go off the rails and take out a city or two, or reduce the known universe to gray goo?
What if you suspected you were the one who was going to flip out and push the button?
…Since this is a tale of “as if” I feel no guilt in talking about strange things in a familiar idiom. So to keep things simple and direct I’ll translate the particularities of that very alien civilization into more or less equivalent terms of our biology, technology and culture. Anyway there’s no reason to get upset. Remember, it’s all just made up and any resemblance to real worlds or events – let alone people – is purely coincidental, this is just a story. The things in it are not true—or at least not quite true. So for example when I explain, as I will once we get going, that the problem involved nanotechnology you should understand its not exactly like that. It might not have been nanotechnology exactly. That’s close enough to make the tale intelligible but take it all with a grain of salt perhaps even when I tell you it happened long, long ago and very far away. And of course that is how it begins…
Three Threads of which this is the first
On a distant world in a far away galaxy that was already old even before ours was born, a beautiful turquoise world circled a yellow star. As happens throughout the universe there were nooks and crannies where conditions were such that increasingly complex chemical reactions (and complex organic molecules forged in deep space and transported by meteorites) allowed for the emergence of self-replicating molecules capable of combining with, and modifying each other. One thing led to another (as it does) and eventually life forms of all sorts were scurrying around that little ball.
That’s not to say it didn’t find setbacks that from the point of view of the then extant creatures must have seemed catastrophic. But in the larger scheme of things these was just the twists or turns in a much bigger story that unfolds only over aeons and parsecs.
More time passed – since no one was keeping track, it really doesn’t matter how long – eventually, after millions of years (not exactly our years of course), after many, many catastrophes, detours, dead ends, or if you prefer, twists and turns, organic life in its growing richness and interconnection, gave rise to a range of beings that could move about, ingest the substances they needed to survive and flourish, and reproduce their kind. After even longer there arose self-regulating creatures that to varying degrees were able to register their own actions, to remember and even to interrupt the reflex arc of stimulus and response and to consider their next move and so there arose an odd little creature that had begun to shape both meanings and tools.
So on that distant world life evolved, consciousness appeared; a particular species developed characteristics allowing it to master fire, to bind time in symbolic systems and to transmit that as cultural memory from generation to generation. From that moment it was not too long before the birth of a full blown culture and the story telling we call history.
New tools opened new ways of doing things, new ways of understanding and impelled new ways of organizing collective life. The kinds of objects they made, and how they made them, like their ways of life, their cultures (by now there were diverse families, tribes, peoples) changed slowly. In generation after generation their seemingly static social and cultural institutions kept pace with their ways of working and the tools they used to do that work. Tens of generations would pass between the emergence of new ways of doing things. And the new insights that accompanied those changing patterns would open the way to new ways of thinking and that’s when the shit would hit the fan.
Of course after a generation or two things would settle down. The novel would become the traditional. The unthinkable would become the norm. And the planet would continue making its way unperturbed around the star that gave it life. Very gradually and at first imperceptibly (had anyone been in a position to observe all this) the speed of technological change was accelerating and overtook the glacial velocity at which their social institutions could change – never mind the pace at which change came to how their heads worked.
Looking back it isn’t difficult to understand the core of the problem that would, much later, threaten all they had built, and all they had become. In an earlier moment a rival for food, or land, or mates, or prestige, could usually be dealt with simply through the mutual display of signs of aggression. A little chest thumping, and screeching, and someone would soon back off, most of the time anyway. Things sometimes went further. Then fists and teeth would have to decide. These clashes would rarely lead to major injury. The risk would just be too high that you might be the one injured. However, every now and then a situation would get out of hand. Every now and then there would be some unbalanced fellow who always went to the limit. Challenged, or angered or just irritated that future culture hero (leader, war chief, king, demi-god) would lash out without restraint. Then blood would flow and death, slow or immediate, would take the conquered and often the conqueror as well.
You can understand where this is going. Each new technology could be turned to a variety of ends; just like fire that could warm your hearth or immolate your enemies. New tools also meant new weapons (and vice versa). Each new advance was an advance in range and destructive power. Just as a rock could smash more than your bare fist, the edge of flaked stone could cut deeper than your nails or your teeth, a stick could amplify your reach as well as the force of your blows. And a stick with a stone point… well now we’re talking state of the art!
Still in the greater scheme of things no great harm could be done. One or two would die; others would replace them. And now there were stories to tell of terrible deeds, of titans and monsters. Not many generations later, sticks and stones amplified the reach of arms. And sticks and stones can indeed break one’s bones. Still the damage rarely involved more than one or two of those wild youngsters. Sometimes that meant that the craziest and most prone to bloody confrontations got more than their share of food and prestige, and progeny. But unlike the more symbolic confrontations when things went this far the victor was often, like the victim, too messed up from the fight to collect much in the way of spoils.
Soon settlements had walls (they hadn’t always). Rather than contests between individuals or battles between small groups (more often than not small group vs one poor defenceless sucker) now they became clashes between armies marshalled on the field of combat. Bad as you might think all of that it’s not really the point. Consider only the destructive power of one out of kilter individual. A single individual driven to a killing frenzy might in their anger kill another, or even 2 or 3 before being stopped or running out of energy. More destruction than that by an individual, was a rarity and a wonder. It was something more proper to a demi-god or hero than mortal man. With the rise of metal blades, of armour and shield the number increased. With each of these advances that power increased.
Limbs and teeth, sticks and stones give way to axes, swords and the whole gamut of increasingly complex means of mutual destruction unfortunately so familiar to all of us in this day and age. Occasional use of biological weapons – things like poisons in food or water, and beehives dropped on the besieging armies – might take the mass destruction up to more than 3 or 4 at a time. From guns and explosives, to bio-chemical and nuclear weapons: very quickly the creation of the most sophisticated weapons went from requiring the resources of an entire nation to being things a single individual could whip up in their kitchen. Instructions for everything from neutron bombs to neural disruptors were no more complex or difficult to follow than a recipe for apple pie. Soon, one pissed off person might poison the well of an entire family. A few generations later, a sufficiently angered spouse might gun down a half dozen before being stopped. Blink again and now a wacko on a rampage might take out dozens. What would happen when weapons of mass destruction weren’t available just to nations or wealthy and dedicated organizations. What if a minor modification to the furnace in your building could turn it into a dirty bomb capable of contaminating half a city in radioactive poisons? What if you could cook up a deadly nerve gas, or lethal virus in your kitchen, and what if the “secret” info to do that was at anyone’s fingertips?
This is in no way to try and claim that individual crazy violence is somehow worse than state, or collective, crazy violence. My point is only that, with the acceleration of technology, even without deteriorating mental, spiritual or social conditions, the amount of destruction that even a single unbalanced individual could unleash, was increasing exponentially. Soon it would not take a god to ring in armageddon, any garden-version asshole would do fine.
Most folks find semi-random mayhem an irritation to say the least. This is especially true when they or theirs are directly affected, Until a certain moment in time the results were pretty localized if a few or even one disgruntled individual could get so out of whack that they lashed out killing and maiming. Unpleasant? No doubt. Regrettable? Certainly, but really only a nuisance to the vast political-military-economic-social machinery. Now however, it was no longer that fairytale “seven with one blow”; now one out of kilter individual could take out hundreds, even thousands, and tomorrow it wouldn’t be 10s of thousands but millions . The situation was very quickly becoming untenable. And things were just getting started.
The ability to recombine molecules and atoms was on the verge of transforming life to something beyond the wildest utopian dreams of previous times. With hunger, and poverty ended, inequity and injustice vanquished everything should be cool, right? What if that’s not what happened? Social institutions were crumbling, old ways of life were ending and people were getting more confused, hysterical, lashing out at random going on senseless rampages, not with fists or bullets but with weapons of unimaginable destructive power that were increasingly powerful and accessible…
The Second Strand
August 26 1346 in the muddy battlefield of Crécy – a day that some say, marks the end of the age of chivalry.
It is the early morning of that famous battle of the Hundred Years War. The army of Edward the III of England, 10,000 men strong, is facing Phillip the VI French force which, with its 35,000 soldiers has an overwhelming advantage. However, as history buffs know weather, new tactics and weapons technology – the long bow in this case – are going to turn the tide.Though of course historians will continue to debate whether the English bow has received too much credit for the victory (or defeat — depending who you are rooting for).
Our protagonist is one of the Genovese mercenaries that have been hired as crossbow men by the French. They are soon to be cut down by both sides. By the long reach of the English longbows, and by their French employers as they flee the battlefield when it becomes evident that their crossbow quarrels have fallen short and they have no defence against the rain of deadly arrows.
However, this is not a historical romance as the next scene makes evident. Suddenly there is a strange buzzing that grows louder and begins to penetrate even the clashing of arms and the din of horses and men preparing for day’s bloody business.
The hum reaches a crescendo so penetrating that men and beast are frozen and silent. All eyes turn skyward as a point of light stretches and grows revealing an enormous hand many times larger than the windmill and hill where King Edward had made his command centre. To the stunned astonishment and awe of all the assembly the pointing finger now writes as if in the air, in letters that dominate the entire sky: mene tekel, mene tekel, upharsin.
A few moments later the trumpets of doom are heard and, in that simile favoured by the (so-called) Old and New Testaments as well as the holy book of Islam, the heavens roll up like a scroll. And after a few moments of disorientation our protagonist (and we along with him) find ourselves in what might be any corporate boardroom. However, his vision is limited and from a wonky angle. Peering out through a sort of window a hands breadth away from his immobilized head he begins to make sense of what he is seeing and to recall where he is. As the tube that contains him opens the window he’s been looking through reveals itself as a monitor. All except one of the seats around the table is empty and behind them are larger than human size metallic cylinders replete with hoses and cables. Beside each of these stands a lab coated (of course) technician checking dials, adjusting settings and making notes (as is the wont of those bearing these allegorical attributes).
As the fronts of the tube open we see each contains someone whose eyes are as blurry and confused as that of our protagonist. But also just like him it is only a moment before their eyes snap into focus and their look of confusion replaced by a relaxed, confident and somewhat self-satisfied air. As the people in the tubes are helped to the chairs in front of them he recognizes them both as people he knows in the “real world” and who he knew on that, equally real feeling, battlefield which they had just visited in what he now understands as an ICD an induced collective dream.
The woman who who has been sitting patiently at the table. Raises her voice only enough to be heard over the muffled clatter and pneumatic hiss of the machinery folding itself seamlessly into the floor. She explains that as they’ve demonstrated that the shift in and out of the virtual world can be accomplished but furthermore that the neural dampening can be specific enough so that the subject – or player, if you prefer, does not question their participation in that virtual scene. This meant that, using off the shelf immersion technologies (which had in their earlier stages of development been called virtual reality technology) and combining it with chemical and magnetic neural stimulation you could create a world and visit it. But what was new and really exciting about all this, is that you could live that experience as if it was the real world. The neurological intervention allowed them to suppress the critical faculties just enough of that – like in your nightly dreams – you just didn’t get around to ever questioning the reality of your world or what was happening.
All the participants in the demonstration were completely convinced. They knew from their own experiences that it was only in the final moments, with the appearance of the fiery finger writing on the sky that they started to realize that perhaps something was not totally right, or that they might be dreaming… and in a sense that was true. The dream narrative was not a totally predetermined story – choosing was part of the fun after all – but they were within the constraints of an elaborately prepared dream world.
The story of the expansion, marketing, and extraordinary consequences of this technology make up the thrust of another of the threads that form this story.
*Meanwhile the problem described earlier of the growing destructive power now in the hands of any individual was reaching a crisis point. It seemed as technology advanced the psycho-social fabric started to unravel. The only diseases that seemed to really escape the advance of science were the psychological. But spiritual malaise or even a total psychotic meltdown could be tolerated. After all these were only individual problems and didn’t affect overall productivity. But one unhappy individual who loses it and suddenly shits in the middle of his living room until that is they started to and the , in an even more distant time, actions were being taken to resolve the problem.
The vast resources of their technology and ingenuity were turned to monitoring the mental well being of the citizens. This effort relied largely on technologies that had been foreshadowed by things like the primitive polygraph (the famous “lie detectors” whose reliability was so iffy you could consider it all one more lie). The brain wave monitors and functional MRIs, which couldn’t quite deliver on their promise of reading minds , had long ago been surpassed by technologies that didd live up to their hype. Now driven by dire necessity the money, resources, and political will, were deployed to invade the most intimate privacy of the individual on a scale that would have been unthinkable (and if thinkable, horrifying) only a few years earlier. The desperate hope was to stop people before they lashed out or in their suicidal depression decided to check out and take everyone else with them.
The consequences were drastic and sudden. People went even crazier. The more Big Brother watched and the greater the general paranoia became. Individual outbursts and social upheavals grew. It seems it wasn’t convenient to pry too much. The increased sense of being snooped on was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
A revised strategy encouraged every person to watch out for the mental well being of our neighbours and co-workers. But in a world where the social fabric had worn thin at best, this felt just as hostile as the more direct government intrusion.
Eventually a solution was found. However, it wasn’t so much a techno-fix though it did draw on the most advanced neurological research. It wasn’t exactly a technique either. Really, it was more of a change of heart that perhaps was only possible in this limit situation. It was as if from out of the collective yearning for something else a possibility opened, even though the possibility was a long shot and a the opening was a narrow crack. However, perhaps for the first time in history the vast majority of people understood it was up to them. It would not be enough to overthrow the dictators or undo all injustice. The key was that they had to overthrow something in themselves. It was a hard won lesson but now it was no platitude, no marketing slogan. It was something that a large and growing number of people knew to the marrow of their bones. That all-important shift of attitude made possible everything that followed.
The most ancient disciplines, and modern technology were wedded in a kind of techno-shamanism that allowed dreams to be shaped and used in a certain way. Shaped so that every aspect of them revealed the imbalance of forces, the difficulty, the knot of suffering that was knocking that individual off balance and producing the kind of egomania (and resultant paranoia) that would invariably end in a violent catharsis. Until now that is. At last there really was a kind of intervention that could change everything – could heal that festering wound and re-establish the equilibrium that had been lost.
Imagine if you could dream a world where you were hidden inside each and every inhabitant of that dream world and not only the human characters. In fact why limit it to organic life? Let’s include objects as well; animal, vegetable and mineral. It is as if you were their secret soul, their innermost essence. In every (dream) interaction you would of course be dealing with yourself but it wouldn’t feel that way.
Well of course, you don’t have to imagine that since that’s what happens in every dream.
Recall a dream, likely (not necessarily) you were the protagonist. Maybe it was a scary dream. Maybe a monster was keeping you from crossing a bridge. If you are the dreamer who is the monster? A caricature of a Freudian would say your mother. An equally cartoon Jungian might say your shadow. Whatever. One thing is clear it is you. As is the dream bridge, the dream sky and whatever else appears in the dream. Who else can lay claim to it? If the bridge in your dream is an internalized version of a bridge thousands cross everyday in the waking world still this bridge, the dream bridge is yours and it is you. Whatever else they maybe, they are also interactions of electro-chemical impulses in your nervous system – they are you. The place, the monster you fear, the “something” you desire, the desire, etc – all of them are yours and in a fundamental sense all of them are you – flesh of your flesh.
Here each of these splinters of the “real” would embody various aspects yourself and of the conflict eating away at you.
In fact as the dream begins to lose its hold on you, as you begin to wake up, you recognize that. Not that you say: “oh the monster is me”. You might say: “oh I was just dreaming”. But the later acknowledges the former.
Insights gathered from cutting edge work on neural networks and technologies that had been made possible when nanotech met up with techniques which had not long ago been primitive fMRIs and transcranial magnetic stimulation.
And so it happened on that distant world. Just as the disjunction between social institutions and accelerating technological change was about to overwhelm everyone in a tsunami of paranoia and violence – an unlikely way out appeared. Every one was given a turn in this very interesting machine. A machine that wove a dream for you. A very special dream, not only was everything in the dream you (of course what else could it be), but everything in the dream was an expression of your fundamental conflicts. You the observer, the others you dreamt of, the objects in the dream the distant stars of the dream universe, the relation between one object and another all reflected, or embodied, the contradictions at the heart of your life. Even the dreams in your dreams. Thanks to the dream weavers your experience seemed seamless, detail was supplied for whatever you focused on. Enter a room and it was fully furnished in way that preserved the integrity of the dream. Think about a time long ago and its history all made sense. Really this wasn’t much of a technological triumph – it simply took advantage of mechanisms that shape our dream states. But it allowed the dream to be given a certain direction.
It had seemed an ailment with no cure. Now the prescription becomes clear: Loosing your mental equilibrium? Tensions taking you to tilt? Internal violence hitting the danger-zone? It’s your turn in the dream weaver. Resolve your underlying contradiction in the dream and you wake up a new person or rather the old person with the knot of suffering that had been perturbing the rest of your being now untangled.
As a dream reached the crisis point of crisis the dreamer (who was remember, the only “real” thing, the substance the dream was woven out of) would need to reconcile increasingly complex situations. In the dream, how the dream protagonist(s) interacted with each other and with every being and even object in the dream was an attempt to unravel the same “real world” problem, the same psychic knot. As the problem was resolved various protagonists in the dream (i.e. fragments or splinters of the real person) began to realize who they really were and what was going on. At a certain point a chain reaction was produced with each aspect of the dream “waking” to reality, but now healed, re-equilibriated, and reinvigorated.
Anyway that’s how they resolved their problem…
Another expression of that awakening is more clearly hinted out in a third thread in our tale. This thread strings together three, apparently unrelated tales, which it resolves in various “innocuous” examples of awakening. The first involves a cop on medical leave who is suffering from weird displacements where, for fleeting moments he transforms into people he hates, suffering from loss of identity dream confusions, etc. His quest culminates in a meeting where he learns about the nature of dreams. The second is a scene played out in the barracks of a Nazi concentration camp where compassion is manifests in another way witnessed from the PoV of a rat waiting for a crumb of bread. The last involves a madman on a rampage in a Southern California Macdonalds