The Virtual Life

Nosing about on the Web I ran across mention of a book of photographs by Doug Rickard that interested me enough to acquire a copy. These aren’t really photos by Rickard, but were shot by Google’s Street View camera. Rickard re-photographed the Google images on his computer monitor, cropped and processed them, and assembled them into this book. I guess you’d have to say it was a joint effort between him and Google, though nowhere in his book did I find any formal credit attribution to Google. His focus was on the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in several US cities, which he discovered via City Data website, from which he gleaned information on which neighborhoods were to be avoided in the cities in question. Ironically, the most broken parts of any US city he said could be found by looking at a Google map of the city and dropping in on any street or boulevard named after Martin Luther King.

Having done a lot of virtual “driving around” via Street View myself, I was very curious what sort of images Rickard had extracted. To me they’re reminiscent of of the lonely, alienating paintings of Edward Hopper. If you blurred out the faces of a Hopper painting, the emotional affect would be similar. The human figures in Rickard’s Google images have been recorded by a machine, so there’s no relationship established between them and the photographer, which partly accounts for my bleak emotional reaction to them. Of course the areas Rickard chose to portray are bleak in themselves, and he went out of his way to convey an idea about the bleakness associated with poverty and racism.

Aside from the subject matter of these photos, and the artful way Rickard has processed them, the other aspect of them that interests me is the general idea of virtual reality, i.e. accessing graphic space in a way that conveys the illusion that we’re accessing a “real” world. Cruising along via Street View gives the impression that you’re actually viewing the area you’re accessing. Even though I know intellectually that these are machine images, and they may be years old, I can slip into believing that I’m looking through a window at the place being represented. It’s not unlike interacting with video games or virtual reality programs like Flight Simulator.

The few video games I’ve tinkered with (Riven, Wild Divine), and other V.R. apps, like Flight Simulator, and Google Street view all have had a similar emotional effect on me. After being involved with them for awhile, I begin to get the same bleak, lonely feeling that Rickard’s work conveys. I haven’t fully penetrated what this means, but I think it has to do with the fact I’m instinctively looking for relationship and not finding it. In other words, if I didn’t have means or ability to access human relationships in the real world, I might resort addictively to virtual reality in a fruitless quest for them. All addictions amount to looking for satisfaction in the wrong places, due to the fact that authentic satisfaction, for one reason or another, is not available.

This line of thought lead me to an idea: suppose Google Street View was somehow made to operate in real time, so that you’d be able to cruise the streets of a foreign city (as I’ve used Street View to cruise streets in Europe) and “be there now.” Then take this ability one step further: Rent-a-Robot. You go to a website, put $50 on your credit card. The site, for a day, assigns you a drone-like ground-based robot that operates just like our military drones, except it’s not equipped with killing equipment, but rather with shopping equipment. It allows you to wheel around the streets in a remote town with stereo vision, stereo sound, and the ability to rotate your remote “head” 360 degrees, thereby letting you look around and up and down, just as you do in Street View. Naturally, there would be provision for anything you bought to be shipped to you at nominal cost.

What a kick, eh? Of course you’d have the ability to speak: “Hi, I’m a virtual tourist and I’d like to shake your hand.” And you’d want arms to shoplift. . . er to pick things up with. . .and to shake hands, of course.

Then I thought about hackers. It would be inevitable that someone would hack the remote tourism site and start controlling the drone robots anonymously. Maybe by this time they would have been developed to the point of being indistinguishable from real people, so you’d have these robot people walking around, being sometimes controlled by legitimate clients, sometimes by anonymous hackers, who could do anything they wanted and get away with it, and sometimes by authorities trying to catch the hackers. In other words, you’d effectively have anonymously controlled sociopathic robots roaming the streets.

Oops. I guess it would be a lot like things are now, with the “real” world. Way too many apparently robotic humans are heading corporations that do things like pollute the Gulf of Mexico with toxic dispersants in order to hide the messes they’ve made in consequence of their own crass negligence.

At one time in our country’s history, corporations were allowed to exist only if they served the public interest. This function has now been subverted, to the point that too many of them act like sociopathic hackers, for whom there seems to be no operating rationale other than hoarding dollars and political power. This is undertaken with little discernible benefit to the public. Indeed, corporations themselves are robots, operating according to simplistic legal programming designed only to generate profit, with their operations frequently subsidized directly or indirectly by taxpayers. They assuredly are not people and should not have the rights of people.

Despite my fanciful digression, I wish to convey that Doug Rickard’s book is an impressive and evocative piece of work, and a good example of a creative use of the Internet. I hope I haven’t given anyone ideas for an actual tourism service, or if I have, I want a commission on any profits accruing, which I will donate to Mindport.

Study question: How would you feel about tourist robots cruising your neighborhood? How about remotely-controlled airborne drones?

Kevin Jones