Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Disputing Augmented Unreality

from TAGMAG 06, a publication of <>TAG in The Hague

I never feel better than when I'm walking in mountains far from urban civilization. I carry a heavy pack filled with my sleeping bag, a small tent, some food, some cooking utensils and other gear, and some spare warm clothing. I keep a map of the area and a liter of water. And some chocolate. My best walks have been in the south of Poland, where I can wake up and spend eight hours following good trails through the most sparsely populated terrain—just a tiny village here and there in the valleys far below—before arriving at a clearing to set up the tent or stay in a rustic hostel or farmer’s place. I fall asleep tired and sore shortly after sundown and awake at dawn energized and ready to cover more ground.

It really is an ideal way to use my energy and spend my time, especially in the company of good friends. Enjoying my time out here is something that I had to learn to do, and I am certainly no expert at it (and I go all too infrequently). I can only identify a very few types of flora and fauna. I have not learned to successfully navigate with the sun or the stars. The only foods along the trail I recognize as safe to eat are blackberries and raspberries. (On some walks it is possible to literally fill buckets with them without pausing, so plentiful are the bushes by the path in late summer.) When I have the opportunity to drink water straight from streams—it is always excellent, utterly refreshing—I have no way of knowing for certain that it is safe. I can recgonize when distant clouds are bringing with them rain, but not so far in advance as to change my course.

I am not a mountain climber; most of the walking I do is not particularly risky, but I have made some foolish decisions. I once wandered off an isolated alpine trail and crossed a very recent avalanche in the Dolomites, in Italy, and as I slowly zig-zagged my way I watched as stones loosened beneath my boots and tumbled hundreds of meters down sheer cliffs. On another walk I climbed across a fresh mudslide in the Beskid Zywiecki region in Poland, balancing precariously on upturned tree roots and mud-encrusted boulders that defied gravity as they jutted out of the mountainside. But perhaps the most foolish thing I have ever done in my life was set out alone on a day-long walk around Hogsback, in South Africa, without a map or water or any local knowledge. I lost the path and spent hours exposed to bright sun, winding my way through dense prickly brush, navigating around unexpected cliffs dropping off to nowhere, and endeavoring not to lose my footing in the many holes dug by unseen animals in the ground. I returned to my hostel hours later than planned and completely dehydrated.

I have never gone walking with a mobile phone.


Imagine: I am on a walk somewhere, lost and thirsty and hours away from any shelter. The sun is setting and menacing clouds are rolling in and, not knowing what to do, I begin to panic. But I have a small Augmented Reality (AR) unit with me, connected to a sensor that monitors my heart rate and a lightweight pair of sunglasses with embedded translucent video screens. The unit takes barometric readings, it cross-references GPS data with the latest Internet-based ordinance survey information, and plots a route to safety that takes into account weather conditions, the terrain, access to water, and my own physical condition. As I look through the sunglasses, a map customized to my needs appears superimposed over the wilderness, displaying place names, likely places of shelter, and calculating distances and walking times. Data about local flora and fauna I should avoid is provided in image, text, and sound. All of this reassures me. I calm down and set out confidently and safely for civilization.

Yes, but I would rather leave such a device at home.


Augmented Reality refers to the layering of virtual (computerized) data upon one or more of an individual’s senses for practical, entertainment, medical, military, or artistic purposes. It is also a syntactical misnomer. Reality is not—cannot be—augmentable. Unlike breasts and penises, we cannot modify reality on a whim. Reality is not a show. In order for us to have a discussion that doesn’t resemble an LSD trip or a stay in an asylum for the insane (or a televised American political debate) we cannot qualify or quantify ‘reality’. To do so would be to dispute it. And there are only two possible consequences of disputing reality: insanity or art.

I am not a philosopher, I cannot address here the philisophical history of our culture’s conception of reality. I am also not a religious person, I do not believe that reality is ordained by the supernatural. I am often flabbergasted in philisophical conversations by questions such as ‘How do you know everything did not begin five minutes ago?’ or ‘How do you know we are not all just brains in a jar?’ It is difficult to properly articulate my certainty that I was in fact here more than five minutes ago and that my brain is not in a jar. My reality exists between the soil and the sky. And that’s that.

So how is it that I can communicate with others with different understandings about the nature of what is real? Like you, I am a human animal and, like you, I have the capacity to empathize. I was discussing this with my friend, the composer and computer musician Tom Tlalim, who observed that AR, like the Internet (and I would add like mobile phones, like anything that can be abstracted from specific perceptions of time, space, and connectivity), threatened the notion of the local. And I think he is correct. ‘The soil and the sky’ poetically defines the largest entity that I can grasp as local: my planet. And not only my planet, but tangible, physical aspects of it that others experience and are subject to. When I watch you drink water, I cannot taste it but my mind may trigger a memory of the taste of ‘water’. That, I think, is empathy. An AR device might allow me to actually taste water. And that is insane. There is no water!


My notions of empathy and ‘the local’ are closely intertwined. Since we are living in a global village, a small world, a litterbox playground for capitalist ideologists, it seems we are unable to value and respect the local. In multiple ways we are torn away from the local, torn away from the positive and negative realities before us. We live in the same local global village as billions suffering from starvation, or preventable disease, or political disenfranchisement, or state terror, or environmental degredation, and we fail to empathize. We relate, rather (or many of us do, anyway), to layer upon layer of digital unreality: gadget fetishism, video games, rampant militarism, the false corporate prophecies of a green future fueled by capitalists, the celebration of shit-brained celebrities.

There is a word for all of this, and the word is insane.


Why is it that some sort of AR unit have been helpful to me in Hogsback? Because I was a damn fool for doing what I did. Technological progress should not be used to medicate stupidity. I for one will not submit my animal body and my animal mind to Twenty-First century cyborgification. I never cease to be disturbed by the fact that people willingly wear those idiot bluetooth devices in their ears. I certainly never will. And no one cares if I do or not. But AR is advancing along with another phenomenon, called ‘ubiquitous computing’. Ubiquitous computing, the idea that everything we create can be networked, constantly processing and syncing a variety of data, seems to be widely accepted. In a world of ubiquitous computing there will be no ‘opt out’ possibility. Individuals may well become simple conductors of machines that talk to each other. Go ahead and try to opt out, now, of all the things that have become ubiquitous, the air and water and noise and light pollution, the transmission waves that flow through your body whether you want them to or not, whether you know it or not, the carcinogens and chemicals.

We march fullspeed ahead towards openly disputing reality at every turn. This is what the ubiquitous disputation of reality is called: mass insanity.


There’s a tangential comment I need to make on the subject of ‘ubicomp’ (does it get more 1984 than some of the words and phrases we use for technology these days?). I wrote above that within ubiquitous computing, data from the things we make can be networked. It may seem touchy-feely to some reading this, but I’m pretty sure trees and birds and bees and earthworms and people who are awake to their unaugmented senses are networking and syncing too. I know this to be true; the longer I spend away from devices doing the networking for me, the more I feel alive to the world around me. I need no products to facilitate the connectivity between my perceptions or amongst them and my surroundings. It is all wireless when you spend days walking in the mountains.


Insofar as we can influence and instigate aspects of our evolution, I propose in the strongest possible terms that we do not evolve away from our empathetic, animal, and locally-conscious selves. What advocates and developers of AR might see as augmenting not only our experiences but also our capabilities, I see as forfeiture of our experiences and capabilities, and this should be considered very carefully. I can and should learn about the flora and fauna in the mountains where I walk (to make an example of my own stupidity), but this ought to happen at the speed of experience, not the speed of a wireless or GPS network. I neither need nor want to submit my autonomous humanity to military and corporate augmentation. We can all make our own choices about how many gadgets we own and how many starving people we refuse to see. But when the augmentation, when the insanity is not only expected but ubiquitous, it is reasonable, it is utterly sane to say no. And to do more: to act on that refusal.


There is a layer of experience and perception and action that is maleable, that is augmentable. I first saw the formulation ‘art disputes reality’ in the work of Albert Camus, whose own grasp on the realities of the Twentieth century were manifested clearly in his writing and activities. ‘Art disputes reality,’ he wrote, ‘but it does not hide from it.’ I believe art can dispute reality when artists address it forthrightly and bring creativity to bear on the enigma of being, on the problems and beauty embedded in our perceptions. And by sharing in reality, consciously, conscientiously, and with clarity. Which is to say: sanely.