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This website was archived on July 20, 2019. It is frozen in time on that date.
Exolymph creator Sonya Mann's active website is Sonya, Supposedly.

Will the Digital Future Be Human Enough?

It’s easy to get tired, isn’t it? I heard today that a company is implanting its employees with microchips. Is that a PR stunt or just run-of-the-mill creepy management? Another company, called ObEN, emailed me about its unsettling 3D digital avatars (pictured above). According to the company’s website:

ObEN’s proprietary artificial intelligence technology quickly combines a person’s 2D image and voice to create a personal 3D avatar. Transport your personal avatar into virtual reality and augmented reality environments and enjoy deeper, social, more memorable experiences.

The company is owned by HTC VIVE. ObEN’s about page says, “ObEN was created out of a personal desire for the founders to remain connected to their families by ‘leaving behind’ a virtual copy of themselves during long travels.” Obvious Black Mirror parallel is obvious.

The PR person’s email said, “Knowing it’d be their biggest hurdle, the company has already transformed voice personalization using AI and speech synthesis — so now your virtual doppelganger not only sounds like you, but it can also sing like you, but better… and in Chinese.”

I don’t know why these things depress me. There are infinite issues in the world to be upset about, and in fact ObEN isn’t doing anything wrong. I’m the asshole, honestly, for making fun of their technology. People are devoting years of their lives to working on the project. Getting past the Uncanny Valley is hard.

I guess tonight I’m reflecting on how the internet can be a medium of alienation just as much as a medium of connection. Default engagement modes like snark, which is so prevalent on Twitter and Reddit, generate a lot of good jokes by making people feel bad. The targets are abstracted away as obscure names on screens, so it’s easy to do.

Ironically, VR avatars like ObEN’s are supposed to address the problem of compassion collapse. We’ll find out whether they work soon enough…

Neon Exploration: A Quick Review of Hypercage

Craig Lea Gordon asked me to review his cyberpunk novella Hypercage. The book reminds me a bit of Black Mirror — reality with a techno-antisocial twist. Here’s a passage from the beginning that shows what I mean:

His wife’s face [formed] a frown of danger across the restaurant table. He was in trouble.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she demanded.

Dave paused as a set of notifications slotted up the side of his HUD, glowing vividly against the romantic lighting of their corner booth.

+200 Session XP
+100 XP Mission flare
+1000 XP Enemy craft destroyed
-1500 XP Mission objectives failed
Net score: -100 XP
Daily XP total: 71,265

Minus 100 experience points? And only a hundred XP for mission flare! That was fucking bollocks. He slammed the table with his fist. The two glasses of red wine wobbled uncertainly from the impact.

Hypercage suffers from a little too much emphasis on the futuristic tech at the expense of character development, but the story rollicks along. It won’t bore you. If you need the protagonist to be likable in order to enjoy a story, skip this one. Antihero fans will be fine.

I got sucked in once the main character discovered a VR plugin that was supposed to let his brain multitask, so he could carry on a normal life while maintaining his addiction to the in-universe Eve Online clone.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

Artwork by Surian Soosay.

That’s all. Go on home now. Or go download Hypercage.

Suicide Mortgages for the Digitized Self

"My suicide mortgage is 80% paid," meaning 80% of the digital self-copies you pledged into slavery have earned their deaths

@ctrlcreep on Twitter.

This idea of a “suicide mortgage” that @ctrlcreep came up with is fascinating. They expanded the concept on Tumblr:

“Death is not as easy as deleting a file: the powers that be work to preserve, do not grant you root access to your self, insist that you persist even as they chide you for burdening the system, move you to welfare servers, and ration your access to escapism. […] Euthanasia permits are the only way out, but their price is steep […] Under suicide mortgages, [exploitative] corporations sponsor swarms of copies, who work non-stop, pooling their wages to buy up euthanasia permits. Permits are then raffled off, and the winning copy meets death far sooner than would have otherwise been possible. Somebody who says his suicide mortgage is 5% paid means that 5% of his copies have earned oblivion.”

The appeal of this system to the “buyer” of the mortgage — who is a fully digitized person, which is why they’re unable to die in the first place — is that they might get to be the first copy deleted. However, intuitively, as the pool of copies working together gets smaller, they earn less, and it takes longer to buy the next euthanasia permit. Eventually the mortgage isn’t sufficiently useful anymore, and maybe each remaining copy arranges for its own suicide mortgage. The original digital self’s clones proliferate again.

Of course, there’s a hole in this idea: why use digitized selves for labor in the first place? In a future where we’ve figured out how to upload humans, we’ve certainly also figured out how to make artificially intelligent algorithms and scripts and programs, etc, etc. Maybe there’s some kind of draconian intellectual property regime that makes it more expensive to use AI than digitized human laborers? That seems fitting.

I’m sure there’s a startup in this imagined ecosystem trying to disrupt the suicide mortgage financiers. Let’s root for them, I guess.

Pastiche Review of Nirvana (1997)

Here’s how IMDb contributor Sembola describes the 1997 cyberpunk movie Nirvana:

“Jimi, a successful computer game designer, finds that his latest product has been infected by a virus which has given consciousness to the main character of the game, Solo. Tormented by the memory of his fled girlfriend Lisa and begged by Solo to end its useless ‘life’, Jimi begins a search for people who can help him both to discover what happened to Lisa and to delete his game before it is released.”

cyberpunk movie Nirvana from 1997

The blog 100 Films in a Year fills in a little more detail about the mysterious Solo:

“[W]e get to witness Solo’s experiences inside the game, frequently dying and re-living the same story with a group of characters who aren’t aware in the way he is. To be blunt, the in-game stuff is a bit odd. It doesn’t really go anywhere, and builds to a lacklustre climax — indeed, the word climax is a bit strong. But perhaps this is part of the point: as the only character in the game capable of independent thought, Solo is stuck in a loop of story and fellow characters who just re-enact what they were programmed to re-enact. Literally, he can’t go anywhere.”

Nirvana, 1997 cyberpunk movie

The Film Connoisseur gives the film 3.5 stars and opines:

“The thing about sci-fi films is that if you don’t have the budget to create a fictional world convincingly, it always shows. In the case of Nirvana, its budgetary restraints are evident in the cramped sets and small in scope story, but you can still see that the filmmakers tried their best to offer us interesting visuals in spite of their low budget. […] I love how low budget productions can force filmmakers to play with ideas and push the envelope and in that respect, I thought Nirvana did well. It has many ideas that help establish the futuristic elements.”

Nirvana, 1997 cyberpunk movie

And lastly, g33k-e says that despite drawing heavy inspiration from William Gibson’s Neuromancer

“Nirvana manages to remain distinct and unique in its execution of the central plot, as it deals with themes like the concept of artificial intelligences developing sentience, and the idea of immortality as a simple data construct.”

That’s how you review a movie that you haven’t watched — by assembling the best quotes from other people’s reviews!

The “Dot Hack” Anime

The .hack series sprawls confusingly through at least three forms of media, including video games and manga books. Here I just included the anime, which was more than enough.


.hack//Sign cyberpunk anime

“Tsukasa wakes up inside The World, a massive online role-playing game full of magic and monsters, and finds himself unable to log out. With no knowledge of what’s happening in the real world, Tsukasa must discover how he ended up stuck in the game, and what connection he has with the fabled Key of the Twilight — an item that’s rumored to grant ultimate control over the digital realm.” — Funimation

.hack//Legend of the Twilight

.hack//Legend of the Twilight anime

“Rena wins a limited edition character model contest for The World and invites her twin brother Shugo to play the legendary character Kite while she plays as the legendary BlackRose. On their first outing together, Shugo is killed by a monster, but is revived by a mysterious girl named Aura. As well as reviving Shugo, Aura gives him a mysterious bracelet. Shugo and Rena continue to play ‘The World’ and find many warped monsters.” — Wikipedia


.hack//Liminality anime

.hack//Liminality is an OVA series directly related to the .hack video game series for the PlayStation 2, with the perspective of Liminality focused on the real world as opposed to the games’ MMORPG The World.” — Wikipedia

Couldn’t find much else about this one, but the Wikipedia page and the .hack Wiki page have varying amounts of information about the plot and how this title fits into the overall .hack universe.


.hack//Roots cyberpunk anime

“In the newest version of the massive online RPG know as ‘The World,’ Haseo and his guild mates search for a legendary item called the Key of the Twilight—but they’re not the only ones looking for it. When a rival guild faces off against Haseo and his teammates, the conflict has deep repercussions both inside and outside the game, and threatens to leave the players forever changed.” — Funimation

.hack//G.U. Trilogy

.hack//GU Trilogy anime

“After one of his friends falls into a coma playing an online game called The World, Haseo logs in to find the man responsible. But before he can unravel The World’s many mysteries, he’ll have to awaken the secret power hidden in the code of his character.” — Amazon

The next part is .hack//G.U. Returner; there is more information on MyAnimeList and the .hack Wiki.


.hack//Quantum anime

“Tobias, Mary, and Sakuya are into the The World. Together, they grind toward the break of day and run dungeons in search of the artifacts of adventure. But when the trio becomes lost in this virtual labyrinth, their lives will change forever.” — Amazon

.hack//The Movie (Sekai No Mukou Ni)

.hack Sekai No Mukou Ni

“In 2024, the computer network prevails throughout daily life. Sora Yuuki is a 14-year-old girl. One day, she is invited to an online game ‘The World’. After an accident in the game, the real world begins to deform.” — MyAnimeList

“But not all is well in The World: a malicious virus has been spreading around the net and will soon cause a new network crisis. Aura, the omnipotent goddess of The World has devised a plan to stop the virus, and although Sora might not know it yet that plan requires her cooperation.” — .hack Wiki

Sekai No Mukou Ni reportedly also includes an OVA short called Thanatos Report.

Mundane Media Addictions + Snapchat Fever

I am inundated with information. It’s my default state now, and anything else feels odd. If I’m not actively intaking or creating media, I get restless because I’m under-stimulated. My senses are constantly processing multiple layers of pictures and text and sound. Most of my daily socializing happens through the internet — well, through glossy frontend interfaces that live on top of web infrastructure powered by the internet. Technically speaking, I understand none of this. Experientially, it’s natural.

Snapchat Fever Doom

Blatantly stolen from BuzzFeed.

Snapchat Fever

Back in February, a BuzzFeed employee named Ben Rosen wrote about how his teen sister uses Snapchat. I have to admit, it was a little bit frightening. I’ve seen my own little sister use this app too, and even though I’m in my early twenties, it makes me feel ancient. Media production is how I support myself, broadly speaking, so it’s terrifying not to have a handle on the latest ~hot~ platform. I talk melodramatically about stuffing my face full of photos and words, but I’m not on this level:

“I would watch in awe as she flipped through her snaps, opening and responding to each one in less than a second with a quick selfie face. She answered all 40 of her friends’ snaps in under a minute.”

Rosen included this quote from his sister: “I don’t really see what [my friends] send. I tap through so fast. It’s rapid fire.” Predictably, in the comments a bunch of adults chimed in with varying expressions of horror and fear. Someone named Jeanie Glaser said, “It never ceases to be amusing, how every single generation can be so certain that the one coming up after them will be the one that is going to bring about the death of humanity.” She has a point.

I don’t foresee doom and gloom, but I do foresee my own irrelevance. It’s not something I want to be aware of — the inevitable eclipse. I feel like my media intake is extreme, compared to how I grew up, and I’m someone who leaves her phone on the side table at night and reads a paper book in bed. I still have the patience for long magazine pieces. My intellectual and entertainment habits are very slow-moving compared to the dreaded teens.

What will it be like when virtual reality is integrated into our daily lives? Perhaps, ironically, it will strip away one of the layers of information that we perceive, since we’ll be immersed in constructed worlds. Or maybe VR will just add another set of interfaces for users to manage. Will Facebook build a Facebook app for the Oculus Rift? If they did, would it feel hopelessly antiquated?

The Inconvenience of Being Anything Other Than Human

The following post was contributed by John Ohno. You may know know him as @enkiv2 from the Cyberpunk Futurism chat group or the #botALLY chat group. This dispatch serves as somewhat of a correction to my previous mentions of Second Life — here and here — for which I am grateful.

John provides more hands-on details about the logistics of virtual self-representation. He did want to add this caveat: “I haven’t even been on Second Life since, like, 2012 or 2013, so maybe things have changed. I haven’t been keeping up.” Regardless, his recollection of the process is interesting…

While it’s possible to get non-human avatars in Second Life, doing so is more technically difficult than getting human-shaped ones. Second Life ships with the ability to customize within the range of pretty human-shaped avatars, but all non-human ones are third-party extensions that frequently break when Linden Labs makes upgrades. Ultimately those extensions are fairly expensive and not very customizable, because of the cost to upload meshes.

At normal exchange rates, it costs about a dollar to upload a texture and a dollar to upload a mesh. An interesting avatar might require three or four new textures and a couple of meshes. Most people are unwilling to pay that and equally unwilling make the 3D-modeling effort in the first place. If somebody else does it for you then you end up with a mass-produced avatar that can’t be customized.

You see a similar pattern on the open grid, where there aren’t any actual monetary costs for uploads, so I think the barrier is just effort and lack of customization.

Linden Labs’ business model is designed around exchange with the in-game economy, and the primary method they have for forcing people to participate economically is to charge for uploads of certain types of content. There are a lot of things that you can do in-game without any money. But there are different domains.

Built-in avatar customizations are within the same domain that you’d get in The Sims. You can change your height, breast size, eye size, hair style, nose length, and stuff like that. You can make yourself muscular or skinny. You can change your skin color to any color in the palette. You can wear any built-in or free clothing, or compose your own out of built-in or free textures, of which there are plenty. I used to play as an eight-foot-tall muscular green-skinned guy with red eyes in a leather trench coat, none of which cost me anything.

However, if you want to diverge from the humanoid form, you’re replacing your avatar with an object that isn’t treated as an avatar. Objects can be created in-game for free, but there are resource limits based on the number of “prims” — primitive shapes. When you’re building with prims, you’re stuck with things like spheres and cubes and toruses and pyramids. You can theoretically make anything out of them, but it’s time-consuming and most “sims” (sixty-five square kilometers of land) have an upper limit of a couple hundred prims at a time. If you go over that, prims will disappear or be rejected. So you can’t build something really complex out of prims and wear it unless you expect to be literally the only person or object within sixty-five kilometers.

About ten years after Second Life launched, Linden Labs added a couple mechanisms for getting around prim limits. Both of them involve doing your 3D modeling in some outside program and uploading a file. One is “sculpties”, where you turn a height map into a texture and use it to warp a sphere. The other is “meshes”, where you export a 3D model and import it as a single object, counted separately from prims for resource-usage reasons.

Super-custom avatars are typically made by shrinking or vanishing your human avatar, and then wearing one or more meshes. I’ve seen some cool ones, like Futurama-style heads in jars that float. The head-in-a-jar thing can theoretically be a single mesh and doesn’t require special animations, so that’s fairly cheap — but you need to model somebody’s head. On the other hand, if you want to have a kitten avatar, you’re going to need separate meshes for the legs and tail and upload animations for the walk cycle if you want it to do anything other than glide.

Thank you, John! The takeaway is that supply chains still matter in the virtual world. You can’t design an MMORPG without constraints, and I have to wonder if we’d even enjoy exploring the resultant world if that weren’t true…

Imaginary Numerical Encroachment

Remember imaginary numbers? In case you need a refresher — I did — here’s what Wikipedia says:

“An imaginary number is a complex number that can be written as a real number multiplied by the imaginary unit i, which is defined by its property i2 = −1. The square of an imaginary number bi is −b2. For example, 5i is an imaginary number, and its square is −25. Except for 0 (which is both real and imaginary), imaginary numbers produce negative real numbers when squared.”

The square root of a negative number has no representation in the physical world. You can hold a couple of apples in your hand, but you can’t hold the square root of -4 apples in your hand. Searching for i leads you to a paradox. Of course, the idea of a negative item is already nonsensical — even regular negative numbers are concepts without material form. And yet they’re “real”, if that term can be judged applicable. The most simple example of IRL negative numbers is finance: any balance you owe can be represented by negatives. But imaginary numbers specifically are used in electrical engineering and physics.

Image by fdecomite.

Image by fdecomite.

There are two basic ways of looking at math. Either math powers the universe — it’s the underlying engine — or math simply describes the universe. In the latter scheme, arithmetic is a human construct. I think both of these frameworks are somewhat right. Math is a logical system based on units, and there is no logic without a mind to perceive it. And yet the regularity and accuracy with which numerical manipulation explains our world says that we’re onto something.

In an old Guardian article, Gareth Owen commented on imaginary numbers:

“They are of enormous use in applied maths and physics. Complex numbers (the sum of real and imaginary numbers) occur quite naturally in the study of quantum physics. They’re useful for modelling periodic motions (such as water or light waves) as well as alternating currents.”

Imaginary numbers are imaginary — it’s right there in the name — but they’re not exactly made up.

You know the joke, right? Literature is psychology is biology is chemistry is physics is math. Scientific inquiry always leads us back to numbers. Computer science is a kind of applied math (artificial intelligence even more so) and now I’m getting to my point. The internet emerged from this tension between real and unreal, and the way we talk about it reflects that. VR will be a new realm for us, even less solid in the everyday sense. The requisite devices are built with engineering expertise, founded on a system that no one can observe — we must rely on paradoxical tricks to make it work.

So what’s the conclusion? To be honest, I don’t have a profound insight to wrap things up. Maybe the takeaway is just that humans invented the term “real” and language is a flawed tool. Math is not inherent to the universe, and it doesn’t always function as a mirror of the physical world.

Go Ahead & Change Bodies; Just Remember To Take Your Soma

The following story was written by Reddit user ehwut in /r/blastfromthefuture, and is being distributed here with permission. Lightly edited for this venue. You may notice that the style slips in and out of newsiness — I must chasten you to remember that the journalistic habits of 2064 will differ from our own.

Pamela Greensbury is a member of a human group once thought extinct: a stay-at-home mother. Whenever her friends brag about their accomplishments since the introduction of Kindercryo chambers, Pam feels horrified. “I keep thinking, what happened to a normal childhood? Watching cartoons, playing in the yard, going to school? Today, kids learn everything in their dreams. They miss out on so much.”

Pam’s objections echo the headlines we were accustomed to back when decades-old VR academy brands were first becoming household names. Her peer group regards her as the economic equivalent of lifelong lunar pioneers wobbling and fumbling under full Earth gravity. Pam told me, “No one remembers the work that a full-time live household requires. For choosing a traditional path, I was nearly isolated, and became a kind of quaint thing kept around for decorum.” She says that she has few friends.

Photo of Navajo children playing from the US National Archives.

Photo from the US National Archives.

We seldom hear their stories, but mothers who share Pam’s frustration with our twenty-four-hour work culture are more commonplace than we may think. Last year, the SomaCo plant strikes across New Jersey were mostly led by women who professed to be frustrated with being denied their natural range of emotion. In Beijing there are rumors of armed revolt by couples who demand a right to private intimacy as a matter of humanist faith. Have we tread down a path our species was never meant to go?

Doctor Rowan Johnson of the Center for Economic Culture may have the answer. “We tend to forget the struggles of the past once they’re over with. At one time, women couldn’t vote, men were expected to solely shoulder the bloody cost of war, and parents had to maintain nearly endless reserves of energy and discipline to raise their children in person. Kids played, yes, but they also got hurt. There were vaccination objectors, cultural battles between the genders, epidemics of abuse in various forms, and totally out-of-control rates of anxiety disorders.”

“Now, we are free to pursue our goals. We contribute to society every waking moment, our children are safe, and yet women object to the loss of their motherhood role. Men feel displaced in a culture that no longer provides them with any gender-specific role expectations. We may not always see the resentment there, bubbling beneath the surface of our collective social consciousness, but it is very real. National mood regulation has failed to correct this. We might as well face the truth — the alternative seems to be a return to the old days of social calamity.”

Perhaps no longer. Doctor Johnson has worked for thirteen years to perfect what his research team calls the ultimate solution for personal freedom. Through a combination of applications of nanomolecular manufacturing, gene therapy, and a minimal number of implant procedures, volunteer subjects have been gifted with the ability to take total moment-to-moment control of their physical identities. A simple interface allows users to change their gender, fine-tune their physical attributes, and even (despite much controversy) change their race.

“This is the true end of the gender divide.” Doctor Johnson beamed as he showed off a set, which the FDA is expected to rubber-stamp this December. “We can revert to the old way of doing things without disadvantage, due to attributes previously beyond our control. If our work reaches the mainstream, then matters of old contention such as equality and social injustice can be mitigated with the touch of an icon. Does somebody think they’ll be discriminated against for their gender? Then they can take on the appearance of the opposite gender for work and go back to their natural looks when they get home. Is there evidence of disproportionate law enforcement? Then adopt the characteristics of the privileged race while in public. Never before has the individual had such power to overcome social obstacles.”

Photo of a protest marcher from the US National Archives.

Photo from the US National Archives.

But not everyone is convinced. Pamela Greensbury seems like a natural fit to advocate for this solution, which might draw people back into the physical world, but her testimony before the Senate Human Augmentation and Enhancement Committee proves otherwise. “We cannot sacrifice our individuality and diversity to save ourselves from ourselves. We will only adopt new problems! What happens to private relationships when the people you meet in public aren’t who you think they are? What will the psychological effects be when people feel forced to hide their race or gender in order to succeed? We’ve gone too far down a dangerous road already by sacrificing our nature to eliminate problems. Hiding from those problems is no solution either.”

Doctor Johnson was reached briefly for comment. He sighed and said, “Take away the root of these problems, and somebody complains. Give people the tools to mitigate discrimination with the freedom to live however they want at home, and somebody complains. Let people figure it all out for themselves, and somebody complains. Solve problems through regulations, and somebody complains. Anybody who doesn’t like our work doesn’t have to use it.”

It’s too soon to guess whether we’ll see a new kind of diversity or just continue as usual. The market will be the ultimate test. In the meantime, we may be wise to question those who stand in the way of progress. On her way out of the Senate chambers, Pamela Greensbury was arrested for mood regulation noncompliance. A spittle test administered by security at the entrance to the building proved that not only has she not taken her soma in recent months, but she has never been treated. CPS is investigating allegations of neglect, but has not commented on whether her children’s mood regulation needs were being fulfilled.

Once again, I encourage you to join the subreddit and upvote ehwut’s story. Thanks to fellow Redditor and sub moderator mofosyne for directing me to this piece.

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