Sunday, June 12, 2011

Review: Infinite Reality, by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson

Published: March 2011

Finally got around to it: June 2011

The notion of virtual immortality differs from the notion of preserving consciousness. The idea is that, with virtual “tracking data” collected over a long period of time, one can preserve much or even most of people’s idiosyncrasies, including a large set of behaviors, attitudes, actions, appearances, etc. One will not be able to “relive” life through an avatar, but nonetheless, a digital being that looks, talks, gestures, and behaves as they once did can occupy virtual space indefinitely. In this sense, there are two ways to think about “immortality.” One is extending the nature of one’s life to be able to continue to enjoy the fruits of living. The other, less experiential, is about preserving one’s legacy.


With The Matrix as their cultural touchstone for many of the arguments in this book, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson have put together an easy-to-digest primer for the future—and in some cases present—possibilities of living being our flesh and bone shells.

Virtual Reality is the book’s bread and butter—the creation of worlds and universes to slip into without ever having to leave our homes, or our bodies for that matter. The authors begin by taking us on an exploratory tour of virtual reality—through its conception, experiments performed, and even pop culture extrapolations of common ideas and hypotheses regarding the medium. Through virtual reality, the whole of human experience—things long since past or yet to come; fears to overcome; loves and relationships to explore—can theoretically be replicated, allowing users to expand far beyond the limitations of a soft, destructible human frame in an attempt to explore avenues rarely travelled.

As the authors dive deeper into this subject matter, it becomes clear that virtual reality is only the beginning. Through such means, and our increased incorporation of digital and online faculties into our daily lives, humans are leaving a wealth of digital footprints on the world—detailed information that can be used to construct experiences, eventually leading to the documentation and digitization of an individual’s life, possibly even one day uploading such information to an online avatar that, in a sense, can act and learn based on the accrued knowledge of the living body. Should we one day crack the secret of cloning, uploading a slate of memories, knowledge, and experiences into a replica body a la the mindjack experience of Neo learning kung fu in The Matrix, could prove the key to immortality.

This is, of course, assuming the makeup of an individual is based solely on their quantifiable experiences and memories. There’s an entire ethical and metaphysical side to the question that remains untouched in the book, though not to its detriment—engaging in a religious or spiritual debate regarding what it is that makes a human unique and impossible to replicate would have diluted the strength of the book’s focussed argument.

Blascovich and Bailenson’s book is a spark for a much larger, infinitely more complex set of questions and arguments both for and against the basic possibility of living forever through digital means. The science is presented well through a series of examples that build upon one another with no room for confusion. Though the book feels as if it is just scratching the surface of what this technology has to offer humanity, on individual, social, and historical levels, Infinite Reality offers a compelling introduction into a world far beyond what we can imagine, one that we’ve only begun to explore.

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