Future illusions of reality, part 2

Continuing from yesterday…

As it happened, there was a bottle of soda on the table, within easy reach. Steve asked me to consider the question of whether this bottle was real or just an illusion created by augmented reality.

Of course we cannot ask that question today in any practical sense, because the underlying technology isn’t here yet. But sometime within the next decade, it may very well be.

“Suppose,” he said, “I were to reach out to take this bottle. If it is real, then I can take a swig of its contents. If it is an illusion, then I will go thirsty.”

He pointed out that this is different from the question of whether an image on a computer screen is “real”, because we already understand that such an image has no tangible substance. We never think that what is being represented might be part of our immediate physical world, and therefore we would never think to rely on its literal existence — for example, as a way to quench our thirst.

This sounded like a reasonable point, yet I was skeptical. It’s too easy to think of the technological advancements of one’s own time as being fundamentally different from the advancements that have come before, and I suspected Steve might be falling into this trap.

Precisely because any newly emerging technology is unfamiliar to us, we tend to credit it with outsized power. In contrast, we tend to dismiss the significance of advances from earlier times, because they are so familiar to us: Technological familiarity breeds technological contempt.

After all, we know quite well the cultural, social and psychological norms that bracket existing technologies, and therefore we understand the limits of their effect upon us. Yet we don’t have any knowledge of future cultural, social and psychological norms, so we tend to view future technological advances as being separate from any meaningful cultural context.

That is all well and good in principle, but objecting on principle was not good enough. I needed a more concrete argument. It wasn’t until the following morning that I worked through a counterexample that revealed the flaw in Steve’s logic.

More tomorrow.

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