Sunday, November 27, 2011


My friend Warren and I have a running Scrabble game going – on our iPhones. He’s in Texas, I’m in Minnesota. On a lazy Saturday we might finish a game in less than an hour; more often a game stretches out for a day-and-a-half or so, with intermittent play wound into our routines.  The chat feature allows us to stitch our moves together with conversation and wise cracks – keeping in touch (which is actually the richest part of the whole deal).

Although it’s fun to discover that it’s “my turn” while idling fifteen minutes in the dentist’s waiting room, the most enjoyable experience of the game is the afore-mentioned Saturday morning with a cup of coffee, or around 5:00 – happy hour – with a glass of wine, not playing on the fly but replying back and forth with moves – and chat – in real (if occasionally interrupted) time.

This happy hour experience has made me realize that – beyond the fun of playing a game and the novelty of doing it electronically – what we are actually engaging in is the rapidly developing philosopho-science of virtual reality. Even though our Scrabble exchange is a rather minor and low-key expression of VR, I have a sense that something, well, virtually real is happening, and it is one small part of a significant alteration in human interaction and relationship that is not only technological but ontological. And it may not be an alteration at all, but more like a movement along a continuum.

What is virtually real is not just the click and clack of the game tiles, but the fellowship – yes, the emotional feeling – of the experience. If the standard of reality in this case is sitting in front of the fire, my friend across the table with a game board between us, a glass of wine in front of each of us, and the hum of chit-chat and the occasional bon mot passing back and forth, this virtual game offers about, say, 70% of that. So of course I’m not equating iPhone Scrabble with being in the presence of my friend, but, hey!, 70%!

I’m quite serious about this. I’m a quintessential “people person;” in the beginning stages of my entry into the world of computing (and iThings) I would have laughed if anyone had suggested that any of these applications would have the slightest resemblance to essential human interaction. But I’m experiencing it. And –  (the continuum) – what will this be like in 2061 when my friend’s image will come from the internet in my eyeball, we’ll chuckle in real time at one another’s wise cracks, and raise a glass to toast the beginning of a game, smiling eye-implant to eye-implant.

The more profound continuum – and the inspiration for this little essay – is provided by the cosmological theory of the multiverse. Proponents of this theory postulate that there could be an infinite number of universes, and, if that is the case, advanced civilizations have long ago developed the art of constructing simulated universes, which means, according to one application of the theory, that it is most likely that we are living in one of these fake universes – a virtual world created on some kind of non-digital super-computer.1  This puts a new twist on wondering how “real” the entire experience of playing virtual Scrabble is.

Physicists – even those who propose it – acknowledge that it’s difficult to tell if the idea of the multiverse is physics or philosophy (since it is scientifically un-testable).2 My virtual Scrabble game with my friend certainly lacks the physical, but, philosophically, it works. In the context of all that our friendship has to offer, it’s not good enough. But it’s pretty good.

1. For a mind-boggling, but accessible, discussion of the implications of the multiverse, see, "Cosmic Jackpot," by physicist Paul Davies.

2. There's a good introduction to the multiverse and string theory on the recent PBS "Nova" series, "The Fabric of the Cosmos," with physicist Brian Greene.

No comments: