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Virtuality and Its Social Consequences in Traveller

This article originally appeared in Alarums and Excursions #503 in September 2017, and reprinted at the author's behest in the January/February 2019 issue.

virtual, adj, being on or simulated on a computer or computer network

virtuality, n, the quality of being virtual, or (generically) a virtual environment treated analogously to (cf.) reality

In Traveller, we take sophisticated computers more-or-less for granted, although some of the presented description—and the role played in most settings—might be more suggestive of the 1960s and 1970s than the 1990s or early 21st century. However, in the “real world”, we are seeing the development of virtual environments for interacting with others (for example, Second Life), and even for interacting with reality (‘augmented reality’ in smartphone apps, and Google Glass and other ‘VR goggles’). It stands to reason that a technological far future, such as is assumed for Traveller, will develop such concepts further, and if one wishes to explore transhumanism in Traveller (not generally done in the standard settings), such development becomes a necessity. This article is intended to outline some of the implications of virtuality as applied to Traveller.

The descriptive terms used (“Low”, “Medium”, “High”, etc.) are relative terms, comparing the subjective impression of the realism of virtuality to actual reality. One should not necessarily assume a rigid correspondence between virtuality level and tech level; the correspondence given here is simply a guideline should you wish to explore it further in play.

The Technology of Virtuality

Low Virtuality (TL 8-10)

At TL 8, virtuality involves only sight and sound. Users typically wear goggles, earphones and a microphone. By TL 9, various “haptic” accessories begin to provide tactile stimulus as well as taking physical input, but these are rudimentary and mostly in the category of “teledildonics” (sexual accessories). Motion is also added, and hardcore users will typically keep an empty room in their house or apartment where they can walk around, playing “Commando” or “Gigolo,” two ever-popular titles. By TL 10, there are finally decent haptic gloves, allowing for virtual keyboards as well as virtual musical instruments. Likewise, virtual treadmills become available, but the high-end ones require a fair amount of square footage, something that most houses won’t easily accommodate. While on one, the user can walk (or run) in any direction, and so long as the treadmill remains functioning, they’ll never reach the edge.

Medium Virtuality (TL 11-13)

Full-body haptic suits are introduced at TL 11. Getting shot in a virtual simulation feels a little bit like getting hit. How hard depends on the settings, which are customizable, but hardcore users often like to feel the pain and wear their bruises with pride. Haptic hoists are introduced at TL 12. These lift the user entirely off the ground so that they can experience the sensation of swimming, scuba diving, or even floating in zero-gee. By TL 13, haptic suits incorporate a finely woven mesh of electrical stimulators that are capable of teasing the nervous system into providing the brain with a number of artificial sensations, such that users can feel the wetness of water that doesn’t actually exist or the sensation of wind, which, again, is purely artificial. The illusion isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough for most users to willingly suspend their disbelief.

High Virtuality (TL 14-16)

With the invention of computer/brain implants at TL 14, Virtuality finally makes the great leap from haptic to neural. Users undergo a medical procedure in which microscopic SITs (Signal Interceptor/Transmitters) are nanosurgically spliced into their nerve fibers. These, in turn, connect to a small wireless router, often placed alongside the brainstem, which allows them to receive sensory data and send nerve impulses to a computer. In short, users can experience full immersion or just augmented reality without any sort of haptic suit, earphones, or even goggles. Unfortunately, at TL 14 the procedure is still somewhat dangerous, and even when successfully performed, the experience of high virtuality is far from perfect. Users report that sensations can seem distorted or at times even incomprehensible, and using the technology often involves a period of adjustment. By TL 15, however, the bugs are mostly worked out, and users generally find that the experience of virtuality and reality are essentially indistinguishable. At this point, reality augmentation becomes the norm. Users are generally able to see other people’s names and professions before they are ever introduced. By TL 16, the experience of virtuality improves further, becoming even more vivid than reality. Users can also communicate telepathically, simply by thinking words to one another, although this feature remains buggy until TL 17.

Advanced Virtuality (TL 17-19)

As understanding of the brain continues to grow, the coding of memory and personality become understood from a neurological standpoint. Hence, by TL 17, neurosurgeons are able to splice SITs into the circuitry of the brain. In this way, two users can be put side-by-side, but instead of having access to their own memories, they can instead have access to each others’. At TL 18, users can experiment with what it’s like to have an entirely different personality. Entering a simulation can be like having a very realistic and detailed dream that you were actually somebody else. Users can even be railroaded without their knowledge, such that it feels like they’re making their own decisions, but in actuality, the entire simulation is pre-scripted. At TL 19, neuroscientists are able to upload and download memories and personality characteristics, such that people who are dying can make backups of their brains and then have these backups restored into a younger clone of themselves (or a completely different person). At this point, bodies are considered disposable and are sometimes called “sleeves” or “coils”. Of course, some people choose to continue “life” as an ‘artilect’ (artificial intellect), also known as a VIP (virtual intellect/person). Hence, with strange aeons even death may die.

Ultra Virtuality (TL 20+)

By TL 20, neuroscientists understand cognition and memory so well that they can now merge two memory sets into one. This allows a number of things. First, a VIP (virtual intellect/person) can literally be in two difference places at the same time. For instance, you could make a copy of yourself who goes and does some task while you’re doing something else, and then when you meet up with it later, you both merge back together so that you’ll have the memories of both. Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to just two copies. If you wished and had the resources, you could make billions. Memory overcrowding almost immediately ensues due to the necessarily finite architecture of the human mind, but this problem is solved at TL 21, when neuroscientists figure out how to parallelize this architecture, such that a VIP could theoretically have any number of memories, all cross-referenced in a manner that makes them intuitively and immediately accessible. At TL 22 things begin to get weird.

Social Consequences of Virtuality

Low and Medium Virtuality (TL 8-13)

Telecommuting: By TL 8, “telecommuting” becomes a buzzword, and people begin imagining the great cities emptying of workers, rental prices falling with the drop in demand, as everyone begins working from home, many perhaps living very far from their place of employment. Alas, this does not happen all at once, although the process does begin rather slowly, and as the technology improves and becomes more accepted, it then speeds up, so that by TL 12, virtual clothing exists as a software accessory. Instead of a group of co-workers meeting in a conference room, they can be scattered over the world, each at home in their underwear.

Virtual Avatars: The use of virtual avatars also becomes commonplace, allowing the user to modify their appearance, their voice, and even their gender, and this is a particularly thorny issue for people who use virtual dating applications in order to meet potential mates.

‘Physitars’: For workers who absolutely have to be there in the physical sense, “physitars” (physical avatars) are able to mimic their every move. Hence, a surgeon can be at home in his haptic suit as his physitar performs the actual surgery somewhere on the other side of the planet. Of course, the military absolutely loves this technology. Instead of having to lose actual soldiers in ground combat, they can fight with an ever-replenishing army of physitars. Likewise, police can enter bad neighborhoods without fear of being shot. Hence, the technology tends to centralize power while at the same time freeing individuals from the tyranny of distance.

Homebuying: Virtual walkthroughs gradually become the industry norm. In this way, buyers can also see what a space would look like with different colored paint, different flooring, and even different furniture.

Education: Schools also begin to go virtual, allowing many more students to sit in on a lecture than any lecture hall could accommodate. Instructors record their lectures, editing together the best parts so that they don’t have to give the same set of lectures year after year. Even the question and answers sessions get recorded so that they may be reviewed years later, and voice recognition technology converts all the 3d-video to time-indexed text making the whole thing searchable. The upshot is that classwork (listening to the lecture) becomes homework and homework (working on problems) becomes classwork. It is commonly referred to as “flipping the classroom.” Furthermore, because lectures and the Q&A are all recorded and put online and students are kept engaged in class, there are fewer classroom management problems. Schools can also organize “virtual field trips” with relative ease, and the technology also lends itself to different schools competing in academic tournaments since these become much less expensive to organize. Finally, the technology is particularly impressive insofar that when people experience something directly (even in a virtual environment), it sticks with them much better than had they merely read it in a book or heard it spoken about in a lecture. Virtuality allows students the illusion of having directly experienced a given subject matter, whether it involves dissecting a virtual frog, conducting a virtual chemistry experiment, walking around inside a virtual red blood cell, or being “in the room” during a virtual historical reenactment. Educators eventually figure out that by transporting students out of the classroom, virtuality can make learning easy and even fun.

High Virtuality (TL 14-16)

Convenience Leads to Some Loss of Control: While it was possible to virtually “hang out” with friends prior to High Virtuality, the ability to enter the virtual environment or just an augmented state without any sort of external equipment makes virtual and augmented living the height of convenience. Those who don’t want to undergo the operation (there are risks) end up being largely left behind, as they cannot so easily participate in various virtual gatherings. But those who do make the transition suddenly find themselves permanently connectable to everybody else who has also made the leap, and sending a connection request is as easy as saying the person’s name. The only possible problem is whether or not their request will inconvenience the other user. For this reason, users often use virtual agents (in effect, expert systems) to select whether or not they will accept virtual requests based on whatever they happen to be doing. Instead of the actual users playing phone-tag, the virtual agents coordinate with one another to set up an opportune time for a virtual meeting. One problem that occurs, however, is that it becomes very hard to dodge people without it becoming obvious that you’re dodging them. Also, by delegating the task of answering requests to a virtual agent, it’s possible to lose control of one’s downtime. It’s a great world for people who thrive on social interaction, but for introverts it can quickly become a bit overwhelming.

Privacy Issues: High Virtuality also brings with it the ability to record all of one’s interactions, virtual or otherwise, all the time, and this raises obvious concerns for people who are used to being able to talk with others without having to worry about their remarks being recorded. Hence, many societies will set up rules that if you are recording, you have to let the other person know. This is mostly done automatically though the software. But software can be hacked, and so the truth of the matter is that in a society where High Virtuality has been widely adopted, people can never be sure that they aren’t being recorded, not even during their most intimate moments. And, what with people being people, it should not be surprising that trust is occasionally betrayed. Privacy is further compromised by hackers as well as the power of the state to conduct surveillance on its citizens. Because users are always online, it is at least theoretically possible for law enforcement to invisibly drop in at any moment to secretly check up on whatever they happen to be doing. Furthermore, it is also theoretically possible for law enforcement or a hacker to slip in and set up a method of recording everything that someone does. This, obviously, further centralizes power and makes any sort of revolution against a given political system or authority completely and utterly impossible.

Sexual Issues: It is sometimes said that one of the best but least discussed benefits of High Virtuality are the sex applications. With Low and Medium Virtuality, virtual sex generally involves some form of “teledildonics” (sexual accessories), but High Virtuality bypasses the sensory organs, piping its illusions directly into the nervous system. Basically, it’s like having a wet dream, except that it’s every bit as vivid as real life and you’re wide awake. Users’ sexual appetites are sated by virtual prostitutes and/or expert systems that grow increasingly proficient with advancing technology. Many users report that virtual sex is even better than the real thing.

Relationship and Reproduction Issues: The degree to which people are always connected to the outside world combined with the breakdown in intimate sexual relations tends to result in a society of individuals. It doesn’t happen in all societies, but in most, marriage falls by the wayside as an anachronistic institution that had more to do with the ownership of one gender by another than with deep mutual affection. As for procreation, by this point artificial wombs have long since diminished the female’s need to lend her body in a reproductive capacity. In many societies, childrearing is tightly regulated, and in others, the functions of reproduction and parenthood are completely subsumed by the state.

Virtual Addiction: By TL 16, a good chunk of the population essentially lives in cyberspace. People are able to experience extreme sports without ever moving a muscle. As for getting together with friends, it stops making sense to travel to see them in person when you can see them virtually just by speaking their name. Many prefer not to leave their dwellings because they are ashamed of their physical bodies. In virtuality they look and feel like superheroes. There’s no way that real life can compete. For some, even the business of getting up, eating, and shitting become unwelcome chores. Some people go so far as to have their bodies hooked up to feeding and waste elimination tubes as though they were in a coma so that they can literally spend their entire lives in virtuality.

Advanced Virtuality (TL 17-19)

Sophont Rights Extended to Animals: With such advanced knowledge of what exactly is going on inside the brain, neuroscientists are able to codify the process that results of self-awareness, also called sentience or sapience. However, one ethical problem that occurs is that when you just look at this process, it becomes rather difficult to segregate humans from the higher animals, such as mammals and birds. Many creatures tend to fall under the neurological definition, and so this, of course, promotes concerns over how such animals are treated. Likewise, to compound these concerns further, just as people are able to experience being other people, so too are they able to experience what its like to be, for instance, their dog or cat or the cow they just ate. Hence, one social consequence of Advanced Virtuality is a continual push toward veganism, which in many societies is finally codified into law.

Sophont Rights Extended to WAPs: A WAP (wholly artificial person) is an AI that does not derive from an organic being. WAPs are first developed at TL 17, and by TL 18 they become society’s workforce. Because their personality traits can be programmed, numerous safeguards are built in to prevent them from rebelling against organic/biological people. However, there are many who see ethical problems with society creating what amounts to a slave caste, and as people beginning making the jump from an organic to a virtual existence at TL 19, these concerns become even more pronounced, as there is a question as to whether post-biological VIPs should have all the same rights as biological humans, including ownership and control of physical resources, or whether they should be relegated to a purely virtual existence, and if they are allowed ownership and control rights in the physical world, why should the fact that they originated in a biological state allow them these rights when WAPs essentially have no such rights and, furthermore, are for the most part even subject to stringent personality controls? Ethically, it all makes for a confusing situation which each society must sort out according to its own set of traditions and moral/legal framework.

Interrogation via Technology, not Torture: With improvements in the understanding of how the brain works, law enforcement is able to get to the truth much more quickly than ever before. Criminals sing not out of fear or to make a deal but rather because they think they’re talking to their best friend who they trust completely, even if they never had a best friend nor trusted anyone. Unfortunately, employers can also use the technology to intrude into people’s personal lives to whatever extent the state allows them to do so. Hence, there is increasing tension between privacy/individualism and transparency/collectivism, and different societies will end up falling into different niches along this spectrum, however, the technology by its very nature tends to pull societies toward the latter.

Ultra Virtuality (TL 20+)

Psychohistorical Research and the Rights of WAPs: It is worth noting that although WAPs never existed in a biological state unless they were transferred into a living sleeve, they still had some sort of childhood and may have even lived an entire “life”, albeit in virtuality, never suspecting (unless, like Nick Bostrom, they happened to deduce it through logical reasoning) that their world was non-physical. This is certainly the case for WAPs that were created during the course of psychohistorical research.

Even before TL 20, psychohistorians realize that they can study the mechanics of history in a more precise way by running virtual historical simulations. These simulations are populated entirely or almost entirely by WAPs, and their job is to unwittingly relive a stage of history in order to help psychohistorians better determine the robustness versus the fickleness of history itself. These scenarios often involve thousands, millions, or even billions of WAPs, and the questions that they collectively answer can range from the sublime to the horrific.

For example, what might have happened if a dictatorship rather than a democracy had been the first to invent nuclear weapons? How different would the next, say, three hundred years have been, and by the end of those three centuries, what aspects of the false history would be converging with the real history and what aspects would be continuing to diverge, and if you ran the simulation multiple times, to what extent would it tend to produce the same results?

Obviously, you can’t recreate the exact state of the real universe at any particular point in history, so you can’t re-run the history of an actual, physical society, but if you create a false (virtual) universe, so to speak, then you can save it at some critical juncture so that you can go back again and again to this saved state to test different theories and draw conclusions. It is at this point that psychohistory truly transforms from art into science.

Of course, this raises the question over what to do with all those WAPs? In the physical universe, as far as can be discerned, nature treats all life the same, recycling both sentient and non-sentient organisms back into non-animate matter. There is no indestructible soul, unless it exists at a level unknown even at TL 20. However, in virtuality, death like life is but an illusion, and so all the WAPs can dwell for however long the hardware and software continues to support their existence. So the question is, do these WAPs have any rights, or to phrase it another way, do the psychohistorians running these research projects have any duties to these virtual subjects that they’ve created? And this question has numerous facets.

For example, under what condition, if any, is it okay if a WAP should suffer in the course of this research? After all, history is a bloody mess, and so it should come as no surprise that virtual histories are likewise. Furthermore, should WAPs that have unwittingly participated in psychohistorical research be entitled to any sort of afterlife? Should they, for example, be accorded the same rights and privileges as VIPs? Because, after all, there is only so much computer processing power to go around, and if allowed an equal vote, they would completely dominate the society by the sheer strength of their numbers.

For those entities (organic people, VIPs, WAPs) who are given to trust in a higher cosmic consciousness that presumably notes our existence, though for what purposes is unknown and perhaps unknowable, these questions may be interpreted as a sort of test of the society itself, and so there is a certain uneasiness, a nagging suspicion, if you will, that perhaps those running the virtuality are only a small piece of somebody else’s virtuality, and so how they treat those beneath may ultimately determine how they are in turn treated by those above.

TL 20 brings a somewhat kludgey technical solution to these moral problems insofar that WAPs that originated from a similar framework or through division can be merged together, their virtual experiences and personalities blending into a Combined WAP or a CWAP. Hence, in order to alleviate their sense of guilt or responsibility, the administrators of such virtual simulations may combine all the WAPs into a really massive CWAP, which feels about as good as it sounds, as what this does is it forces every individual who is a member of this Borg-like collective to answer to all those they have wronged, because without adequate reconciliation, the merger will be inherently flawed, the resulting CWAP being wise with sin but conflicted and self-loathing often to the point of insanity due to an inability to accept what it has done and suffered.

There is also the question over whether the individual WAPs still have the right to an independent existence regardless of whether or not they have successfully merged with their brethren. In cases where they have, system administrators will often leave it to the CWAP to decide such issues, as it is commonly thought that the collective entity should have the right to determine how to allocate whatever CPU cycles are allotted to it after the termination of the simulation set. However, even in cases where the CWAP cannot successfully emerge, which is about as painful as it sounds, it is generally the case that a sort of “afterlife” is created for the individual WAPs, where they have access to the full simulation including all of its branches, including knowledge of whatever errors crept into the simulation due to the vagaries of quantum processing, such as, for example, when the program fails to completely wipe a WAPs memory prior to its next incarnation in the simulation, resulting in past life memories, which would clearly be impossible in the physical reality.

What they then do with all of this data is quite interesting, because for each of these WAPs, the simulation is the only world that they know. Many, of course, engage in conversation with those who they knew inside of the simulation, those who have “passed on” before them as well as those they left behind when they themselves “passed on.” Likewise, many choose to re-experience select parts of their virtual lives. There are also many who desire to create new “twigs” by making different decisions, although this is difficult, because in order to do it, they either need to enlist other WAPs to play their parts or they need to play these parts themselves by temporarily offloading their personality and memories so they can fully assume the roles of the other actors in the simulation. And then, of course, there are the artists who want to create something entirely new, staging their own “What Ifs,” such as what would have happened if Jesus met Muhammad?1 Finally, there are the artists who want to create a new simulation out of whole cloth, enlisting others to play the characters. These are the roleplayers, and, of course, they are universally revered.

1: I’m guessing that this probably would have gone badly