The spirit of the internet
Also: revisiting Wild Palms and waiting for the metaverse.
Greetings to all readers and subscribers, and special greetings to the paid subscribers!
Please scroll down for the main topic of this newsletter. But first:
I have been watching again the awesome TV show “Wild Palms” (1993). This time I decided to complete the experience with “The Wild Palms Reader.” I had been looking for an electronic version of the book for years, but last December I gave up and bought myself the paper edition as a Christmas gift. This large format, heavily illustrated book is a visual feast that it would be difficult to reproduce in a Kindle-friendly electronic format.
The book is written from within the fictional world of the show and provides an excellent backstory. The cover features these words of William Gibson: “This fantastically intricate subtextual pendant to Bruce Wagner’s Wild Palms is a thing of beauty and genuine mystery: a vanished television mini-series gracefully everting itself to reveal literary formations of enigmatic depth and complexity…”
Gibson, Hans Moravec, and other futurist icons have collaborated to the book.
The show is set in 2007 (imagined from the nineties). Virtual Reality (VR) technology is somewhat more advanced that today and the metaverse is rising fast. Besides VR glasses there is life-like holographic tech and even drugs that trick the brain into experiencing physical interactions with holograms (yes, including sex). There is a VR-centered Church of Synthiotics. See the “Reader” for backstory, explanations, and in-depth write-ups on VR tech and Synthiotics.
I have been involved with virtual worlds for more than two decades. My friends Alejandro Sacristán y Carlos Peña have recently published a review (in Spanish) of our old adventures in the metaverse. The '“productivity-oriented metaverse Qwaq Forums” that they mention is now called Virtend and remains, I think, a great low-footprint, no-frills implementation of the metaverse.
Alejandro and Carlos think that VR and the metaverse are or will soon be experiencing a new wave and popularity. I’m open minded but sort of skeptical.
The adoption of VR has been much slower than expected. Gone is the Second Life hype of 15 years ago, and VR interface gear (Oculus and all that) is not popular yet.
I can do without VR gear - I find on-screen virtual worlds perfectly fine at this moment. Of course I will get VR interfaces for more immersive VR experiences when the time is right, but I don’t mind waiting. Perhaps Facebook (sorry, Meta) will make VR popular and the metaverse takeoff?
Perhaps things will change. In “Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality” (2017), VR pioneer Jaron Lanier says:
“VR is hard to do well even in a lab, and there’s still a lot to learn about how to make great VR products. Be patient… Just because it takes a while to figure a technology out, that doesn’t mean the world has rejected it…. Maybe VR will be huge, huge, huge...”
In a next newsletter I’ll review the related last book of David Chalmers, “Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy” (2022), which I’m reading now.
My friend Ralph Abraham, mathematician and philosopher extraordinaire, posted to social media to praise the (now vintage) book “The Spirit of the Internet: Speculations on the Evolution of Global Consciousness” (2000), by Lawrence “Lorenzo” Hagerty. Ralph said:
“This wonderful book… is still a wonderful appreciation of the potential of the internet for spirituality and consciousness. It is related to a dialogue I did with Terence McKenna in 1998.”
The book is out of print, but there are free pdf versions around (1, 2). I bought the ebook edition at Smashwords.
The book is about the place where we thought we were going. That place is still there, but we took the wrong path. I hope we will find the right path.
Reading the book feels like going back to the past. Or, back to the future that we imagined in the past. A retro future vividly pained in the colors of the nineties. Hagerty says all that we used to say in the nineties about the wonderful connected world of tomorrow (today).
Some of Hagerty’s descriptions of today’s world are accurate, e.g. the teenagers always on and fully immersed into their “electronic companions” (today we call them phones). Others are still hopeful speculations on the metaverse and the developing noosphere: read Hagerty’s account of the ideas of Teilhard, Terence McKenna, Ray Kurzweil, Erik Davis, Stuart Kauffman, and others including of course Ralph Abraham, to re-ignite your mind.
BUT. We have seen “commercial interests and the state alike colonize the new communications space” (quoted by Hagerty from Erik Davis’ “Techgnosis.”). Was this inevitable? Perhaps. Perhaps new things take off fast when (and only when) they help the incumbents become even more powerful and rich. But perhaps we can take back the internet?
Ralph noted that Hagerty’s (and ours) expectations for the internet have been frustrated “by the enormous and unexpected rise of evil in social media.”
I replied that, when you open something up to the world you always get a lot of heat and a lot of noise, but the light and the signal are still there with the heat and the noise. You just have to look harder. The heat and the noise are the price you must pay for the light and the signal.
To me, the problem is that evil is encouraged by the few giant companies that dominate today's internet. Why? Easy: they grab more power and make more money this way. Our internet was a loose federation of small operators, not a few greedy giant winners that take all.
“By 1990 I had essentially given up on the fate of the biosphere and noosphere,” Ralph told me a few years ago. “We had all done our best, nothing seemed to work.”
“Then, in 1994, I became aware of the innovation of the World Wide Web. This seemed to give us new hope, as the connectivity of the noosphere was getting this major bump. I poured all my creative energy into cyberspace. My optimism lasted a decade or so, until it seemed the forces of evil were once again pulling ahead. Now it seems we need another miracle.”
I commented that the new miracle we need could be a re-enchantment of the world inspired by science. But a smaller miracle that could materialize anytime would be fast takeoff of a decentralized internet. Shouldn’t we work on that or support those who do? The existing decentralized internet prototypes are very beta (actually alpha), buggy, and very far from critical usability, but so what? They won’t mature if we don’t use them. Are we too lazy? I restarted my explorations of my favorite decentralized internet platform and will report soon.
Cover picture: screenshot from Wild Palms.