If you could live in a simulation...

Imagine you could be attached to a virtual-reality machine which ran an utopian simulation. It promised you everything; an extended lifespan, endless pleasures at your fingertips, the freedom to roam wherever you wished, safety from harm, the power of a God. Would you choose to plug yourself in? Would you experience a hyper-reality greater than anything you could have on Earth? I would not. Here is why.

i) It would not feel real to me: The challenges in life would have to be perfectly mirrored in the simulation for me to feel any sense of accomplishment - in which case, why be in a sim at all? I think the fact that life is once, and that it can all go horribly wrong is what makes it what it is. This 'yin-yang' of suffering and joy which we try to balance makes up the totality of our life. Whilst the worst forms of suffering are inexcuseable and must be eradicated, the 'normal' level of suffering for those of us alive today is part and parcel of being alive. It gives us something to push against, to overcome our selves and the darkness outside, to be virtuous in a world of hypocrites and expedient interests, to make the most out of what we have and truly achieve some moral, intellectual or artistic project. Will the Great Sim always be a roller-coaster of good, or endless tranquility, without challenge or woe? Will the Great Sim turn us into a flaccid, limp, domesticated, formless blob?

I think it would. Worse still, it would not even genuinely create sensory happiness. As all pleasures and experiences are relative to others (think of how much better water tastes when you are thirsty) eventually we would become accustomed to our simulated joys and would require ever new heights in order to feel those sensations. Those who could not control their sense of pleasure would be more like sim-addicts than free individuals. In short order we would take for granted the pleasures of the Great Sim, and remain as unsatisfied as we are in the real world!

ii) Lack of sentient interaction: If I was experiencing a simulation alone, I would be isolated from every other person and animal. Unless other people were also plugged in to my sim, and I knew this, non-sentient programmes could have no meaningful intentions toward me (i.e. love, hate and such). The difference between winning the trust of the next-door neighbour's cat and programming a robo-cat to auto-purr every-time you come to within three metres, is the same difference between the intentions of a sentient being and the intentions of a computer programme.

If there was a sentient artificial-intelligence programme in the sim, why be in a sim at all and not in real life? And if there was a sentient artificial intelligence in the sim, my actions would no longer have a consequence only on me - the consciousness of a sentient programme is as valid as my own. Once we start creating artificial intelligences, they have every right to life and liberty as any human-animal does. To use sentience as a means for our own ends is as immoral as slavery.

iii) Natural Intuition: Philosophers have asked since the dawn of thought: how can I know what is real? My answer to this question lies in something beyond the senses - a natural intuition. This intuition is the offspring of the 'will to live'; the evolved drive which pushes us to continue existing and replicating. It guides us to survival through a sometimes-hostile world. In short, there is more to our perception than the five senses. We have an inner-sense that cannot be fooled.

Regardless of whether we are plugged into a simulation or not, this natural intuition will be part of us. The 'parent reality' from which we evolved over millions of years will be distinguishable from virtual reality. Even if this intuition became totally obsolete (and to a great extent it is - we are no longer hunter-gatherers for example) it would still be active. If we could find a way to 'turn it off' we must then answer the simple question this raises: How much of myself can I alter before I cease to be myself?

iv) External control of the simulation: The technology to create virtual realities is not the province of science fiction: it could happen in our lifetimes. This may appeal to some people, but we must ask from a political-ethical perspective: who would control the sim? Suppose there was a Great Sim which enhanced our lifespan by hundreds of years - if it it could be hacked by a malignant entity, the person plugged in to the sim could suffer for the entirety of the simulation.

That is a suffering way beyond anything found in nature. Even prey being eaten alive by African hunting dogs will die eventually, the suffering that could be caused to human-animals or artificial intelligence is worse to a far greater magnitude.

Just as no one could have predicted the extent to which computer viruses would be launched against innocently gormless users, who could predict the malice of those who wanted to lock someone into a simulated hell? Even with safeguards (escape words to end the simulation, outside forces being able to intervene and so on) there is no guarantee that something will not go disastrously wrong.

Conclusion: The future is both exciting and terrifying. We might live to see technologies that radically alter our way of life: self-replicating robots, life-like simulations, quantum computers, cybernetic humans, genetic engineering, ever-faster modes of transport, digital sentience, extra-terrestrial colonies.

If we do not start to think now about these impending changes, we may not be prepared for the ethical challenges they will inevitably raise. The less aware we are of these massive paradigm-changers, the greater the likelihood that they will fall into the wrong hands, or be put to malicious use.

We need to start imagining our techno-utopian societies now; the degree to which we will allow good technology to alter our lives. By dreaming of a positive future, we might then strive to generate it.

Selim Talat

Everyday Sexism: Part II

Last Thursday I attended a Guardian-initiated meeting on ‘Everyday Sexism’. The title is Behind the Headlines: What's all the fuss about feminism? and the blurb says: “Why do some women hate feminism?  What is the 'fourth wave' of feminism? Who decides what it means to be a feminist? Can men be feminists?  And, with the pay gap still widening and sexism prominent across campus and offices, where has it really got anyone?” In Part I the week before, I discussed the issues that might be addressed.

Well, it was a well-attended meeting at Red Lion Square’s well-known meeting-place, Conway Hall.  Laura Bates, convenor of the everyday Sexism group, presided, with a panel of four:

(a)  Yas Necati, 18, a student, campaigning against Page 3,
(b)  Bonnie Greer, OBE, playwright, black American feminist from Chicago,
(c)  Jane Fae, a transgender feminist, also writing on climate change,
(d)  Beatrix Campbell, Green Party, latest book The End of Equality, a call for a global feminism.

The meeting seemed very much a rally for the converted: when people referred to sexism on campus ‘which we had all come across’ no attempt was made to explain to the likes of myself, a man.  Obviously it related to some extent to gender roles and harassment, but I couldn’t get any feel for this.  None of the questions were really answered, except for a definite affirmative for the question “Can men be feminine?”

Mention was made of the men showing up, and we received a round of applause.  Thanks.  All the other men there, perhaps 20, seemed to be there with partners Coming back to the panels.  Anti-feminists might claim that feminists are a ‘load of harpies that stigmatise women for being women’. 

Er, no.  Even though Laura Bates wrote a very angry book on Everyday Sexism, she came across as a very friendly though business-like chair of the occasion.  Harpies?  I see no harpies.  I felt however a certain amount of anger at own experiences, and that heat was fuelled by an absence of light.

I will briefly go through four points arising from the discussion:

(a)  Why do some women hate feminism? 

Barely discussed, though Bonnier Greer made an aside about some feminists benefitting financially,  citing the monetary reward some movements receive for holding contrarian view. “We are developing a new narrative.”

But you only have to google on women+against+feminism to see the massive resentment of women at being talked to by women who think they may presume to know best   This may well be a matter of concern, but scarcely addresses the issue.

This anti-feminist view was clearly not generally comprehensible to most people present, at least those who spoke simply felt that anyone who has experienced either discrimination or harassment will wish to be a feminist.

(b)  Men and gender roles 

Obviously a lot was said about men, but I felt that Bonnie Greer made a very interesting remark:

“We must discuss the problems that boys have,” [Bonnie says, citing the ways they are pushed into masculine tropes, like sports.] “As feminists, we must have discussions about men and masculinity.”

I get trolled a lot by young men, [she continues] just speak to them as if they are human and it disarms them; they don't expect that, they expect a fight.... they constantly have to define manhood, not just in their houses, but everywhere, online, on the street corner: are you a man, are you a man, are you a man?

I also remember brief mention, by the Green lady, Beatrix Campbell.  According to the official blog  she said: “Feminism is very interested in men and masculinity; how could it not be?” and then brought up another audience question, about men taking on more feminine roles in the house. “Men themselves have not initiated any mass movement to enable them to take care of their children, to be parents rather than providers.”

One may note that mothers very often get the support of grandmothers, and now that men are living longer I am sure we should have a ‘Grandfathers For Justice’!  Not only would this help the fathers, but might make the grandfathers live even longer!

(c)  Sex and Page Three

I am afraid the discussion of Page Three, led by Beatrix Campbell, was so poor I wondered whether I should become a supporter of said Page.  She first shared the fact that the topless feature began in the same year the first Women’s Liberation conference was held in Britain. “It was Rupert Murdoch’s riposte to feminism in Britain. It is not about the glorification of women. We should be absolutely confident in our repudiation of [Page 3].”  It wasn’t meant to glorify anybody.  Nor do I think it was about a riposte to feminism.  We were at the tail end of the permissive society, and Murdoch was not opposed to equality of the sexes: he equally exploits everybody.  I shall put on my thinking cap, but whatever merits there are should not be stolen for an exploitative establishment.

Ms Campbell brought up the idea that feminism should ‘celebrate feminine sexuality’.  To this a Page Three fan might retort that surely Page Three celebrates sexuality in general.  Crucial to such a debate are women’s intuitions.  Is there for example a class divide in such intuitions?

(d)  Who decides what it means to be a feminist? Can men be feminists? 

To my mind, if feminism is defined as gender equality, one may if one wishes call oneself a feminist: when asked whether they considered themselves feminist, some 90% of the audience put up their hands.  I did not.  Indeed I have no difficulty with the idea that feminism stands for gender equality, and that it is called feminism rather than masculinism since women are the losers in this inequality. 

However I am not a woman and lack the intuitions of a woman, just as they lack our intuitions and therefore I would be arrogant to claim to be a feminist.  I should be more concerned with battered husbands and victims of machismo taken too seriously.  Say I as the proud owner of the local Rugby Club scarf.  ;]  

But machismo is not always an amusing ritual in New Zealand at least I understand there is a disturbing level of young male suicides and men are decidedly better-placed to counteract this.

I have no trouble with “Ich bin ein Frau.” [except the word should be the feminine ‘eine’!], but if I am asked to celebrate female sexuality, I have no useful contribution to make.

To conclude... to my mind a key issue is gender roles, and related to this is the question of the discrepancy between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.  One must indeed strive to overcome obstacles to equality of outcome, but one runs the danger of a more authoritarian approach which does indeed tell other women what to do.

I also think that many political groups, and indeed many intellectual communities, must learn to recognize that there is a limit to people’s understanding: hypotheses should not be confused with established facts.  In this regard I have written before about ‘single peg reasoning’, and I feel that this helps to remind one of the limitations of our understanding.  My single peg in regard to feminism is that the vast majority of species and human communities have gender roles.  Why?

Martin Prior

Bel and his Butterflies

Jérôme Bel’s most recent stage work can easily be identified as the choreographer’s most audacious venture yet. Over the past two decades, Bel has established his name as an offbeat choreographer, raising questions on what dance is and what it could be. With his minimalist style and conceptual approach, he has consistently challenged audiences and redefined contemporary performance. Now, he has overstepped yet another boundary by collaborating with unconventional actors.

Disabled Theatre is a piece performed by Zurich’s Theater Hora. The actors all have a handicap, ranging from Down Syndrome to severe learning difficulties. The performance is simple and direct, owing to Bel’s choreographic style rather than the capabilities of the actors. Unsure of what is scripted and what is improvised, the audience is presented with comical occurrences and confronted with the dilemma of whether to laugh or not. The social preconception that laughter may be demeaning is countered with the fearlessness of the actors to express themselves as people. They are courageous, adventurous and creative; as the piece unfolds, their imaginative approach to movement and sound is revealed in surprising and poignant ways.

This piece inadvertently prompts our perception of the handicapped and what their role is in contemporary society. Accepting and embracing the disabled is a highly sensitive topic, especially in politics. It was only recently that the welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, claimed that some disabled people are not worth the minimum wage. His words, still ringing loudly with the advent of the 2015 elections, were passionately disputed in parliament. The debate soon escalated into the usual rivalry between Labour and Conservative, ultimately turning into the ever-present, archaic question of which party should be in power. Although Lord Freud had undoubtedly acted insensitively, the policy may have been a viable option to encourage more disabled people to work and feel valued by society. Instead of listening to each other and coming up with other solutions, the politicians carried the issue into a battle-field which was further dramatised by the media.

Regardless of whether the proposal had potential or not, it was shunned immediately due to the moral taboo of discrediting individuals born with a disadvantage.

It seems to be a recurring pattern that political stigma impedes objective analysis of any given situation. The attempted protection of ‘weaker minorities’ clouds the vision of what is actually the problem. In this case, the small portion of the British population that is deemed disabled is repeatedly generalised and their representatives have become overprotective. These representatives, both in parliament and at home, shout so loud that the people affected are not given the chance to speak for themselves.

However, through art, that seems to be changing. Disabled Theatre is just an example of more and more pieces that involve performers with handicaps. These art works raise questions on what it is to be different, not disabled. A physical or mental disability may be a disadvantage in some ways, but in others an enrichment - it is entirely dependent on one’s interpretation. Essentially, we are all different, and everyone has their unique quirks and imperfections. If anything, personal idiosyncrasies and diversity in opinion is what drives us forward - both as individuals and on a larger scale, as a society. Progression is a result of thinking outside the box, or in other words; daring to be different.

With this piece, Jérôme Bel lends these individuals a voice, an artistic input that carries more weight than its political counterpoint. Without making a statement or suggesting a particular response, Disabled Theatre is what it is. It opens up a space for human differences to be celebrated, admired and enjoyed. These actors are given the opportunity to project not only their handicaps but also their personalities into the world, which one day may aid us in changing our perception of the differently abled and how they contribute to society.

Beatrix Joyce

*The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) film by Julian Schnabel. Jean-Dominique Bauby wakes from a coma with locked-in syndrome and proceeds to write a book on his condition by developing a system of communication with his speech therapist. Another example of shifting public consensus through art.

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