Is Illusion Better than Reality?: Holodecks, Hyperspace,
McLuhan and the Meaning of Life:
by Stephen F. Haller
I find the sounds of Star Trek extremely comforting - the clicks, whirs and beeps of automatic doors and futuristic computers. I love the gentle, soothing, familiar hum of the warp-core engines. If only I could somehow get inside the television, I think, the experience would be even more rewarding.
This is not a wish on my part to escape reality. Paradoxically, it is a desire to participate in it more fully. It is not a wish that is specific to Star Trek either. I have the same desire for a more participatory experience in other areas of interest as well. When I go to the theatre to see modern dance, I am unhappy that I have to sit politely in my chair - I want to jump up and join in! When I go to an arena to see, say, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan in concert, I long to sing along - after all, I know all the words, I can play guitar... .
Imagine that you could arrange things so that all your life experiences were enriched and that you could participate in events like those I mentioned above. Imagine that you could participate in events that never actually took place. Imagine your life working out better than any reasonable person could expect it to. Suppose, for example, your job is more rewarding than it is at present. Suppose your romantic relationships manage to avoid all the usual problems, your friends were always loyal and supportive, and your life had more adventure. Would not that be somehow a better life? I might even arrange things so that my name was on the cover of this book. Wait a minute, it is! But that is a different problem. I am not going to discuss the sceptic's problem of whether we might already be living in an illusion. Rather, I am going to evaluate the case where someone consciously and voluntarily chooses to live a life of virtual reality.
In the Star Trek universe, persons get to live these fantasies at their convenience inside the confines of a virtual-reality "holodeck." Holodecks have become a commonplace form of entertainment and diversion for space travellers of the 24th century. Using holograms and force fields to create the illusion of an actual experience, crew members of the Enterprise regularly dress in period costumes to play-act in the latest "holo-novel" based on Sherlock Holmes, Dashell Hammett, or James Bond. The holodeck can be programmed for Klingon calisthenics, or recreate a romantic sunset on Rigel-Five to serve as a setting for a romantic date. The holodeck can recreate characters from history so that Captain Janeway can share creative ideas with Leonardo da Vinci, and Lt. Laforge can play poker with Newton and Einstein. Meanwhile, on Deep Space 9, Miles O'Brien and Dr. Bashir regularly re-live the battle of the Alamo, and it is widely rumoured that exciting, but safe, sexual holo-adventures are always available - for a price - at Quark's bar.
This holo-activity, however, is constrained by all kinds of unwritten moral rules. The morality of using someone's image without their permission, for example, is dependent on the use to which that image is put. While Federation-culture apparently sanctions the use of images of real persons for "educational" purposes, it is a moral violation to program that image to do things that the real-life counterpart would never do - especially if it is merely for the purposes of amusement. So, for instance, Lt. Laforge's interactions with a holo-deck representation of a brilliant engineer, Leah Brahms, when she cannot be physically present is a good use of the technology, but having that holo-image act as if it were falling in love with you is not. The holo-deck, it seems, can be used in ways that are either healthy-minded or unseemly.
For example, a recurring character named Barclay has problems with holo-addiction. (Lt. Barclay's name is no doubt an allusion to the philosopher Bishop Berkeley, famed for his Idealist argument that the universe is constructed of ideas and not of physical things.) In the Star Trek: Next Generation episode "Hollow Pursuits" (ep. #68), we see Lt. Barclay undergoing psychological counselling after being caught programming the holodeck with comical representations of crew members that their real-life counterparts would probably find objectionable.
In a recent Star Trek: Voyager episode called "Pathfinder," we see Lt. Barclay at it again. We find out that he has been spending so much time in the holodeck that he hasn't had a chance to fully unpack and move into his apartment - despite having lived there for two years. "For some reason," Barclay reveals, "I never slept in my apartment as comfortably as I did in my holographic quarters."
"I've lost myself, Deanna," he confesses to Counsellor Troi. In flashbacks that recount his recent history, we see Barclay's supervisor scolding him for running holodeck simulations when he hasn't finished his "important" work. We see that Barclay "gets his days mixed up," and forgets appointments. He passes up invitations to dinner and chances to meet women so that he can get back to the holodeck. Inside the program, we see a re-creation of the Voyager crew treating Barclay in ways no real people ever have. Barclay always wins at poker. The crew's behaviour falls just short of hero worship. Everybody wants his advice, his company, his cooking.
"You are my best friends," Barclay tells them.
The doctor assures him, "You are an invaluable member of this crew Mr.
"Thank you doctor. I like to be appreciated."
Indeed, it seems like everyone on Voyager appreciates him. "You've outdone yourself this time," says Captain Janeway, after hearing about Barclay's theoretical ideas. "Impressive," chimes in the usually hard-boiled Vulcan Tuvok. Barclay is subsequently offered whatever resources he needs to complete his work - something that would never happen outside the holodeck.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, things are not going so smoothly for Lt. Barclay. He lacks self-confidence. Others derisively call him "Broccoli." He is having trouble with his superiors. They think the time he spends in the holodeck is excessive and that he should seek counselling. When Barclay replies that what he needs is for the supervisor to pay attention to his ideas, he gets suspended from his work. When an admiral finds out that Barclay has been chumming around with a holodeck re-creation of the admiral's son, he puckers his face in disgust and unhesitatingly tells Barclay that he finds this "disturbing."
Defending his holo-activities, Barclay explains that the holo-characters are the only people he can talk to, and that they help him with his work. Deanna Troi, a psychologist, however, accuses him of escaping his problems, rather than trying to solve them. Famous for always stating the obvious, she reminds him that holodeck characters are "not people" - as if that were the end of the matter.
In the end, Barclay proves his genius once again by successfully constructing the micro-wormholes that he and his holodeck-colleagues have been working on for months. Despite having just proven everyone wrong about the usefulness of his holo-deck activities, the viewers must still suffer a saccharine, moralistic final scene as we discover that Barclay is once more attempting to live in the real world - he even has a date with a woman named "Hope."
* * *
The Star Trek thesis seems to be that the technology of the holodeck is ethically neutral. While there is nothing wrong with the holodeck itself, certain uses of the holodeck are appropriate, and some are not. It is good for leisure activities, harmless diversion, releasing stress, exercising, and stimulating the imagination. These activities are approved because they produce desirable results. However, it is "wrong" to spend too much time in the holodeck, "wrong" to make friends with holodeck characters, to have dates with them, to fall in love. These inappropriate uses are, supposedly, harmful to a person's normal psychological development.
This ambivalence towards a particular technology seems strangely inconsistent with the general love affair with technology we find in the Star Trek universe. The writers of Star Trek usually present us with the naive belief that all technology is inherently good. Technology has apparently solved all problems. For example, there is no longer any need for money. They can replicate all the food they need. Synthetic ale has all the fun and other advantages of the real stuff, but without the hangover. The Enterprise goes around the universe using its technology to fix all sorts of problems - from curing diseases to stabilizing the geology of planets. We rarely see any downside to technology. Why, for instance, do people not gorge themselves on the endless supply of chocolate? Why do people rarely abuse the technological power they wield?
What is wrong with holodecks, then, is not the "artificialness" of the technology but something about the way it is used. I am going to try to formulate a few hypotheses that might explain this technological ambivalence of the Star Trek writers towards the holodeck. I find none of them able to justify the ethical criticism of certain uses of the holodeck.
The writers of Star Trek suggest that holodeck use is inappropriate when it cuts you off from any real-world alternatives available. Specifically, excessive holodeck use can cut one off from opportunities to connect with "natural" reality. Lt. Barclay, for instance, is scolded for passing up opportunities to have dinner with real people in order to spend time in the holodeck. This ethical maxim is reinforced in another Voyager episode where an important exception is made for Captain Janeway. She is excused from the usual moral censure against holodeck romance because she has no alternative. After all, an officer cannot be expected to be romantically involved with an ordinary crew member! The thesis seems to be that : One should always prefer the "natural" over the "artificial", unless there is no alternative.
This approach, however, faces the difficult problem of distinguishing what is "natural" from what is "artificial." They, and we, already live lives that are "artificial" in many ways. They, and we, use technology to protect us from the hostile forces of the universe; to communicate over long distances; to prepare our food. To single out the artificiality of holodeck technology as somehow deserving of special censure is unjustified unless further argument can be supplied.
As it is, this ethical formulation also begs the question, because it assumes without argument that the "real world" is better than a virtual world, when that is exactly what is at issue. Imagine two worlds - one "artificial", the other "natural." Is the "natural" one better? You cannot argue that the real world is better simply because it is exists.(1) In the end, the only argument against holodeck life seems to be an exasperated refrain of "But, it's not real!" My reply to this refrain is: "You say that as if it were a negative thing!"
The problems with virtual reality and the benefits of reality over artificiality have been discussed before. In the Star Trek movie Generations, Captain Kirk winds up in a place called "The Nexus" where time does not exist, and everything he dreams comes true. He can re-live his life and make different choices than he did the first time around. This time around, he thinks, he is going to choose the relationship over Star Fleet. Why does Kirk leave this paradise? Because he wants to "make a difference," and you cannot do this in an artificial world. To live in a virtual reality for any length of time, it could be argued, would be spiritually impoverishing because it eliminates the chance for actual achievements - and actual achievements are better than illusory ones. What the holodeck does is to provide the psychological equivalent of actual experience, but many have argued that there is something more to a one's well-being than mere psychological satisfaction. It actually matters that you achieve things, rather than just think you are achieving things. This argument, however, assumes that meaning in life can only be achieved through objective achievements. This is not necessarily true. Meaning in life might also achieved through struggle, and by subjective will-to-meaning.
Since Camus, if not before, the myth of Sisyphus has often been used as an example of a life without meaning. Sisyphus is the mythical character who is condemned to push a large rock up a hill for all eternity. When he gets to the top, the rock rolls down to the bottom, where he must go to retrieve it again and again and again. Richard Taylor has suggested that there are a couple of ways to get meaning out of Sisyphus's existence - with only a few minor changes (Taylor 1970). Suppose that instead of pushing the same rock up the hill over and over again, Sisyphus gets a new one each time. At the summit he builds a cathedral. Sisyphus's life still consists largely of pushing rocks up a hill, but now he has accomplished some objective goal. Many people think that this is one way to derive meaning from life. We might write a book, or paint a painting, or have children. All these are objective accomplishments that survive our death.
A second way for Sisyphus to find meaning in his life of rock pushing is for him to learn to love the activity of pushing rocks up the hill. He does not accomplish any objective goals, but, like a Zen Buddhist, he creates his own subjective meaning by a change in attitude.
Similarly, one might argue that the meaning of life is to be found in the struggle to overcome difficulties with integrity and a good attitude. Vicktor Frankl has argued this. Even in a concentration camp, he argues, one can create meaning in life by facing the struggle with dignity (Frankl 1978).
The thesis that reality is better than virtuality holds true only on the first, objective, view of the meaning of life. This is not the only path to meaning available, however - especially when you consider that even the greatest objective accomplishments are temporary in the grand scheme of things. Remember Ozymandias, whose "vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert" (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias, lines 2-3.) Perhaps what matters most in life is not the objective accomplishments we leave behind, but the richness of our emotional, inner life - and this can be supplied in the holodeck. Those who hold that one must acheive things in the objective world in order for a life to be meaningful have a narrow view of the meaning of life. They fail to celebrate the imagination.
Even if it were true, however, that real world accomplishments are better than holodeck ones, it is unlikely that Barclay will achieve them. It is not obviously true that the real world for Lt. Barclay is better than the virtual one. In Barclay's case, the "real" alternatives that he is passing up have little probability for success. In the holodeck, however, his psychological needs are being met. His ideas get a hearing. He has supportive friends. So even if we assume that, all other things being equal, the "real world" is better than the "virtual world," which I have not conceded, the problem turns into a risk decision. Lt. Barclay could aim for achievements in the real world, with little chance of success; or he could settle for second best in the holodeck, with a high chance of success. It turns out that Lt. Barclay is in the same position as Captain Janeway. In both cases, the alternatives available in the real world are less satisfactory than those available in the holodeck - and are not most of us in this position?
One might concede that if "natural" alternatives to the holodeck are not available, then there is nothing wrong with it. However, one could argue that it is wrong to give up on the natural alternative so easily. Hard-won successes and uncontrolled experiences are intrinsically better than the comfortable excesses characteristic of the holodeck. One of the options given above is that the meaning of life might be found in the struggle to overcome obstacles. In the Star Trek universe, the value of risk-taking and challenge is ranked above other values. Its characters are always championing the virtues of adventure. They are always boldly going somewhere or other. This might explain why it is just assumed that Barclay is making the wrong choice. This risk-loving bias would explain why Captain Kirk was dissatisfied in the Nexus, where all real obstacles are removed. The moral seems to be that it is wrong to set things up in such a way that your happiness is guaranteed. Holodeck lives are not meaningful (nor interesting), lives because you know what will happen.
This theme was the focus of the Voyager episode exploring Captain Janeway's virtual romance. In the episode, Captain Janeway is unhappy with her virtual lover in the original program, a 19th Century Irishman, so she adjusts a few parameters in order to make the object of her love interest a little more educated, a little taller, a little more compliant to her wishes. Realizing that these adjustments take the struggle and the unknown out of a relationship, she locks herself out of the controls so that she can no longer determine the outcome.
One way of misusing the holodeck, it is suggested, is to know beforehand exactly how things will turn out. Both Barclay and Janeway know that everyone will love them. The holodeck, like a womb, provides an escape from the difficulties of reality, and this, it is implied, is cowardly. However, this is not an argument against holodeck living, it is an argument about the relative merits of risk-taking versus security. This is merely a matter of programming. We could easily program the holodeck to provide unpredictable challenges for those so inclined. Holo-activities like climbing Mount Everest or walking with Captain Scott to the South Pole would be available to those who so desired, with at least some of the challenges built in.
One might complain that such activities would be meaningless because lives are not actually at risk, like they are for real explorers. However, it is just perverse to argue that your life must be in danger for activities to be meaningful.
One might want to argue that there is more to life than just happiness and contentment, and that happiness and contentment is all you can get from the holodeck. If happiness and contentment are all you want, then by all means tune out from the real challenges of life. This argument, too, assumes that what is wrong with the holodeck is not its artificiality, but its aims. But this, too, is just a matter of programming.
Perhaps what is wrong with the holodeck is that it is solipsistic. It only gives you what you imagine. What makes the real world meaningful, so the argument goes, is interaction with other people. This argument, however, is just plain inconsistent with other Star Trek premises about the reality of artificial and holo-persons. An android named Mr. Data, and a holo-doctor, have both been given the status of personhood (along with many other artificial intelligences.) To argue that meaning in life can only be had by interaction with "real" people is speciesist, and once again begs the question. Even if meaning is derived from interaction, why insist that it must be interaction with other people?
I have been assuming, along with the Star Trek writers, that holodecks are an ethically neutral technology whose bad effects can be traced to the way it is used. When used for leisure activities, they can be used to good effect. If, however, we replace our real friends and lovers with virtual ones, then this will have undesirable effects. I have considered a few guidelines that might delineate proper use from improper use. So, for example, we learn from Janeway that it is not good to adjust the program constantly so that things always turn out the way you want. A little struggle and uncertainty is good. We learn from Lt. Barclay about the inadvisability of spending too much time there.
Marshall McLuhan, however, undermines the plausibility of this thesis. "Many people," he writes, "would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine that was its meaning or message." (McLuhan 1964, 7). The technology itself is ethically neutral - it is how it is used that should be evaluated. Anyone who adopts this neutrality thesis, argues McLuhan, is sleepwalking (11). It "is the numb stance of a technological idiot" (18). In claiming that the medium is the message, McLuhan is arguing that technologies will have effects quite apart from how they are used. Media, McLuhan argues, change the way we perceive by changing the ratios between, and relative emphasis of our various senses. In order to reach psychological equilibrium, we must adjust ourselves to the medium used. So, for example, the radio extends a single sense. The radio gives us only sound, and we must fill in the gaps. Television gives us images as well as sound, but is empty of the other senses. If we were to watch a program about Bali, Indonesia, for instance, we would get the images, and some concepts about the religion, etc., but we could not experience the feel of the intense heat, would not smell the rotting fruit nor the faint scent of flowers. If we receive too much information, our minds "auto-amputate," and we cut ourselves off in ways that restore psychological equilibrium. For McLuhan, there are always effects of the media that you can't escape with "proper use." If you spend any time watching television, for example, your relationships with real people will inevitably suffer - regardless of whether you are watching Friends or a documentary on great thinkers. A McLuhanite might argue, then, that holodeck use will have effects regardless of how it is used.
McLuhan's argument works well for his examples of media that heighten one or two senses, like television and radio. However, the holodeck does it all! It re-creates an entire experience! Supposedly, the participant in the holodeck would not notice the difference between it and the real thing.
Of course, McLuhan would emphasize that we should not focus solely on the user. We need to examine the whole system and everyone involved. For example, in Data Trash, Arthur Kroker and Michael A. Weinstein argue that one bad effect of virtual reality might be the general acceptance of the idea that flesh and blood persons are disposable (Kroker and Weinstein, 1994). The existence of real-life lovers of flesh and blood might disappear as more and more people turned to holo-lovers. The holodeck would also require social support in the form of economic resources, energy, programmers, a source of inspiration for the stories, etc. Would a virtual reality world be one where an elite group gets to use the technology, and another class exists merely to serve the needs of the virtual class? Where would the ideas for holo-programs come from, if not from real-worlders?
It might be suggested that, perhaps, we have enough stories in the memory banks already. We are still mortal after all. How many stories do we need? There is also the possibility that the virtual reality machines could be supported by, and maintained by, other machines.
This is where my enthusiasm for the holodecks reaches its limit. I do not think it is a practical possibility that a virtual society of holodeck lives could be supported without the existence of a working class. Also, we have enough experience with technology to know better than to trust it to work all the time. I would not trust holodeck technology to work reliably, and would therefore be reluctant to risk much life investment in building relationships there. Lastly, I seriously doubt that holodeck experiences could ever match the quality of the real thing. It is analogous to those who think we can clear-cut an old growth rain forest and replace it by planting rows of pine trees.
The problem with holodecks, then, is not merely the way they are used, nor that the meaning of life can only come through objective achievements. Rather, the problem is a practical limitation. It would be naive to think, however, that this is merely a practical limitation. A practical limitation that is unlikely ever to be overcome is equivalent to an in principle limitation. Alas, Barclay and I will have to continue to look for love and meaning in the real world.
Frankl, Viktor E. (1978). The Unheard Cry for Meaning : Psychotherapy and Humanism. New York : Simon and Schuster.
Kroker, Arthur and Weinstein, Michael A. (1994). Data Trash: the theory of the virtual class. Montreal: New World Perspectives.
McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 7.
Taylor, Richard (1970). "The Meaning of Life," in Good and Evil: A New Direction, 256-268. London: Collier-Macmillan Ltd.
1. This argument is an exact parallel to Kant's refutation of Anselm's ontological proof for the existence of God. Existence is not a predicate, argued Kant.