VR and Guessing Digital Futures
Recently, robek made some waves with this prescient article about VR from 2017. It’s a good read, and if you haven’t read it yet you should. It made me want to organize some of my own thoughts on VR into one place. With the new Facebook META rebranding, if you haven’t seen it yet they’re trying to posture as if social virtual meetings like this will be normal:
I was reminded of the passage from Infinite Jest (circa page 150) where there’s a guess at how video chat tech might work. DFW speculates that people would be self-conscious about how engaged they appear to be in conversation or how they look, and so they would buy tableaus or “masks” kind of workarounds to present themselves. People do kind of do that now with Zoom/GoogleMeet backgrounds, or they just leave their camera off. I tried to recall other VR guesses that seemed meaningful from books and movies – and I think there’s some interesting trends:
In some sci-fi what’s real in VR has some relationship to what’s real in actual computer networks. In cyberpunk books, often things you find in VR space are actual servers somewhere – firewalls look like actual walls, a network is visible in the same way that a landscape is visible. The early vision of a virtual space was that it was somehow generated from the reality of computer systems. This is an interesting concept, but ultimately I think it hasn’t played out that way because VR space is almost always arbitrary and not connected to real things. A network would only have a visual presence if you set it up to have one – and why would a private network want to be conspicuous like that? If you had to look for – say – a broken server in a rack that was represented visually – it doesn’t take all that many servers before it would be faster to just use a search prompt to find the missing address than it would be to try to visually scan a huge landscape of server-shaped buildings. So the use case of VR being a “real” representation of anything hasn’t come true. Once it’s arbitrary, it can really be anything.
I think the book version of Ready Player One had a really interesting plot point that Spielberg just didn’t understand: virtual spaces that are free or obligatory are bound to be filled with the broke and bored. Spielberg couldn’t wrap his head around it being an act of empathy for a creator of a VR world to let a poor virtual resident who was essentially existing in a virtual slum to have a leg-up on a global easter egg hunt. Spielberg didn’t understand idle VR existence and could only imagine a grand game beginning with a grand game already in place. The VR space that launched Parzival on his adventure was mandatory for school, public access, and boring, it was a VR space only because it was easier to do school with children through VR in difficult-to-commute or poor areas.
This is one of the use cases of VR that may or may not matter: school equity for the remote or crowded or whatever. We’re experimenting with it unwillingly due to the pandemic, and it seems like virtual schooling (so far and in its current improvised state) is less than ideal. The difference in a world projected into the future is that your resume and accumulated accomplishments may very well be metaverse tokens in some sense – in the same way a certificate or trophy might have mattered at one point, it’s not hard to imagine kids now applying for jobs and those jobs exploring their digital inventory of accomplishment tokens. Imagine if you applied for a job and they wanted to see what kind of Steam wallet you had managed.* Will VR become good for schooling? Maybe, I think right now spending hours on end staring at a screen in any way hasn’t proven good or engaging for children. Kids will do it, but anecdotally it’s seemed like torture for some of the more demanding school programs and basically brain-poison if it’s entertaining enough that they don’t want to look away. Kind of a no-win scenario.
*For people who haven’t used Steam: it is a gaming platform that has a persistent inventory of items that come from different games across the platform, and even has a marketplace for those items that uses real money.
The supposed emptiness of the space Parzival was exploring is another important point about VR. Robek was posed the question of whether we would explore space or virtual reality first, and he sided with VR because it’s cheaper and our imaginations are surprisingly powerful. I wanted to add this thought: space is filled with an awful lot of emptiness, un-managed VR is filled with an awful lot of emptiness. Take as an example the disaster that was No Man’s Sky – both space and VR – and it turns out having tons of space to be in that is filled with a lot of nothing is just boring. Real space is mostly uninhabitable and the distances between even just solid things to walk on are so great that they may mostly be either un-reachable or take the better part of a lifetime to get to (with current tech, of course, and barring wormholes or whatever). If walking on the moon felt like the equivalent of just walking on endless grey sand dunes with nothing but the occasional rock formation to break up the monotony, is it interesting? VR spaces – if we can generate endless mountains, flora, fauna procedurally but it’s all just a new and more sophisticated version of endless monotony, is that worthwhile? The difference between playing early Minecraft and more recent versions is telling: we craved a more lived-in world to explore. We eventually crave something that shows the presence and organizing force of intelligent life that makes things interesting. Mountains are pretty, and oceans are beautiful – but I think at some point we want to know what other people think of it, what other people are doing – I think we find that reality feels empty without intelligence organizing it. That’s not a religious statement, mind you, it’s just been my experience of exploring algorithmically generated worlds. I suppose you could argue physics is its own kind of algorithm, but there’s enough variety and complexity that it doesn’t seem boring as fast. We’ve all heard people complain about things like beaches though where “once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all” kind of a sentiment makes sense. VR worlds can be almost endless, but endlessness without meaning has the potential to be profoundly boring. Even worlds that are meticulously organized, like Cryptovoxels (mostly – there’s empty parcels) feels strange without other people being logged in. Wandering empty warehouses of art feels deeply lonely compared to going to a coordinated event in a parcel. Even planned virtual spaces lack a sense of importance/presence without people actively living in them.
Will people use VR and for what? So far, I’ve found in the last couple years that I do use a lot of video chat I never thought I would. Do I live with it on, though? No. In fact, when imagining using VR – I would have to log out of it to really get any work done, having to use a computer interface within my virtual experience seems ridiculous, and kind of a headache-inducing prospect. As long as people can’t really do their job while in VR, it will remain a liminal space. I’m someone who enjoys that kind of nonsense though – I have family members who would balk at the idea of having to use VR for any extended period. Generally, though, people who dislike using computers for a long time are going to keep on resisting this kind of thing, even if they *do* have to have video chat meetings for the sake of remote work. Including the video-capture person in the Meta video was an important thing to them, I think – it’s meant to demonstrate that it’s not just for the playful people who want an avatar, it can be the kind of Jedi council chamber hologram chat that feels more business-appropriate.
Why am I writing on this besides just adding some footnotes to robek? Digital spaces are where NFTs live, and I am emotionally invested in NFT technology at this point. Are NFTs going to be the “authentic” art of VR spaces that people actually spend time in – in planned spaces organized by personal intelligences? I have a thought on that.
My current vision for what VR may actually be used for is things like personal lounges, “memory palaces,” or instances with utility. These are really three similar use-cases. A personal lounge would functionally be what you use to begin your day, to manage your daily affairs and keep up to date. As we divide our time more and more between desktop and mobile and eventually get frustrated by this dichotomy and our desire to be wherever we want whenever we want, using VR to have a large environment where we can manage virtual bulletin boards, trello (project) boards, quickly see outstanding important messages or domestic notices or whatever will seem useful. Having all that information would take too long to scroll through on your phone, and going to a big screen is exactly what you don’t have time or ability to do if you are – for example – camping somewhere and only using satellite internet. Not only that, but having a virtual space where you can manage your things that is platform independent would mean not having to meticulously update every widget, feed, account, and wallet bundle on every piece of hardware you own or switch to.
Memory palaces were a concept I was introduced to in graduate school and through reading about the Jesuit Matteo Ricci. Ricci used a conceptual virtual space in order to perform seemingly superhuman feats of memorization to impress mandarin elite in order to establish the Jesuit mission in China. I had a professor who was under the impression I had a steel-trap memory because I could recall names and rough date estimates and geographical information better than some other students – but the reality of it was that I had been meticulously working on visual timelines of history for years, and the names and figures and ideas all had visual and spatial connotations in my imagination because of that. Likewise, if we want to actually study subjects in such a way that we can’t rely on our train of thought to pass through every important station (so to speak) I think it’s totally possible that we’ll have halls of relevant information in virtual spaces we create to help us keep track of important ideas or facts or even suggest to us connections we might not make if we just had to call things to memory. Imagine constructing a VR space that was just a library made of all the relevant journal articles on your subject, books that mentioned it drawn from worldcat, busts of the scientists or researchers that make an impression as you stroll, darker corners with digital cobwebs where you can notice some previously overlooked study. Purpose-built research spaces that exist for when you want to construct a clear and robust idea.
Instances with Utility is kind of part of the memory palace idea. Imagine virtual spaces that we build that – for example – are linked to all of our utility billing websites, have a calendar of relatives birthdays and anniversaries and are linked to automated mail services. A VR mail room where once a month we can retire to and see all the outstanding accounts we missed emails about, all the letters that need sent when we’re traveling and can’t get to a mailbox. Yes, these are all things we can do from a desktop or phone, but not without jumping through a dozen apps, checking our google calendar, navigating to the utility website and opening our wallet to make sure our debit account is correct – we can use virtual spaces to streamline these tedious activities.
Where do NFTs fit in – if at all? A few places. Art is the already-being-pioneered use case. An artist being paid directly and immediately for artwork that is authentically tied to the artist and now exists in the virtual instances of the collector makes a certain kind of sense. People like home decor, and virtual decor requires virtual art. You could just use images or scan art you already have or whatever, but that’s essentially the difference between people who buy Van Gogh prints from Walmart and people who own Van Gogh paintings already – only on a much more modest scale in a digital setting. Will people do that? Maybe – I mean if people already buy virtual profile picture avatars to use in digital spaces, I don’t see why buying virtual art (or clothing, avatars, interior design) to adorn their imaginary garage would be different. I think a more interesting use case to be explored is the idea of programs as NFTs that perform functions. There’s been a little exploration of this on Hic Et Nunc – I can’t find it right this moment, but you can buy NFTs of things like programs that track your top collectors – top amounts spent on your work – and it functions as a program connected to your wallet when you view the NFT. If little functional programs like that (that would fit well in a personal lounge or instance with utility) can solve the problem of how ownership works and functions and the programmer gets paid without dealing with third parties handling sales or finance or tracking ownership, there’s a significant place for that. The only issue is that the code has to be tied to the NFT for it not to be ripped off by people who aren’t interested in paying the programmer. Ultimately, it’s still all a big question mark, but I do think that if people begin to use virtual spaces more in their daily lives, having some decor or gadgets that come from NFT technology seems like a likely outcome.
What’s a “Metaverse?”
One term that people throw around in the crypto-sphere is “metaverse.” It’s worth asking ourselves what that means to us – how is it any different from the older digital lives we lived in MMORPGs or on Minecraft servers or Second Life or what have you? In my opinion – the failure to translate Ernest Cline’s “READY PLAYER ONE” from book to movie kind of illustrates what the disconnect is. If I’m just spitballing – I would say the metaverse isn’t really a thing that exists in Cryptovoxels or Decentraland or any particular actual server – it’s the identity and ownership that we’ve started to create in strictly digital spaces. What Steven Spielberg couldn’t capture was the kind of aimless existence online – everything had to be fast-paced and game-ified for audiences to feel the thrill that is only a tiny part of metaverse living. The metaverse has really been around since the internet began – when connecting with people you didn’t see in person meant you had to have a name and an identity that wasn’t just a given, that had to be deliberate in some way.
NFTs have really made portable a concept that had been building up for a long time: digital ownership. One of the things that made digital ownership of, say, skins for a character in Second Life seem silly was that we knew it was just files. Files are ephemeral, they come and go and get saved or deleted and disappear when the platform disappears. Consider all the stuff people had in Star Wars Galaxies that just evaporated when the servers were shut down. NFTs exist on the chain, so they’re not as subject to deletion. The value of our digital goods goes up when they can’t be copied or easily deleted or disappear when a game becomes unpopular – not only that, but the fact that they aren’t intrinsically woven into games anymore means that they fit better what our actual metaverse existence is like: it’s not really a game, it’s just life in a different space.
As we get further into the rabbit hole – fun philosophy questions like “what is real” matter more and more. I don’t think many people are arguing that are embodied existences are unimportant: on the contrary, we’re seeing boatloads of rhetoric and sentiment about how much we need to get back in touch with nature, work, producing our own goods and living lives not absorbed by our phones and online personas. Day-to-day though, a lot of us still have to work on our computer, have to be online in one way or another. As we realize that this life is “real” in it’s own way – more people see my avatar on any given day than see my physical face – we realize that we need to take care and value what that metaverse life is like just as we’re realizing our real lives aren’t automatically nourishing us, automatically good for our mental health, that in fact deliberate living is the only way to survive when every vice and malnutrition is profitable to sell to us. The “metaverse” is what we’re calling the digital portion of our life – not our workplace Slack account or our LinkedIN or even our Facebook or whatever – those are just augmented regular life, but who we are and what we’re like in those moments when we’re not doing work tasks, not being gamers – but just existing online.
This is all still a new phenomenon. It’s not exactly a new technology or a new platform that’s important – but the gradual growth of a separate world that we are a part of. The best analogy I can come up with is that it’s similar to how the world changed when 20th century travel meant that trade and tourism and even living arrangements became more globally fluid. We still lived in our local place, we still spent most of our time dealing with the people closest to us, working at our jobs – but now there is a vague apprehension that the world is bigger than us in practical ways. You could know circa 1840 that the world was bigger, but it was kind of a non-issue because you couldn’t just jet off somewhere else or have a package arrive in 2 day shipping from China. What the metaverse is doing is adding a third level, a *personal* existence in a global network, a persistent personality that we cultivate, and now actual possessions with value and utility. We can ignore the metaverse just the same as we could ignore the larger world outside our local environment – but it doesn’t cease to exist or become irrelevant to us just because we don’t engage.
On Collectibles and Crypto-Art
I’ve had a lot of people discuss tokenized art with me and ask about the difference between the file, the token on the chain – the relative worth of the token compared to the media file, things like that. I thought I would drop a few of my thoughts on the matter here.
I wanted to clarify first what I consider a few different kinds of things that we lump all together under NFTs and Cryptoart. In my opinion, there are generally three different kinds of things being traded
• Collectibles with arbitrary aesthetic value
• Collectibles with semi-relevant aesthetic value
One of my favorite little essays on the subject is still Collins Dyer’s Medium article that uses the baseball card analogy. The difference between the authentic collectible and a copy may be materially negligible, but it matters which one is real. If you photocopy a baseball card, you have not made two authentic baseball cards. One of the keys here, in terms of the “why” of collecting is that baseball cards aren’t really expected to be “pretty” – their value is generally tied to this outside thing (baseball) and the overall collectors market for baseball cards. You don’t look at a baseball card and say “well that’s not very impressive to look at” because that’s utterly besides the point. These are things I would call “collectibles with arbitrary aesthetic value.” This kind of concept makes a lot of sense when you think about NFTs that maybe make reference to the subculture, or have more of a reputation for being collectible than for being impressive (visually speaking). I tend to think that some of Beeple’s huge collection has started to work this way: people are indifferent to the actual art, but the collectibility – “blue chip art” is the reputation they chase. This goes for Cryptopunks too, I think. The visuals matter – people like monkeys and aliens I guess – but ultimately it’s not about the pixel art. You could find a thousand pixel artists doing much more detailed and impressive work, but that’s besides the point. Even weirder to consider: why are action figures with flaws often more expensive? Prototypes and short runs of mistakes are objectively worse than their “correct” counterparts, but worth more?
Secondly, consider another kind of collectible that is similar, but not quite the same: comic books. Now, a very expensive collectible comic book isn’t necessarily expensive because it’s work of art, but it’s likely that a very expensive one will both look good and have some sort of cultural significance or narrative significance for a pop culture phenomenon. Are early Superman comics worth a lot because they have the best art? Not really, but Superman became a big deal eventually, and they at least looked good enough and had exciting enough plots to help launch the character. It helps that as time goes on there’s less and less of them in mint condition and well-archived. To me, this makes sense of something like Hashmasks – where there are tons of them, but a few are rare, and the rare ones aren’t just valuable because they’re rare, but because people like certain designs that were algorithmically possible, or maybe the names using the name tokens were interesting. That is – there’s a combination of collectibility for its own sake and aesthetic value.
Lastly, there’s art. Is art collectible? Yes, but I don’t think it’s the same as a collectible. One of the differences is whether artwork – even a series – is meant to be a part of a collection someone can possess all of or whether individual pieces and series are meant to be statements in their own right. Think, for example, about whether it would make any sense to release a baseball card series of one or two cards. You couldn’t hold up the card and say “well, but this is an amazing card” – because maybe it is, but that’s really not how collectibles work – I think there has to be some sort of threshold of amount and variation on a theme that makes a collectible something other than a statement by itself. Artists that get lured into expecting collectors to snap up all their work, I think, have unrealistic expectations – or at least they’ve sort of changed the nature of the work they’re doing into something else. Real artwork, I think, has its value most anchored in its intrinsic aesthetic value – it is something that for whatever reason, either visually, thematically, conceptually – it brings meaning and pleasure to the possessor of it. This is a part of what has been thrown off balance with the influx of celebrity pseudo-art – the artwork is generally not particularly good (there are of course exceptions) and instead the art is being treated as collectibles, and the collection is as vast as there are A through D-List celebrities who decide to make something on a whim, so naturally the value of any particular piece is going to be very hard to predict and partly depends on the ongoing building of the collection of celebrity NFTs – and usually you can’t have the safety net of a thing that is simply beautiful or fun to rely on.
Now the question of what the difference is between the real thing and the file. If the file attached to the token is not fundamentally different than the JPG that could just as easily be hosted on imgur or something, why buy the token? I can offer a conceptual reason, and a pragmatic reason.
The conceptual reason to buy a token is fundamentally this: tokenization is what makes digital art authentically connected to the artist. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin points out that mechanically reproducing art destroys what he terms the “aura” – the sense that this material object connects you to the artist. This addresses a fundamental confusing thing – if you can reproduce a piece of art using machines, and do so in such a way that it’s indistinguishable from the original – what is the difference between the authentic piece and the copy? Benjamin claims it’s an “aura” – an intangible feeling that we are connected because these are the same atoms, same pieces of canvas or pigments or whatever that were moved by the artist. In the world of digital art, I believe it has always been confusing where the aura existed – since those bits and bytes were never really touching the artist in one copy of the file more than another, if you have the 2000th copy of a file, you own the same data that the original artist owned when they shared the file.
When you tokenize art, what you are really minting to the chain isn’t the art itself (which is technically usually stored via an IPFS hash or on a server somewhere or both) – but you are selling the connection, the traceable and prove-able moment where the artist said “this is finished, and this is mine” and put this data up for trade – a permanent public transaction that connects the buyer to the artist. Couldn’t the artist just make more? They could, theoretically, but it’s generally frowned upon in the same way that a famous photographer taking their negatives and developing new prints after selling some as “definitive” would cast aspersion on their collection. Essentially, the moment of creating the token that is attached to the art is the final form – the metadata attached to the token of the visuals, the title, the description, where and when it was “minted,” the artwork itself after that is essentially the raw material.
So buyers have a reason when they find something they love to truly “own” a digital file in a way that was impossible before. Now the practical reasons are multiple too: if we genuinely value art and digital artwork being produced, we’ve finally taken away the experience principle of copy as having the final word in “why not pay” for something. Formerly artists used giant hideous watermarks or just relegated themselves to essentially working for free or having complex security systems in place for Patreon patrons or something to make payment meaningful. In other words – we’ve created a much simpler payment-for-value method, artists getting some compensation for time they spend ostensibly enriching people’s lives.
The other pragmatic reason that NFT art is useful is that it both establishes a global marketplace and a global re-sale marketplace. As someone who’s lived in the rural midwest for a stint, the kind of art I make may have a market on the internet – especially amongst the cyberpunk larpers and newmedia junkies – but nowhere within a couple hours could I print my art and find people en masse that understood or wanted it. Suddenly having your work in front of eyes across the world and across cultural borders means that wherever it finds a demographic that is interested, you can reach them. Not only that – but in the real world, re-selling artwork isn’t something the average person has any experience with. The average person may have some experience re-selling collectibles, like comic books or baseball cards or even rare coins – but art? For an ordinary person, an investment in art is generally just lost money. How many people would know how to get in touch with galleries for art they didn’t make themselves, or find auction houses, or try to list on Facebook marketplace or something similarly absurd? The re-sale market seems restricted to the elite – fame being the main criterion for whether or not the artwork you own (which probably has to be worth something in the hundreds or thousands) can be considered for auction, how many people have access to that? The immediacy and universality of the art collection and re-sale market is a novelty, so long as people conceptually still believe in the connection to the artist or value things as collectibles. Which aspect grants value to the NFT isn’t really as significant as is the group belief that the value isn’t totally based on speculation.
In conclusion, I sell both art and collectibles with semi-relevant aesthetic value. I make a lot of art, and I work very hard on my art and the conceptual meaning behind it and the technique I use to create it. I also make some collectibles: MTG-like cards of my own mythos, VHS tapes and business cards for personalities and memes related to the $BASED money subculture. Different rules apply to different kinds of NFTs, but so long as we agree that value can be found in the tokenization expression – there’s no reason this market has to exist completely on the winds of speculation like so many things in crypto.