Sunday, April 30, 2006



What if you could grant somebody control over your sensory organs – for instance, letting them change the amount of time it takes for visual stimuli to reach the optical cortex, or distort your kinesthetic sense for the dimensions and configuration of your body, or rout individual auditory signals through chains of sound effects (pitch-shift, echo, granulation) before you hear them?

If that turned out to be merely disorienting and not intrinsically fun, would you be inclined to further grant them control over your endorphins and opioids?

What if you could grant even more than that, such as, through virtual reality, control over the physical contents of the room you believe you’re in? That is, what if your “trip operator” could cause not only sensory distortions, but full 3-dimensional hallucinations? (“Virtual drugs” might be a better term for such experiences than “cyberdrugs” – “cyber” denotes mechanical modifications of one’s body, while “virtual” denotes an environment that has no existence beyond some computer interface.)

Granted such privileges, some operators would try to induce more elaborate hallucinations (e.g. a Roman army) than they could describe in any sort of programming language in real-time. That limitation could be circumvented, though, if we could alter the speed at which one or both parties’ brains operated.

Such activities would not be for everyone, and a lousy operator could make even the most enthusiastic tripper miserable. But it seems to this speculator that a gentle, well-meaning and skilled operator (perhaps they would need a good sense for cinematography) could create some killer experiences.

We already have the sort of technology that would allow a (suitably determined) person to hand over some rudimentary control of their audiovisual stimuli. I don’t know if the sort of apparatus currently feasible would be any fun, but if progress in understanding the mechanisms of the brain is inexorable, then perhaps cyber-drugs of the sort described above can’t be avoided.

Would they be outlawed? The question of cyberdrugs’ legality would be all tangled up with the question of their medical effects. I have no idea. It’s conceivable that direct neural interfaces would pose a threat of addiction beyond anything yet known. It’s also conceivable, though, that once we know what we’re doing to the brain, the risks currently associated with drug-use will go the way of Kuru (an extinct disease linked to cannibalism). Time and science will tell, if we let them.

Beyond their medical effects, there exists a question of their economic impact. A cyber-drug might leave someone perfectly rational and capable while providing an activity so enjoyable that they choose to pursue it to their economic detriment. If that outcome were prevalent enough, there would be an economic incentive for individual nations to ban the drug, thereby becoming more competitive with their neighbors. I believe this argument has been made against chemical drugs that exist today.

Would a ban be enforceable? I can kind of see how a government might put a blanket ban on any cybernetic enhancements (though they would likely leave exceptions for military and law enforcement). It would be hard, though, to impose a ban virtual reality, because we already have it. Improvements in VR technology are small and cumulative; we won’t be playing Pong one day and have a neural implant that totally supplants awareness of the original (real) world the next day. The line between drug-like VR and video games will be hard to draw, because no obvious single feature distinguishes one from the other. In fact many argue that we have drug-like VR today, with millions of teenage boys addicted already.

As a youth searching for mystical secrets (a pursuit I eventually decided is as productive as polishing horseshit) I was frequently attracted to the notion that each person in society is somehow simultaneously the creator of everyone else. Alas, I had to give up on that idea because no set of mutual co-creators would deliberately make each other so miserable. (Although perhaps Arrow’s paradox lends credence to that vision.) For reasons I’ll skip, I no longer look for God beyond this world.

But if neuroscience, neural interface technology, and virtual reality engines become good enough, we’ll be able to grant to others powers nearly equal to those a god would have. Moreover, the gods that we become for each other could be bound by contract!

I don’t think I’m being unrealistic. Cyberdrugs as sketched above might never happen for political reasons, but so far there’s no scientific law I know of that bars their possibility.

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