I read an article in the National Journal this morning (thank you C. Bates, an intelligent person from a different political and religious persuasion, for a civil conversation and food for thought) about how democrats lost the election last month in large part due to an overly aggressive position on climate change. Specifically, that turning a deaf ear to the concerns of out-of-work coal miners and other disaffected groups cost them a lot of votes. I don’t believe Trump or the Republican party has put a good answer on the national stage for these folks that is realistic or functional, but I do believe the point is valid. These people are getting left behind, and if we are a decent society, we need to help them. Not “we” as liberals or “we” as conservatives, but “we” as Americans and to a great degree, as human beings.
There are free market solutions out there that seem viable (Cap & Trade, Fee & Dividend), which could function in tandem with another popular response and one I’ve frequently mentioned myself: in a directed shift to a green economy, people will be needed to build the solar panels and windmills, to install them, and to maintain them going forward. I think that’s all true and I think it would help control these issues—but possibly only in the short term. Assume a perfect “green revolution” that lasts 20 years and results in a near-zero emission environment. Once all the panels are installed, so to speak, aren’t we back at square one? Aren’t all those blue-collar sectors out of work again?
Of course, I think that’s a bit short-sighted. More likely is that the technology will continue to advance, and will require upgrades and replacement over time. So the demand for work will continue to increase—but that does not guarantee that human beings will be the ones doing it, because if we’re talking about a period 20 years in the future, we may also very well be talking about drones and robots that can perform the work at a fraction of the price. In other words, technology taking work from people. This isn’t science fiction; it has been happening for years, in the auto and manufacturing industries and elsewhere.
I have a lot of sympathy for the coal miners who are out of work. I understand the reasons, or I think I do: a double whammy of the natural gas alternative being drastically cheaper, and the Obama administration’s “war on coal” (which fueled much of the backlash in last month’s election), driven by a need to respond to runaway CO2 emissions. Said emissions, of course, are the natural result of the industrial revolution and subsequent Information Age, a period in which we as a species are advancing faster and further technologically than we did in all the previous eras combined.
If the coal industry is driven to extinction under the heel of technological advances, it will not be alone. Countless industries are fighting for their survival in the modern world, including traditional print news and just about every publishing medium there is—book publishing, game publishing, music publishing, all are nearly unrecognizable from 20 years ago, hammered into new shapes and sometimes into oblivion by the relentless capabilities of the most visible global technology of the past several decades: the internet.
In my own state of Minnesota, we have a significant population in the iron range that are victims of closing iron mines. Globalization is a primary driving factor in these closings—globalization driven by an unprecedented surge in communication and travel technologies.
And now I begin to see a pattern.
See, this is where I think we as human beings are not really aware of the full scope of our impact on the world. I’m not sure we’ve come to terms with exactly how powerful our technology is, or how vastly it is going to change our lives in the coming 20 to 50 to 100 years. I suspect the underlying issue here is much bigger than coal vs green or domestic vs import or even economy vs climate change.
The underlying issue is that our technology is a tsunami.
It is not “just” changing the way we communicate and purchase and travel. It is in the process of utterly transforming every single aspect of the way our species functions. From how long we live, to how we make our living; from what we know and what we say to what we are. I believe that we started something massive with the invention of the telephone and the automobile in the late 1800s, something that is nowhere near being finished.
Look, a lot of this language is intimidating. I don’t mean to make it sound frightening, and in my heart of hearts, I think it will ultimately be a good thing. This idea has been a source of great comfort to me over the last month, as we’ve seen a sudden, drastic surge in hate crimes and speech across the U.S. I, like many others on all sides of the political spectrum, am appalled by the reappearance of emboldened white supremacists on the national stage, whatever title they operate under.
But I think they, like nearly everyone else, underestimate the power of the very tool that enables them. The technology that let them find each other on the internet, to mobilize and stop feeling isolated and powerless, has also drawn the world together in a fashion absolutely unprecedented in history. Globalization—as painful as it is for sectors that lose business overseas—is not just about the free market. It is about the free exchange of ideas and cultures and people. The reason white supremacists feel so threatened is that racial boundaries are vanishing, with a speed that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. My own daughter—a blue-eyed dishwater blond whose grandfather is an unmistakably black man—is a fantastic example of a phenomenon spreading across the world. My neighborhood, a fairly affluent housing development in a borderline-rural suburb, is filled with families of every color, many of them interracial. Cultures are likewise intermingling, with knowledge of nearly every single one available at our fingertips, and my children bragging in the backseat with their friends about who has more Pokémon with names in the original Japanese due to online trading.
I suspect we will see an effort to marginalize people of color and normalize hate speech in this country over the next several years, and that our technology—along with the tolerance, understanding, and peace it has enabled—will be a bulwark against it. Because you can’t put this genie back in the bottle. Technology—whether it is busily destroying our global climate or cementing new global relationships—is a runaway train. We can talk about regaining the world as we used to know it, but none of us are prepared to eliminate all global trade, smartphones, work-at-home programs, decades of advances in medical health, the bullet train, the passenger jet. And even if someone claimed they were, even if they launched an all-out war against the advancement of technology, they would have to use technology to wage said war (!), and they would ultimately lose. Popular support for tech is simply not going away.
A better approach is to ask: where is this runaway train leading us? Is there any way to get a handle on it, to look ahead and make sure we steer away from the cliffs?
Market forces are driving us toward more and more automation, but paradoxically, at some point, maximum automation destroys the market. If workers are pushed out of the equation because they have no jobs, who is buying the final product? Without wages coming in to the system to enable demand, supply doesn’t matter and the whole system collapses. This collapse would not be pretty. It would look like global war or constant riots—riots, not the largely peaceful protests we see so many of today. So what’s the alternative? And how do we get there?
I have some ideas, but this post is long enough (and probably dreamy enough) already. I may explore them another time, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue, and that’s an open invitation to all political persuasions and backgrounds.
I will just say this: there are two things I am sure of. The first is that the solution to this problem will almost certainly not look like anything we’ve done before. Developing it will require historic courage and imagination, whatever form it ends up taking.
The second is that we are a species that has reached beyond our own solar system, that has split the atom and discovered DNA. We can do this. We are up to the task.
Thanks for reading. All civil comments welcome.
I got a PSVR last week, and apparently, I have a lot I want to say about it.
First, you should know that I’ve been excited about the prospect of VR since I was a little kid. Total, holodeck-like immersion was the holy grail of my childhood imagination. When Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in ’95, I didn’t get excited at all because it was obvious to me that the tech just wasn’t there. But when I started seeing near-photorealistic graphics in the PS3 and PS4 eras, I started getting excited. And when the Oculus Rift was announced, I pretty much started bouncing in my seat and have yet to slow down.
The Rift proved to be far too expensive for me, so when I heard about the PSVR, I was thrilled. No, it wouldn’t be as high quality as the Rift. But would it work? There would be no holodeck, obviously, but would a sense of immersion—even an incomplete one, even a first-gen one—be realized? Even 20 years on, there is a lot of skepticism left over from the VB debacle (misplaced, IMO, but there all the same), so a mistake at this stage could be devastating. Immersion was key; without it, we could all end up waiting another 20 years.
And the PSVR, as a living room system that just barely ekes into the upper stratosphere of the “affordable” descriptor, was where it had to happen. It didn’t really matter how immersive the $2k VR systems were. The tech isn’t really proven for a broad consumer base until it’s also within financial reach.
So I preordered, and I waited. When the package arrived Thursday before last, I took the rest of the day off to try it out.
I’d heard a lot about how extensive the setup process was, but I’d mostly brushed it off. I shouldn’t have. It took almost an hour to set this beast up, and when I was done, the beautiful cord-free environment I had so carefully cultivated in my living room over the past 18 months was demolished. Cords sticking out the front and back of the PS4, hanging off the sides, jammed likewise into the new processor machine from every angle. That part sucked, but I didn’t care. I’d been waiting 30 years. It was time to dive in.
I’m gonna start with the negatives, because there are a lot of them.
Getting the headset situated just right on my head was both a) very difficult, and b) very important. If it wasn’t situated just so, the image was blurry, which made the games pretty much unplayable. The problem was that the back strap, intended to anchor the visor in place on your head, kept slipping slowly upward. It couldn’t grip my hair, and while I briefly considered shaving my head (did I mention I’m really excited for VR?), I ultimately decided it was a design flaw. Thankfully, it seems the process just has a learning curve: after several more attempts over the ensuing week, I realized that the trick is to make sure the forehead rest is snug and low on your head first, and then settle in the rear
strap. That helped make things more stable, but now the visor was closing off my nose. A lot of fiddling is necessary every time I use the thing to strike the right balance between having the visor stay on and being able to breathe while doing it.
Once I had the visor on nice and tight, I fired it up and was treated to my PS4 dashboard on a massive, private theater screen. It was really cool! . . . until the upper left portion of the view started blurring, then the upper right. The blur spread until it clouded most of my view, and I had to remove the visor to figure out what was going on. The culprit? Condensation, forming on my glasses. Like, not just fog, but honest-to-god water droplets. It was really bad. But the experience was enticing enough that I limped along through it, periodically removing the whole apparatus in order to clean off my glasses.
The good news is that, again, I’ve managed to mitigate and nearly resolve this issue over the ensuing week. The PSVR documentation advises you to make sure the front visor is tight against your eyes in order to block outside light—but that is exactly when the condensation starts. If I leave the visor just slightly extended, letting a sliver of light in along the bottom, the condensation becomes a non-issue. I guess my eyes need to breathe? Who knew?
Physical manipulation of the device aside, at least the VR part works without a hitch, right? Well . . . not exactly. The resolution is low enough that distant objects can sometimes be difficult to make out, and nearby textures are much simpler than what today’s gamer has grown accustomed to. The screen door effect is real and omnipresent. And the viewing angle is restricted to about 100 degrees, so your view feels like you’re wearing blinders that extend about an inch to either side of your peripheral vision. This is an absolute shame in games like Thumper where you rocket through a giant, expanding ring or explosion; instead of the absolute wow factor that experience should have as the ring expands through your peripheral vision and vanishes behind you, it all ends up being held at arms’ length.
Still, you can look around and view your surroundings, and that’s really cool—but the system also has major drifting issues. Over time (sometimes as short a time as 60 seconds), the viewport angle will drift to the left or right. In other words, in order to look straight ahead in the virtual world, you actually have to turn your head slightly to the side. Then further to the side. Then further. The first time I noticed the issue it had crept up on me, and my head was twisted nearly a full 90 degrees to the right. The system expects some drift, and advises you repeatedly to hold in the Options button to recenter the view when needed. This works great in the dashboard and certain games (Eve Valkyrie), but there are far too many games (all the VR Worlds titles, Thumper, a
scattering of the demos including Rez) where all it does is cause a slight skip in your virtual location—like, say, hopping you a centimeter to the left. The view itself is still completely off-center. The only fix is to either exit and restart the game entirely, or, if possible, exit to the main menu of the game, then turn off and restart VR mode (I did this routinely in Thumper, but not all games have this option). Thankfully, checkpoints have been plentiful in everything I’ve tried so far, so I’ve never lost progress due to this issue (well, I did in Thumper once, but that was because I used the wrong game exit option and didn’t fully absorb the warning message before quitting). But the fact remains that this should not be necessary, and having to do it interferes severely with the aforementioned sense of immersion.
Sadly, I have no fix for this issue yet. There are a number of theories on Reddit, including the idea that having too many lights in the room messes with the PS Camera’s ability to track the headset, that the PS Camera may be mispositioned, or that the distance from visor to camera must be exactly six feet. Some people have gone as far as returning their headset and reported that the new one didn’t have the problem, indicating a hardware issue (man, I hope not!)—others have said their replacement had the exact same problem. I’m hopeful that it’s a driver issue of some kind that can be patched, or failing that, that they can patch fixes to individual titles to make the manual re-centering fix work in those games.
So. With all these issues, can it possibly still be enjoyable? Is that holodeck promise still even visible from here?
The answer is a resounding yes.
This is first-gen tech, and it feels like first-gen tech, but despite all its problems, it has enticed me back again and again. The sensation of being in a haunted house in VR Playroom, shooting invisible ghosts with your ghostbusters-style lightning gun, is convincing and powerful. When it’s not forcing you to slowly crane your neck to the side, Thumper becomes an all-encompassing, zen-like meditation on the nature of speed, rhythm, and the cosmos. And the bite-size VR experiences in VR Worlds are universally awesome. Here is where you get to ride in a deep-sea diver cage to a sunken nuclear submarine, like a Universal Studios thrill ride in your living room. Here is where you get to crane your head upwards, throwing your gaze to a drifting asteroid overhead before engaging thrusters to land on it. Here is where you get to finally—finally—pick up virtual guns and load them with your own hands before shooting your way out of a botched heist.
For someone like me, a true believer who’s been waiting his whole life, these experiences are well worth the price tag—both in terms of dollars and the constant fiddling with the headset and the drifting viewport. Just being able to turn my head and look around makes the screen door effect and the poor resolution fade into irrelevance, but PSVR offers so much more. I can sit for ten minutes on VR Worlds’ title screen, knocking my controller into the spinning sphere in front of me to watch (and feel!) it spark, splash, or grind in response. This stuff is seriously cool, the kind of cool you want to experience again and again and show off to your friends.
The drifting, the fiddly headset, the limited viewing angle–these are first-gen problems. They’ll be corrected. What’s important is the core experience, and that, I’m thrilled to report, is everything I’d hoped it would be for affordable first-gen tech.
So no, this isn’t the holodeck.
But if you squint, you can see it from here.
So you say you’ll vote third party or sit out the election because Clinton makes you angry. You’re not worried about Trump because he’ll lose anyway, and besides, if Clinton loses, it will be because she failed to bring the left wing together.
You keep saying that a Trump win would be “on Clinton.” The contention, as near as I can tell, is that if Trump wins, it will be Clinton’s fault. I guess this helps you soothe your conscience as a voter.
So let’s be honest about what we’re talking about here. One of the candidates is a transparent fascist, a man who has publicly announced his intent to use nuclear weapons and drag the entire globe into war, a man who constantly denigrates women and makes lewd comments about his own daughter on national television, and who has repeatedly threatened to make life hell for everyone who is not a cisgendered white male. The other is a progressive with an excellent resume whose politics you don’t agree with 100%.
Because you are “angry,” because you are “disillusioned,” you’ve decided to withhold your vote from this race. You have the power to influence the result, or at least the strength of the result, in what is without a doubt the most important presidential election in our lifetimes, but rather than use that power you will abdicate it. This is okay in your mind because if Clinton loses it will be her own fault for not being exactly the person you think she should be.
Is that it? Am I understanding the argument?
Because my understanding is that YOU are the voter. YOU will be making a choice, either to have a voice in this election or to stay silent. If YOU make the decision to cut off YOUR OWN voice, that is not on Clinton. That is on YOU.
Tell yourself whatever lies you need to so that you can find a way to “stand on principle” and grant this horrific egomaniac, this wannabe dictator, a chance for power on a global stage. Tell yourself they’re the same. Tell yourself that Clinton would be just as bad – that she would also use national catastrophes to talk about how right she is, that she would also turn families against each other and advocate violence as a solution to political disagreement, that she would actively seek to dismantle our free press, share military secrets with Russia, and “joke” about how great fascism is.
But you cannot change the fact that responsibility for your vote is YOURS. It is not Clinton’s. It is not Trump’s (at least, not yet). It’s not mine, no matter how much your decision may appall me. It is YOURS. Pretending otherwise is cowardly and intellectually dishonest.
You’re better than that . . . aren’t you?