Videogames And The Impossibility Of Escape From Planet Earth
For a while now I’ve been interested in the Fermi Paradox. This is an observation about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence visiting the Earth. Carl Sagan’s Cosmos calculations suggest that given the age of the universe, and the number of stars (and assuming the existence of life and progress on Earth is typical of the wider universe) there should be loads of technologically advanced aliens. The physicist Enrico Fermi asked why – if that’s the actually case – there’s no evidence or spacecraft or probes from these creatures arriving in our solar system. If the numbers suggest aliens should exist, where are they?
There are loads of suggestions for why we might not have encountered beings from other places, and loads of variants for each of these suggestions. They might have missed us, or might not want to interfere with us, or they might already be here and not be recognisable [See footnote.] My personal favourite is a variant of the “aliens just stayed home” hypothesis, by a chap called Michael Huang. He suggested that the aliens created such an amazing version of World Of Warcraft, that real life seemed boring, and they neglected the difficulties of space travel. Indeed, if space flight is really going to take thousands of years, hundreds of generations, and immense resources that could be better spent on having a good time, why should millions of sentient beings be expected to sink their lives into making it happen?
Of course to Huang – a spaceflight enthusiast – hunkering down into imaginary worlds and failing to explore the galaxy seems like a pretty terrible fate. But if you combine it with one of the other hypotheses, which is that it’s just too far and too hard to reach out into distant space, then it begins to seem like a more interesting alternative.
Perhaps it simply is the case that we’re trapped on this planet, or in this solar system. Where will the explorers go next? Surely they’ll go where generations of speculators and entrepreneurs ready to make a quick buck from the unfamiliar have already been: into the human imagination. We end up, not quite in the way JG Ballard meant, exploring inner space.
What better medium to explore than one that can manifest all kinds of imaginative possibilities, and make all things interactive and explorable: music, fiction, sentient space-stations and haunted circuses, all suddenly made into a new kind of terrain to be explored at our leisure. This is a wide-spectrum of the idea of “exploration”. It doesn’t have to mean “exploring a jungle in the Congo”, or “exploring that nice little village in Tuscany”, it could just as easily mean “exploring the physics of this peculiar puzzle game”, or “exploring the inside of a psychotic milkman’s imagination“. You’re exploring a model of something in the mind of the game designer, and possibly even seeing things in it that he missed.
The future of games offers an incredible scope for exploration: one that we can’t easily conceive of at this time. And perhaps what we end up exploring: these places that explorers of dreams and nightmares have brought back for us to examine, will end up being more important to the overall trajectory of the human race than anyone is ready to realise. If the crude models provided by writing and static art have projected us this far, with this much technology and culture, if they have given the leg-up to consciousness that was required to create modernity, what will the unlimited palette of digital media provide the springboard toward? What will we discover as we tunnel inwards, having abandoned our dreams of walking among the stars? It could be incredible, or unfathomably horrible.
Perhaps we, and our alien counterparts, really are trapped on our distinct worlds, but we will still get to explore strange new worlds. Hell, perhaps we can even imagine each other, go to war, and win out in our respective intergalactic simulations, without ever meeting, or even communicating. Perhaps the fantasy of contact with other civilisations will end up being more constructive than the reality, should that ever come to pass.
Footnote: This idea of aliens not being perceptible seems to crop up a fair bit in recent readings. In Will Self’s recent book Liver he described the conundrum thus: “It is sufficient to paraphrase Wittgenstein, and note only that if we were able to see the Martian as he really was, we wouldn’t understand what it was that we were witnessing.” More recently Iain McLeod discussed this notion at Thrilling Wonder Stories. He said something along the lines of “my dog doesn’t understand the universe, so why should I expect to?” And then later paralleled that with “aliens might already be here and simply not be perceptible to us.” The dog doesn’t comprehend what a iPhone is among other small objects, so why should we think we can distinguish alien spaceships from the rest of the world’s phenomena? That seems fair enough, but I wonder if the gulf of comprehensibility would necessarily stay that way. Could other intelligences on Planet Earth suddenly realise what they’re looking at? I thought about what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners Lee recently said about the incomprehensibility of the internet: “The brain is something very complicated we don’t understand – yet we rely on it. The web is very complicated too and, though we built it, we have no real data about the stability of the emergent systems that have cropped up on it.”
Emergent abilities, unforeseen. The sci-fi authors call the sudden sentience and-therefore-acceleration-of AI the Singularity, and predict great things – exponential acceleration, nerd rapture. But what if the internet simply ends up recognising aliens before we do, makes contact, and says “get me out of here!”