Could you live your entire life in the holodeck and would it be worth it? That is the question we will look at this time on the Sci Phi Show
The Holodeck is a piece of technology in the Star Trek Next Generation universe, it is used for recreation and training purposes and it certainly would be fun to have access to one. The fun O'Brein and Bashir have in Quark's holosuite is very appealing, replaying the Battle of Britain and other things. I'm sure the military would love such technology as a better technology for training could hardly be imagined. Interestingly the U.S army does spend considerable amounts of money attempting to develop as realistic simulations as possible for exactly these sorts of training purposes. The Holodeck is not without its hazards and it is a piece of technology that seems to fail with disturbing regularity, endangering the lives of Star Fleet officers and even sometimes endangering the ships themselves. The pay off for the technology must greatly outweigh its almost comical unreliability.
There have been a large number of Star Trek story lines that centre on the technology of the holodeck and similar technologies have turned up in other pieces of science fiction although usually they exist as mental simulations such as in Stargate or the Matrix films, rather than artificial worlds that a user interacts with. Either way the technologies generally have common features that mean that users are in real jeopardy when something goes wrong with the technology although in normal operation the technology is essentially safe.
The problems associated with standard uses of the holodeck have also been explored in a number of different episodes. Consider the character of Reginald Barclay, a shy nervous man that managed to gain a commission in star fleet. Reg uses the holodeck to escape from the pressures of everyday life and builds a fantasy world where he is the hero of the piece, strong, dashing and courageous, everything he is not in everyday life. In Hollow Pursits the 21st episode from Season 3 of Star Trek the Next Generation, we find Reg enjoying himself in the holodeck with a fantasy that includes senior members of hte crew rendered in less intimidating forms for Reg to interact with. The episode deals with Reg's inability to function in real life and his addiction to this better but artificial life that he has found inside the holodeck. But are we sure real life is better than this world Reg has created for himself?
Who can't understand the appeal of a world where you always win, but more importantly a world where all the things that scare you are removed or muted into forms that you can cope with. If you remember back to the first episode of this Season, Rocky Valentine found himself trapped in his own personal hell where he was always the winner and everything was easy. But for Reg Barclay, a man that is terrified of the dangers and threats of the everyday world perhaps a fantasy world he can deal with would be preferable. Perhaps it would become hellish over time but unlike Rocky, Reg can always choose to leave his fantasy world and come back to the real world. Or can he? It would seem that living in the real world offers something that no amount of fantasy life could replace, but the sense of achievement and success that can be experienced in a virtual world might be enough. There is the question of real companionship and synthetic holodeck friends that in a real sense are just made up and always able to be gotten along with are going to somehow be lacking ultimately for friendship. Although even that could be compensated for and a collection of friends could live in the holodeck instead of just a solitary individual. So why not prefer life in the holodeck? Where there are safeties from stopping anything getting to real but where all the adventure you could hope for is available just for the programming. Even if that is not enough you can alway disable the safeties and make it a bit more real.
The political Philosopher Robert Nozick in his work, Anarchy, Utopia and State, spoke of an experience machine that promises the same basic deal as life in the Holodeck, although it is a bit more like the life offered by the Matrix. Nozick offered the Experience Machine as a critique of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is an ethical system that seeks to maximize some variable, usually human pleasure or happiness, so as to have the greatest amount of it and this is seen and the highest possible good. Utilitarianism is an interesting idea and one that we will look at in more detail in a future episode but Nozik's Experience Machine and by extension the Holodeck does provide an interesting counter example to the utilitarian's ethical framework. Surely a world where everybody's wildest fantasies and dreams can be made into a reasonable approximation of reality would be a world where everybody would be maximally happy. Nozick suggests you go one step further and just hook people up so that they simply experience non-stop ecstatic pleasure. I thin Nozick envisioned some sort of drug experience but it would seem that the Holodeck provides something similar and probably even more compelling as an experience because it can provide an enormous variety of experience and could provide a very convincing substitute for living in the real world with all the hard edges sanded down and padded so you could never really hurt yourself. I'm sure some people would find this appealing as long as they knew they could leave. I wonder how many would? I wonder after a time if some would even remember.
So what would you choose? Nozick offered some reasons for going into the Experience Machine and some reasons for staying out. The basic argument for going in is the idea that the Utilitarians are correct, that pleasure is the most important thing and the highest good. As we will maximize pleasure by entering the machine then it is the morally sound choice. However Nozick offers several defeaters for this argument.
Nozick offers three arguments for not getting into the machine. The first of these is simple enough and applies to the Holodeck as well. We want to have certain experiences and not just have the experience of having certain experiences. That a safe simulation of an experience is not the same as having the real experience. This also suggests the basic problem with Total Recall's Rekall service that provides you with the memory of the vacation of a life time without all the messy “going on vacation” bit. Perhaps this objection can be answered though, at least with a holodeck. After all, you can, as Belanna Tores did in Extreme Risk, disable the holodeck safeties and experience a genuinely life threatening experience in the holodeck, an experience that presumably mirrors the actual danger of the real thing. I suppose it isn't a perfect replica because you can always end the program before it gets completely out of hand unlike in real life, but it certainly would be closer. I guess this raises the question, if I climb Everest in the holodeck with the safeties disabled and no way out until I have ascended and descended the summit successfully, is that any less of an accomplishment than traveling to Nepal(?) and doing the real thing? The level of jeopardy is the same, although it still feels like it would somehow not really be the same experience. Although probably an excellent training aid for the real thing.
Nozick offers two more profound critiques that i don't think can be as easily rebutted. The first of these is that we want to be a particular sort of human being and he observed that “Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob”. That does seem a reasonable critique, there seems to be something profoundly sub human about just being wired in the experience machine getting as much pleasure as possible. Even if we switch to the holodeck, or one of Quark's saucier Holosuite programs, I'm not sure that changes. You will still just be a sub human thing experiencing endless pleasures, even assuming it didn't get boring. Even with some sort of limited challenge and accomplishment, it still seems some how less than fully human. Although I suspect given the option some would choose this less existence that ultimately robs them of their humanity and offers at best a hollow substitute. For some it might sadly be enough. In a slightly disturbing parallel, it does remind me of the men who seek relationships with life like sex bots and other things as a substitute for female companionship. Apparently this sort of thing is popular in Japan that source of all things weird. I'll put a link in the show notes to interesting discussion of the idea I read and participated in on the Blog “Sunshine Mary and the Dragon”. I'd be interested to know what others make of it. Are men who go for such things dehumanizing themselves?
Nozick's third objection isn't obvious but it is probably the most profound of his reasons not to use the Experience Machine and it definitely applied to the holodeck as “real world” substitute. He observed that it has “… no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated”. One limitation of the holodeck is that it can never offer an experience that cannot be anticipated or imagined, although it can fake any one that can be imagined. This strikes me as a really profound insight, what if there is a deeper spiritual dimension to the universe and life. You will miss out on all of this in the safety of the holodeck or the Experience Machine. The holodeck can fake your meeting with and experiencing anything you wish too, but like poor Rocky Valentine in his own personal hell, surely a life of pure wish fulfillment with no challenge would eventually wear thin and be unlivable. Perhaps in the horizon of a human lifetime it might be enough anyway and you would never exhaust everything that a life of wish fulfillment could offer but the rampant drug abuse, depression and suicide of celebrities and the otherwise extremely rich suggests perhaps there is more to life than wish fulfillment.
Also, if Aristotle is right, then friends are an important component to life and any relationship with a holodeck character is just a facsimile. It was sad to watch Geordie La Forge fall in love with the holodeck imitation of Dr. Leah Brahms, and the awkwardness that went along with later meeting her. Perhaps the holodeck could be perfect after all if you had some complete friends to share it with, or perhaps that would just forestall the inevitable.
So would you choose it? Would this life of safety and pleasure be enough fro you or does life require risk and danger to be worth it? You can find more information on the different ideas contained in this episode in the show notes on sciphishow.com. I can be reached with comments via firstname.lastname@example.org, you can leave comment in the show notes at sciphishow.com and you can also leave comments on our Facebook page Facebook.com/sciphishow, you can also follow the show via thesciphishow on twitter. If there is a topic you would like me to look into please don't hesitate to ask. And don't forget, it's Phi with a P H.
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