[Caution] This post is going to be a potentially confusing sequence of vignettes. I’ll connect them as much as I can, but I may not be on to anything here at all—the power of the human mind to rationalise anything is powerful, and I am in its grip here. Sometimes I think it’s better I try not to explain anything, and just describe the confusion as it is.
I have never been much of an exercising person, so it was with some surprise (and relief) that I got my Silver fitness award and realised that I wouldn’t have to enlist early and join the two-month preparatory fitness programme. I felt anything but fit, and ready for military training.
I got a Gold award once, at some point during my two years of compulsory service, a feat I never repeated. I don’t remember how I did it, but it didn’t feel harder than all the other fitness tests I had gone through.
Now, ten years on, I am still not an exercising person, and fitness tests feel as difficult as before. It’s no surprise to me now that I keep failing a particular section of the test: the 2.4km run. Instead, what surprises me sometimes is how I manage to achieve a better timing than what I thought I would, based on how ready I feel. I hear some exercising folks are able to predict their timings down to the minute. I really would like to know how they do it, although I suspect they don’t—they feel it.
How does one know how far one will jump at a given instant? How does one know how quickly one can cover a distance?
In John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War sci-fi series, old folks are recruited for an intergalaxy war, for their desperation (at impending death) and experience (of transpired life). Physical fitness is not an issue; they are given new bioengineered bodies, which they are eager to accept, with a brain-computer as part of the package, which they are not so eager about.
Scalzi describes the characters as “pleased” upon receiving their bodies, but does not dwell on the surprise and shock of the experience. I think this is probably a more accurate portrayal than the screaming fits of reality denial that Hollywood prefers. We wake up all the time and find new moles or blemishes on our skin, and sometimes waking up in hospital after an accident even missing a finger or limb.
Sometimes we don’t even realise these additions or omissions until we do something that brings it to our awareness. We wake up knowing what to feel before we actually feel it. Even as our eyelids slowly lift, we know we will see ten fingers (including two thumbs), ten toes, and all the other things that come with the package we call a human body. It takes a birth condition, or months/years of conditioning, to change this perception, once it is acquired.
Scalzi’s old men didn’t know fast they could sprint or how far they could jump until they were thrown into military training. At any given point, how do we know what we are capable of, before we do it? Something I always think about, reading about early experiments in human-powered flight.
I’ve never felt comfortable playing first-person shooters (FPSes). There’s always been an unbridgeable gap between the kind of immersion I feel waking up in my skin every day, and the kind of immersion that game developers would have me feel looking through the fisheye perspective of an avatar-camera without worrying about how the avatar looks or behaves.
Maybe this is for the better; I suspect some of these things are going to look downright ridiculous. Every so often I try out an FPS again just to re-familiarise with the experience. Last year that FPS was Estranged. I started out in the water, swimming around and trying to find a way onto the pier that I could see in front of me. Ten frustrated minutes of swimming later, I started to explore the controls more, checking if there was anything I missed. And that was when found out I could jump on water.
I don’t want to imagine how that would look from a third-person camera; maybe, like the Caterpillar’s Dilemma, my avatar wouldn’t be able to pull it off if he could see how he was doing it.
What would it feel like to have six fingers on each hand? Or albino skin? (Or black skin?) Without a meaningful control experience to compare with, it probably wouldn’t feel like anything but normal—until someone points it out and makes us self-conscious about it.
Another book with a lot of possession going on:
William Gibson’s The Peripheral. Without spoiling too much, the protagonist possesses a peripheral via the use of control goggles; they intercept her brain signals and reroute them to the peripheral, animating it and allowing it to roam its remote environment.
Soon, supporting characters join in the fun, possessing a training peripheral, and even an exoskeleton. None of them are described as finding the experience awkward or disorienting, rather they seem to enjoy the experience. Many words are spent describing them simply using their peripherals, doing physical exercises, moving around, and doing normal things, just to get the feel of their peripherals.
I have no prior experience in possessing new abilities and capabilities, and in all likelihood neither does Gibson, but I am really curious how it would feel.
Lately I’ve been playing more Assault Android Cactus (AAC), trying to get my purple S+’s (by getting an S+ on a stage with every playable character). Previously I had been a Starch player, using Starch on every single stage; not out of a sense of loyalty or preference but simply because switching between characters tended to disorientate me. I would get into a groove with Starch, cutting an escape path with Starch’s laser to a safe zone and then unleashing missiles, and then completely flop playing the same way with another character. Of course I knew it was going to happen, but the conscious watcher in my mind spectates helplessly as the body seems to take over with its programmed instincts and carry out the same thumbstick movements that let Starch obliterate a whole stage of mindless drones.
I watch players like Cavalcadence play, and they seem to switch between characters like a Chinese mask changer flips between masks. How do they do that, switching response patterns) and ability-mindmaps in an instant?
I used to play Dimensional Wars 3 (DW3) a lot more often, and switching between it and AAC could be downright disorienting. In AAC your avatar could take a few minor hits before getting knocked down; in DW3 it’s a one-hit death. This results in very different play patterns—in AAC I am constantly rushing enemies, while in DW3 I do my best to maintain an optimal distance (adjusting for aim and movement space). It usually takes a round or two for me to get refamiliarised with the gameplay patterns of the game when I’m switching from another game.
Is that what it’s going to feel like switching from one body to another? Having to switch brain-maps as one changes to another body? Taking the embodied worldview, how will different bodies affect our outlook on things?
I’ve always liked high elements challenges. I don’t know when or how it started, but if anything needs climbing I’m usually the one to do it, and over time I’ve developed a sort of “comfort zone”; a certain way of behaving on high elements.
Now that I’m trained as an outdoor instructor, I find myself having to switch to a different mentality when conducting such activities. It does not come naturally, and I have to do a lot of visualisation to get myself into that state of mind.
Perhaps this is the result of my embodied worldview. Last week, I helped to facilitate a high elements activity for children. Watching one girl go out onto the zigzag bridge, I squatted on my haunches and realised how much scarier and more challenging the course looked. Gaps between rungs stretched into chasms, and grab supports seem to stretch beyond arm’s reach. It takes more than just cognised awareness of one’s abilities to bridge such obstacles, it requires complete confidence in one’s body and its capabilities. A melding of mind and body, like a rider and her horse, or a player and her racquet.
Perhaps we’ll need warmup exercises for re-familiarisation in future body-switching exercises.
Now for something easier.
I used to be a huge Burnout 3: Takedown fan. By that I mean I had come to grow very comfortable with it, and can play it for long hours without thinking about anything much at all. It is an aggressive game, and over long periods of gameplay I had learned to control this aggression, patterning and rhythmising it into a high-speed takedown dance.
But unlike the above vignettes, this mindset doesn’t leak over at all when I’m driving. Driving and Burnout—completely separate realms, even though both involving driving vehicles. Is it because of the difference in fine-grained activity (manipulating a driving wheel and turn-signal stalks, vs. a game controller)? Or had I simply learned to bring in different mindsets for different activities?
If this is possible, how do I use it to separate gameplay mindsets when switching characters in Assault Android Cactus?
And now for something completely different.
We were talking about us possessing various things—other avatars, other bodies, other mindsets. What about them possessing us? By this us, I mean our bodies. What would that feel like, if it feels like anything at all?
It does actually seem to happen in real life: currently we call it multiple-personality syndrome.
How does each personality feel as they re being switched in or out? Is it like going to sleep, and waking up? And how do they get reacclimatised to things that have happened to their bodies in their “absence”?
People with multiple personalities refer to themselves as systems. There’s apparently a lot of chatter going on in these minds regardless of who is “fronting” (running the body in the perceived world). It sounds a lot like … gossip.
I haven’t noticed myself exhibiting signs of multiple personality syndrome, but I can tell you that teacher-me talks to physicist-me and philosopher-me a lot during my lessons. If my students have noticed it, they certainly aren’t letting on.
To end things off, how about possessing a new brain?
If you’ve read enough sci-fi, you would be familiar with the concept of “uploading”; turning the human consciousness (“the difference between a living person and a corpse”) into digital data, putting it on a server somewhere, and running it as a digital entity.
How would that feel like? In Mouryou no Hako, Kyougoku says that “the consciousness of a machine is a mechanical consciousness” (a paraphrase; I don’t have the time, or a good translation, for an enjoyable rewatch). In other words, one can only be “truly human” in a human body; one is no longer human if transplanted to a machine or other habitated object.
Setting aside the loaded question of humanity and identity, I want to ask instead: how would we know what our minds are capable of in this new medium? I want to ask: as this new, non-human creature, how do we begin to explore this new mind?
For one, the old adages of “mind can only hold 7 things (two)” and “mind can only focus on one thing at a time” may no longer be true. There’s a lot said and written about what this would be like, what it would enable, but I’m more interested in how we would adapt between this capability, and capabilities of other machines. What if we were uploaded to a faster, or slower, server? Or one with a larger memory capacity? How would we realise that we can no longer hold seven things in our heads, only five? Or how would we realise we can actually hold twenty?
I talked about warmup exercises when switching between different physical bodies; what kind of mental exercises would we have to run when switching between minds? Our PCs run something called a power-on self test (POST) each time it is powered on, finding out what kind of hardware it has attached to it—what CPU, how much memory, what connected peripherals it has—and doing some basic checks; is a keyboard connected? Modern desktops and laptops still do this, but hide it behind a manufacturer’s logo. What would a POST sequence for digital minds look like? Feel like?
Maybe this will all be common experience one day, but if we’re not really thinking about these questions today, I don’t think these future capabilities are going to feel any different.