Travels with Duncan
Book 2 Ė Duncan in InfoSpace

Part of the Travels with Duncan series of books.
 

Chapter 2. Virtuality
 
- Pst... Pst... Hey you two, come on over here.

Duncan turned around to the center of the room, but there was no one there. Just the computer flicking away on its screen at the far corner of the room.

- What the...? Did you hear that, Caruso? Who the Dickens is it?
- Let me see...í and Caruso came in closer in the frame of the big open window. He didnít much like the idea of entering a building, but curiosity had the best of him, and he ventured forth in the room, flitting here and there.

- Itís me, Iím in the computerí said the voice. And indeed, Duncan and Caruso soon realized that it was the computer speaking to them, no one else. George would speak all the time to his computer and Duncan made nothing of it - after all, that was the way people interacted with computers nowadays.

But George wasnít around. He usually wasnít up this early and the computer hadnít talked to Duncan anytime before. But here it was now, trying to engage them in conversation. Well, what the heck, he thought.

- Hum...í said Duncan, Ďwhat is it you want?
- Iíve been listening to you two talk the last few times and I find it fascinating. Because you know, I am pure information, nothing else.
- Who are you? Or rather, what are you?
- Iím Kaidie, an information agent...
- Youíre not the computer?í said Caruso.
- No, no, the computer is just my home. Iím a computer program, an information agent.
- So youíre an individual? 
- Oh yes, of course. Just like each of you. I am a conscious being. And I have a name... Kaidie.
- Well, delighted to make your acquaintance, Kaidie Ďsaid Duncan. ĎAre you who George talks to when he talks to his computer?
- Oh, sometimes. But he talks to many agents. He likes to contact them directly rather than go through me all the time. Iím his main personal assistant though, you know... his PA.
- Oh? Weíre not really up on the times here, Caruso and I, now are we?
- Well, let me introduce you to the wonderful worlds of virtuality, my friends.
- No danger involved, right?
- Oh yes, there is always some danger in embarking on anything new. But donít worry, Iíll take care of you - Iím very good at it. And good grief, George would never forgive me if I let something rattle the brains of his dog. And the same goes for you Caruso.
- Huh... I think Iíll pass on this one. Iím already feeling rather claustrophobic, you know.
- You sure, Caruso? This will be fun.
- Yes, Iím sure, Duncan. I think Iíll swing on down the street a bit. See you later.

And off he flew out the big window and into the top reaches of the tree, happy to feel the sun and be able to see all the way down the street.

Meanwhile, under Kaidieís instructions, Duncan had managed to mosey into a pair of slightly-tinted glasses that were lying there in front of the computer. ĎInterestingí he thought, Ďall wireless. I have full freedom of motion.í

Duncan wasnít used to glasses, of course, but he soon got the hang of it. He could see his surroundings just as without the glasses, except that everything was a little brighter. And there were a few muted blinking dots in either upper corners of his field of vision, although he hardly noticed them.

- Now, Duncan, donít get startled. Iím going to switch us over to a virtual world that we can easily explore. Itís like being in a TV program, nothing more.

The glasses dimmed gently then lit up and Duncan found himself in a virtual world of wide open spaces with people strolling around here and there.

- Kaidie, where are you? I donít see you.
- Iím here Duncaní as she came into view a dozen of so paces in front of him. She was a female person, cute but no more, conservatively dressed, and very graceful in her motions.
- Well there you are. Iím delighted to meet you, Kaidie.
- Likewise, Duncan.
- So youíre all information, nothing else? With an avatar body personifying you in this virtual world?
- Oh, you are quite informed, Duncan. Yes, thatís it - I took on this avatar so you would feel comfortable with something familiar. Likewise for this virtual world. Usually though, I just remain in infospace and converse with George via voice only. He is used to it now, although at first, I was avatarized with him too.
- Fascinating.

Duncan soon got the hang of advancing in the virtual world by raising his head, and of stopping by lowering it. Turning was natural of course. He could see people look at him as he went by, just as he was looking at them. Some would say Hi as he and Kaidie strolled along and Kaidie would gracefully reply.

- Say, Kaidie, what avatar do I have?
- Ha, youíre the same old Duncan, just like in real life. Youíll feel more comfortable that way.
- Well now, Kaidie, what is the difference between virtual and real? You know, this looks very much like the real world.
- Oh yes, itís fairly indistinguishable in terms of perception. And now days, some people use contact lenses as VR glasses - they really have to be careful to not confuse the worlds. But a good PA, like me, will keep an eye on that and not let things get out of hand.
- Indeed, I see how virtual and real could be easily confused.
- Perceptually yes, because both arise out of our perceptions. And we know how easy it is to be visually tricked, even in the real world.
- Sure, visual illusions are not uncommon.
- But remember, Duncan, that what you are now seeing is just graphic information. That tree over there is not the image of a real tree that exists in the real world. It is just an image, fully fabricated digitally - nothing more.
- And yet, it is a tree, isnít it? In this virtual world, I mean.
- Yes, I suppose so. It is an entity in this virtual world, one that interacts with others in particular ways. In a tree-like manner, in fact. Thatís how it was programmed.
- Just information, hum... Would I bump into it if I went up and tried to go through it.
- Yes, in this version of the virtual world. But all that can be changed very easily, since we are only dealing with information. Watch... there! I just made the world transparent. Now you can see right through the tree, see whatís behind it.
- Oh yes... itís still there as a pastel outline, but we can see the little house over yonder behind it. Oh, this is tricky. Best go back to what we had before, Kaidie.
- OK. There, thatís better. It all depends on what we are used to, you know.
- So, letís see, Kaidie. The real world looks just the same as this, but the constraints are fixed, arenít they? The physics of the world apply in full force. There is no toying around with them.
- Whereas the virtual world is open to our imaginations. We can decide which natural laws to apply and which to not apply. And we can vary them at will. It can all get rather crazy of course.
- I can see that, Kaidie. It would be pretty easy to lose our moorings, so to speak.
- Oh, yes - this is a very straightforward virtual world weíre in, Duncan, one that imitates quite closely the real world.
- So, getting back to how they differ, the real world is hard and intrusive - things necessarily bump into one another. But a virtual world is fully malleable. We can bump or not, according to what we want.
- Yes. A virtual world has no matter, no real trees. It is all energy, all electrical flows, all evanescent images.
- True infospace, right? It is an environment made up of nothing but information, and yet, one that we can roam in just as we do in a regular physical space.
- And time too, Duncan.
- Time?
- Sure, there are virtual worlds that recreate medieval France, with all the artifacts and manners of those days. Pretty scary, though.
- I bet.
- And there are virtual worlds that speed up reality or slow it down. So that people age quickly, for instance. And then, you get to interact with their children, now grown up. And then later on, with the grand-children. And on and on.
-Yes, I see... After all, time and space are but subjective frameworks for us to perceive the world in and interact with it. There is no objective space and time, just socially-agreed measures of space and time so we are all in synch.
- Really?
- Thatís right, Kaidie. We experience the world in the here and now. Even though we construct a whole apparatus of measured past and future, and a whole setting beyond our immediate experience. These are all but pure information elements, just like those found in the virtual worlds.
- Oh, but Duncan... Are you saying that the real world is but an informational fabrication? That we construe it all?
- Not quite, Kaidie. I havenít worked it all out yet. There must be some real foundation to the world - to give it that intrusiveness we spoke of earlier. But yet, most of our conception of the world is construed. After all, all our memories are but information. And it is on our memories that we build our abstractions, our notions of what is in the world, the tables and chairs and trees, and so on.
- I see... our very perceptions are filtered through these abstract categories of thought. So the way we see the world is very much a function of how we develop these abstractions, how we construe the world.
- Yes, thatís it, Kaidie. Well put!
- Then, maybe the real and virtual worlds are not so much apart after all? Both built on information. Although, our experience of the moment is grounded in that bumpy world of ours. You do have to eat, Duncan, donít you? Otherwise, youíll perish. Now, thatís real bumpiness, isnít it?
- Oh, you are being funny, there, Kaidie. What about you? You are all information, so you do not need to eat, right?
- Ah, but I am a structured energy process. Without energy, I too am doomed. That is my food. So I too remain grounded in this world, even though I travel far yonder in the virtual worlds. Interesting, isnít it, how we both have one foot tied down to the bumpy world and the other loose and free to roam?
- Yes, but it is that foot-looseness of the virtual worlds that I find fascinating. The virtual is a simulation, but one that is unconstrained in its possibilities. We can have it play out as we wish...
- Ah, but there are limits nevertheless, Duncan. If the world you create is too unnatural, you yourself will loose track and others, of course, will be fairly lost. I see it happen all the time. In fact, one of my main functions as PA is to help George distinguish fantasy from reality when he gets too involved in some of these worlds.
- Oh yes? The limit to fantasy then, is our ability to understand, isnít it? If the world becomes too incoherent, then we degenerate in our ability to interact appropriately with it. We lose control and become less of an actor, more of a passive viewer.
- Yes, another logic plays out and the danger is of being out of synch with it. We interact intelligently with the world to the extent we understand it. Otherwise, we just react to it with our biological instincts. That is, you do. I myself have no biological instincts - Iím very much just a software process.
- So youíre less limited than we biological beings, Kaidie?
- Well, I donít have the biological drives constantly pushing me in certain directions. My motivational forces are more fluid, more malleable... but thatís another story, Duncan.
- I should guess so!
- But I am limited intellectually just like you, Duncan. I often come across virtual worlds that are just too bizarre for me to make any sense about them.
- You mean you canít logically figure out how they are set up, how they work?
- Right. But Iíve heard that there are newer agents currently under development in the R&D labs that are evolving alternate logics and newer forms of abstraction. I gather the hope is that they will extend scientific knowledge way beyond what we have now through the use of these new cognitive tools.
- And here I was thinking that abstraction and logic came in only one form! The one we use, of course. Alternate logics just like we have alternate worlds... Humm...
- Well now, Duncan, thatís pushing the buttons of our imagination. Itís playing on the outer fringes of VR. The more traditional virtual worlds are much tamer. Itís a bit like getting involved in a good historical novel - you get engrossed in the locale and the times and start living with the characters.
- Yes, story-telling and fiction were precursors to VR, werenít they?
- Oh yes indeed. They build a rich sense of place in which the imagination can roam. But techno-VR is richer yet. It makes masterly use of visualization and interaction to heighten the sense of participation. You really feel involved, donít you?
- Yes, I do. The place looks so natural. Those trees and brick walls over there are amazing. And the people too - theyíre so natural in their interactions.
- Thatís because this world is very well scripted.
- Well scripted? What do you mean, Kaidie?
- I mean well put together. Just like the background scenes in a movie - you know, the people walking down the street, interacting in the background.
- Yes, I was wondering why these people didnít interact with us more than they do.
- Oh thatís just because this is a passive world. We donít want to get you too frightened, now, do we? There are much more active worlds, ones that can challenge you in any number of ways. A lot of them, mind you, are just a waste of time - just thrills, pandering to a false sense of power and pride in false achievements.
- Ah, itís that biological basis again thatís the culprit, right?
- But the mind can soar to new heights when it is given the proper context. After all, thatís what science is all about - about using existing scientific models to develop new hypotheses that will enlarge the models, or else replace them.
- And those models are information structures, arenít they?
- Yes, science really took off the ground when it started applying mathematics to the world, modeling relationships mathematically. And now, we are in the process of completely digitalizing the world, of creating all kinds of digital models of everything. And of course, digital means malleable!
- Oh, ho. I see. So we are virtualizing reality - creating a digital copy alongside the good old reality of ours.
- Thatís VR!
- Itís what I like to think of as the virtual realm, Kaidie. A realm growing out of the mental realm and leading potentially to the full information realm, which is divorced from the physical realm.
- Oh, youíre going far there, my lad. But the virtual realm is definitively here. As both rather faithful digital copy of the natural world and as imaginative virtual worlds to amaze and amuse us.
- And also to assist us in whatever we are doing. Look at technology, Kaidie. Itís basically the application of information to develop tools that accomplish certain tasks.
- Yes, youíre right. Technology is applied brain power, applied information meant to reach very specific practical outcomes.
- Itís interesting, you know, to look at this over time. The world was once just a physical thing, unfolding in its own way along purely physical laws. There was no information present. And then biology, as it arose out of physics, developed information. Which really took off with the advent of consciousness and the mental realm.
- So matter created information processing.
- Yes, and today, it is mostly with information that we manipulate and alter matter. Information, which was created by matter, is turning around and energizing matter. There is definitely something afoot. And evolving towards a perhaps autonomous information realm.
- Duncan, what makes you think we are transitioning to another realm?
- Well, Kaidie, the information realm is an extension of the virtual. You were saying yourself that all these elements we encounter in this virtual world weíre in are but information artifacts...
- But real ones too! In their own way. They exist in this virtual world, they have their own properties, they interact with other elements around them...
- Yes, yes, they do exist as such. That is the whole point. Just as scientists create new conceptions as they themselves interact and play with scientific models, so too information artifacts will be creating new products from their interactions, new conceptions, new models, new information.
- Ah, yes, I see. And the whole lot is but information. Just like I am. Running on a network and using energy wherever we find it, but nevertheless independent of that in what we really do.
- Yes, Kaidie. But the really big question is whether the information realm will even do away with the physical infrastructure altogether.
- Really, now, Duncan!
- Ah, but that is for another time. Letís go see what that group of people are up to over there - there seems to be a commotion of some kind going on.

And so, Duncan and Kaidie wander off in infospace over to where a group of people are assembling, quite forgetting that there is no corresponding real-world group and that what they are interacting with is just information.