June 21st, 2006



I note the second anniversary of my consolidation of my blogging from Blogspot, Rumor Mill and Sff.Net is coming up in a few days. I also note I passed 2,000 posts recently.

I can't figure if that's cool or sort of sad...

Stretching at the edge of my mind

So I had this thought last week at Rio Hondo, which emerged during critique of someone's story. It's rooted in something goulo pointed out to me many years ago -- essentially this: software doesn't have a locus of perception. People do. We can multitask, split our attention, leverage telepresence or telemetery, do all sorts of things, but our consciousness (under the contemporary regime of technology and psychology, at any rate) exists as a single point within a hierarchical addressing space. Ie, there is a specific location in space (and time) where our mental process and perspective as human beings is anchored. It's called the inside of our head, and that point travels wherever our body does.

This is relevant because it's a convention of the science fiction genre that consciousness (human or virtual) can be uploaded or downloaded, or pass between different nodes in virtual space. (Pace Gibson, I suppose, though the idea is both older and newer than that.) The issue of locus of perception for software is anthropomorphization -- which was goulo's point about a decade ago. Software isn't anchored to its hardware, and all inputs are the same. Unless the designers of a virtual consciousness deliberately restricted its threading, there's no reason in the world why it should be confined in the same way. Heinlein addressed this rather presciently in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in the way he characterized Mike, the lunar computer. Some of the tech details (around speech synthesis, for example) have aged laughably, but the overall conception is still quite stunning. A virtual consciousness could be anywhere and everywhere at once, in principle.

This led me to think more: in the virtual world, as we currently conceive of it, the addressing space is flat. In other words, every point is one transaction away from every other point. (Obviously, I'm glossing over a lot of detail here.) The simple analogy is the phone system. Any telephone in the world can call any other telephone in the world -- that's a flat addressing space. (Again, simplifying somewhat around the issue of country codes and whatnot.) But you can't step from any room in the physical world to any other room in the physical world -- that's a hierarchical addressing space.

In other words, you have to leave the building, travel down the street and across town (or country) to the destination street, enter that building and find the other room. Plus you travel through time (at 1 sec/sec) to do it. Sort of like having a lunch date, "let's meet at the Mexican restaurant at 1st & Main at noon" -- you have no choice but to navigate the complex path to the location, and arrange your travel so as to arrive there at the correct time.

Whereas in the virtual world, like the telephone system, you simply move from place to place. The "passing through" featured in novels like Tad Williams' Otherland is simply an artefact for reader identification and writerly convenience.

What I'm getting at in my imperfect way is that the virtual world (as ordinarily conceived) is infinitely large, but contains no inherent concept of distance -- everything is equally close together. The physical world is constrained in size, with varying distance between points. We keep trying to map the physical world on the virtual world, but I think we might all be missing the point.

I'd like to see this addressed in science fiction more. Offhand, I can't think of any good examples. I'll try to write a story or two that speaks to this concept, though in and of itself I don't yet see any obvious story drivers.

Comments? Examples in (or out of) fiction?