Space Samsara: the apple in the garden

- through Francois Leclercq

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In February 2024, Apple launched a computer that you can wear on your face. If the iconic white wires of the company's iPod headphones or pearly tubular AirPods weren't enough, you can now protect your head with shiny Apple ski goggles with expensive googly eyes.

The Apple Vision Pro costs $3, a nice chunk of money destined for the already deep pockets of the world's second-most valuable company behind Microsoft. Promising the start of a new era of “spatial computing” with integrated augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) capabilities, the Vision Pro is anything but new. AR headsets have been commercially available from Microsoft since the first HoloLens in 499, and the promise of overlaid reality was made as early as the 2016s, with Star Trek “holodeck.” »

In fact, retro science fiction is now actively manifesting in the world around us, with global penetration of over 68% for Trekkie communicators (smartphones)* and, notably, gargantuan tech corporations wielding more power and act more harmfully. …than nation-states. And as the stories we tell about technology continue to catalyze its development, it's worth re-examining some founding myths to try to better understand the underlying inertia of our place in time.

Pygmalion Glasses

In 1935, a young American science fiction writer, Stanley G. Weinbaum, wrote an enchanting 18-page story titled Pygmalion Glasses, which was probably the first detailed treatment of a virtual/augmented reality device in modern literature. In masterful prose, Weinbaum conjured up a vision of the future that, by all accounts, will continue to grow stranger and stranger as our present unfolds.

The story begins with an abrupt, unsolicited conversation between a diminutive professor and a teary-eyed protagonist on a Manhattan street corner.

“But what is reality? » » asked the gnome-like man. He pointed to the tall buildings that stood around Central Park, with their countless windows glowing like the cave fires of a Cro-Magnon city. “Everything is a dream, everything is an illusion; I follow your vision as you are mine. (Weinbaum, 1)

An enticing hook, Professor Ludwig unveils his strange icebreaker by outlining the fundamentals of idealism, a philosophy enunciated by the 18th-century theologian and philosopher Bishop George Berkeley.

Living the ideal

Idealism posits that reality consists only of minds and their ideas, with physical objects having no existence independent of perception. For Berkeley, it is the interaction of our five senses with the realm of ideas that generates the illusion of an independent external reality. In short, apples only exist for minds that see and mouths that know how to taste, without these faculties, apples do not exist.

This vision of a reality entirely dependent on the mind gives rise to the gnome-like professor's introduction of his "magic shows", capable of summoning a universe within itself for a lucky spectator. The protagonist, Dan Burke, takes the bait and is propelled into a Berkeleyan realm of fantastical sensations so captivating that he becomes somewhat depressed by the "real" world as soon as he removes the device.*

(At this point I encourage the reader to take the time to absorb Pygmalion Glasses firsthand ; You will not regret it !)

Visionary Benefits

Putting on our usual Digital Bodhisattva Dharma glasses, several important themes about the role of technology in the future of illusion come to the forefront in Weinbaum's wonderful vignette.

First, it is helpful to double-click Berkeley's compelling map of Christian-flavored idealism as a bridge to another professional visionary, Ajahn Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, whose dharmic perspective on illusion might ultimately provide a way out.

A respected bishop of the Anglican Church of Ireland, Berkeley remained deeply committed throughout his life to both the Christian faith and the idealistic philosophical outlook effectively marrying both in holy matrimony.

Berkeley held that all ideas were originally brought about by God and as such could be trusted, for the Divine would not deceive humanity. This point explains the perceived ultimate order and stability in the Creator's world while allowing our foolishness as ignorant apes capable of misinterpretation the sensations we receive from the infallible realm of ideas.

Free Dharma

The Buddhist perspective takes a somewhat parallel approach, but with the crucial substitution of “God” for “causality” – or pratityasamutpāda (Skt. wheel of dependent origin; Pali: Pennsylvaniaiccasamuppada). Categorically non-theistic, the Buddhist view holds that a fundamental mechanism of cause and effect underlies all experience from which every idea, sensation, and form arises. Seemingly rotating on its own, Ajahn Buddhadasa describes the Wheel of Life as such:

Dependent origination lies halfway between the idea of ​​having a “self” and the complete absence of a “self.” It has its own principle: “Because there is this, there is that; because it's not, it's not. It is this principle that makes Buddhism neither eternalism nor annihilationism. (Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, 10)

Sandwiched between the theistic perspective of an ultimate foundation in God (eternalism) and the nihilistic yawn of a cold, unfeeling void (annihilationism), the Dharma emphasizes a participatory function: a cycle that engages again and again as 'one thing leads to the next. with a conscience that blindly accompanies the journey.

Pennsylvaniaiccasamuppāda is nothing more than a detailed analysis of suffering, its occurrence, its cessation and the path leading to its cessation. (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, ii)

Beyond an intoxicating philosophical perspective, the teaching of dependent origination offers a practical map of cognition intended to guide practitioners toward a more lucid awareness of the fragile nature of their own inner architecture. As one diligently cultivates the muscle of mindfulness in meditative practice, this architecture reveals gaps that can be gradually expanded and inhabited, thereby opening space for tranquility to emerge. Abandoning the worries associated with constantly reinforcing a sense of self, the mind begins to calm down and dwell in the space between ideas.

Ignoring

Returning to the story, we read that, despite his best efforts, Dan Burke is gradually drawn into the illusory world of spectacle via his voluntary engagement with a torrent of delicious sensations. Without this “self-hypnosis”, as Professor Ludwig puts it, the show could not continue. Many flavors of Eden are presented to Dan in the otherworld of the Paracosm, from a nubile maiden adorned with garlands to express confirmation that illness, old age and death simply do not exist in his realm beatific. The innocence of ignorance animates the entire story with biblical allusions perfectly suited to the Christian bent that Berkeley himself took as the nature of reality.

The apple in the garden

Of course, Dan is aware that what he experiences is an illusion produced by a clever technical trick, but he nevertheless takes the bait. Having fallen for the young girl and her dream domain, “real” life takes on a beige and increasingly unsatisfactory tone. With a discerning eye, one can also discern the same pattern that occurs in the mechanisms of infatuation with “real” people. The fact is that virtual reality only amplifies intrinsic tendencies toward delusional thinking, which is perhaps why it is so appealing. We then see that to own Apple's shiny new glasses is to possess the power to reshape one's reality, to blur the rough edges and to shape the world as one wishes.

If, with a tempting jewel, we manage to slip into a so-called Eden, perhaps we could finally free ourselves from that nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that haunts waking life. Yet the very tool that transports us will only facilitate a deeper illusion, constantly reminding us that the paradise we dream of is, in fact, lost.

Space Samsara

Buddhists call this troubling feedback loop samsara and note the mind's pernicious tendency to continually manufacture all sorts of "solutions" to its intractable problem. Ignorance plays a central role in the machinery of samsara, being both the engine of illusion and the point of contact where clarity can emerge.

As Buddhadasa Bhikkhu explains:

When ignorance clouds the mind, suffering arises; When mindfulness and wisdom govern the six sensory gates (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body and mind), suffering ceases. He's a dadiccasamuppāda that we can practice, because the causes and effects exist here and now, where we can reach them. (Buddhadāsa Bhikkhu, iii)

Suffering is often disguised as pleasure because it is our attachment (Pali. upadana) to “good” which sets up an eternal escape from “bad”. Clashing between these poles, the “me” solidifies with all its attributes of preference and pride which characterize the miracle of the “me”. We already project these sketches of ourselves into the world as ideology and idiosyncrasy, but now it seems that the day has dawned when the world can project them onto us again.

With spatial computing, we extend curated digital artifacts into our physical environment, pinning virtual desktops to blank walls and slideshows to bleak panoramas. While samsara has always been spatial, luxury consumer electronics devices such as the Vision Pro have ushered in what appears to be a new era of editable reality.

Airborne anecdote

This point is perhaps best illustrated in an anecdote from the first time I saw someone use the Apple Vision Pro. Moving to business class on a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur, a man sat in the second row of plush double-width seats. Occupying a position in the aisle, the man's eyes glowed a ghostly purple through the strange computer attached to his face. His fingers groped intently in the air, pinching who knows what inches of my waist as I shuffled past toward my economy seat. This situation was both physically and socio-economically uncomfortable.

Not only were we flying apes already exercising the distinct privilege of radically changing physical location via airliner, but the wealthier ones on board had decided to erase us from its field of vision. Cloistered in a virtual bubble, he remained imperturbable while each passenger was subjected to the sight of this proud man displaying his prestige.

Together we dream

I share this experience not to pooh-pooh the rich but to highlight perhaps the most worrying aspect of this new technology.

COVID-19 highlighted how tech has become enmeshed in world-class division, as those who could work online stayed safe while everyone else had to seriously make do with whatever they could manage . The digital divide is a major feature of modern inequality and we now have devices that can literally act as blinders to the less fortunate.

Whether we retreat to a pixelated promised land or persevere in the present, it's important to remember that we are all in this together. We can try to escape discomfort by layering ourselves with costly virtual pleasantries, but our continuance will always depend on an entire cosmos of favorable conditions and anonymous others ensuring that food, water, and warmth are within reach tomorrow.

As interdependence continues to connect the worlds, the least we can do to weave our shared fictions is to respect one another and perhaps remember the fanciful words of Professor Ludwig:

Everything is dream, everything is illusion; I follow your vision as you are mine. (Weinbaum, 1).

* Global smartphone penetration rate as a share of population from 2016 to 2022 (Statista)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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