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Brain in a Vat and the Emperor's New Clothes

2017 By Qiu Zhijie

The idea of "Brain in a Vat" was originally conceived philosophically. In the field of epistemology, philosophers have ardently and painstakingly been arguing where our knowledge about the outside world essentially comes from. A radical empiricism amounts to a radical solipsism: if the source of our knowledge was our sensations about the outside world, our mind would be just a blank slate (as John Locke put it), receiving projections cast by the outside world. If so, these projections might as well be fabricated, manipulated, or designed by some powerful being, and this false representation of the world we are served might have nothing to do with the real world.  And some day, our brain may think that this world doesn't really exist, and our sensations are only illusions  produced by some mechanism disorder. Thus we easily arrive at the world of George Berkeley's solipsism.

So the idea of "Brain in a Vat" presents a world of conspiracies. A brain is soaked in nutrition solution, attached by numerous electrodes feeding it various neuro-electronic signals, which describe a non-existent world and tell all the colorful stories. Everything for which this brain is excited, joyful, angry, or grieved is just some signals and conditioned responses induced by them. This world of conspiracies is closely connected with such dystopian words as "control" and "brainwashing", deeply terrifying us.

But as we also know, if we think about it, "Brain in a Vat" is the ideal of the modern mass entertainment. From a church of "total work of art" to panoramic paintings, from cinemas to video game gadgets, from rave nightclubs to collective hysteria spaces celebrated by pop singers and their fans, all these hanker after "immersive experience". In Hollywood sci-fi movies, the narratives alternate between rebelling machines and fabricated imaginary world. The phrase "spirit of play" has many connotations, such as "at leisure", "not essential",  "deal with it playfully", or "don't take it too seriously"; now it seems to point to "the real seems unreal when the unreal seems real", and we easily indulge in and get addicted to this spirit, which has become something morbid in need of abstinence.

In fact VR is not something new. The early versions of today's VR devices were used as training tools decades ago, particularly in training simulators for fighter jet pilots and surgery interns. In that time, the VR technology was presumably at a basic stage, its simulative and interactive levels being relatively low; but it surely sufficed its function as a training tool to provide a simulated environment and build up connections through interaction between the body reactions and environmental data. This kind of virtual experience typically push the realism to an extreme, aiming at the classical experience of "as if bodily present in that scene". Fire scenes, battlefields, or intestinal tracts - targets of the simulation - are extreme environments, chances being low to experience them in daily life, but they do exist in the world, only difficult to reach or reconstruct. while VR was originally a training method, its explosion today is an entertaining one. Like movie, VR as game experiences is essentially a dreamwork factory, destined to go after sensation stimulation and novelty seeking. Therefore, to creat brand-new experiences nonexistent in the world is one of its major goals. In such immersive experiences a danger has been lurking, that is, the separation of the experienced sensual environment and the physical environment of the experiencer's real body.

If it is just about entertainment, we might as well make a grin and comment that the most potential applications of VR would be in fields like the virtual red-light district or the first person perspective porn, and this is no big deal. And if someone like to immerse himself day and night in good illusions provided by VR, he is no other than an enthusiastic cinema goer or an internet game addicted teen. And it is understandable that some companies make use of VR technology to sell houses, experiences, or holiday tour. Even in the case that our government is investing heavily and everywhere to build national VR education laboratories (it is now a sort of fashion), some projects are useful, some are colorful decorations, and such kind of waist of money is anyway not so outrageous. And some small maker spaces brandish the banner of Steam Education, fooling some small schools to set up VR curriculums to demonstrate seabed scenes or outer space world - this is still interesting. However, when kindergartens want to use VR to teach kids Chinese characters, it is a little disturbing. Once in my classroom, a student told me he was trying to make use of VR in children's early education, and I immediately dissuaded him, and asked him to think twice, or thrice.

It is said that someone has used VR curriculums in the therapy of autistic kids, which is capable of integrating their senses into apperception. I totally believe this. At the hands of developmental psychologists, this could be an invaluable kind of art therapy. But as the saying goes, "any medicine is 30% poisonous"; it is very possible that a method capable of integrating broken and separate senses may also break already integrated, inter-connected senses into pieces. For normal kids, the traditional methods of storytelling, picture description, or even learning by rote has been working for millennia in knowledge transferring and emotion construction, and it is natural to continue using them. And if in this era of "everyone is an entrepreneur", various small maker spaces pick up VR technologies that haven't passed discreet psychological experiments, and make extensive use of them in education, throwing kids of immature personality and weak self into a scene in which the virtual and the reality are drastically separated, it is doubtful whether this is healthy for children's minds.

Ideas like "as if bodily present in that scene" or "situational teaching" are good, but now the imaginary world is invading the real one, and the experiencer may not be able to distinguish the game from the reality anymore. The mild result is just that one would become unreliable, while the serious result is a disease called "depersonlization" in psychiatry. It is absurd that while the public is fiercely arguing whether the GMO food is edible, almost none has warned against the applications of VR - which may affect the psychological health - in the field of children education. It is possible that under the cover of the goodwill and wishful fashion of Steam Education, we are producing - in accordance with Descartes' logic fallacy - a new generation of post-human whose mind and body are separated.

Furthermore, after having watched so many conspiracy-theory narratives of Hollywood sci-fi movies, we feel there must be something wrong about a project that encapsulate a human being into a set of artificial sensations. It strongly indicates a body-controlling mechanism with some ulterior motive. Starting from immersive experiences, the next step is brainwashing, and brainwashing is no doubt a kind of manipulation, a kind of authoritarianism. In such a power relation structure, VR can be naturally understood as slavers' entertainment. Just imagine: the future slave owners live in real Mount Huang or beside real West Lake, enjoying fresh and crisp air, while the lowest slaves huddle in their small rooms wearing VR glasses and thinking they are also in Mount Huang or beside West Lake. "Equality" will be produced and distributed industrially.

When Chen Baoyang tried to reflect ontologically on VR, which is a kind of experience we are unprepared to deal with, he proposed three tactics:

First, he constructed a glass labyrinth to awaken VR-glasses wearers' bodies. When the experiencer walks inside the virtual space, he often encounters the walls of the labyrinth between which his body is residing. In those moments the momentary recover of body sensation will drag him out of the virtual scene, recreating the sense of "here and now". The sense of touch triggered by the walls subverts the immersive experience, and it is a kind of destruction, just as some body turned on a flashlight in a cinema and the wall decorations of the dark hall grasped your attention while you were immersed in the movie plot the previous moment. The clash of bodily experiences and virtual experiences present an opportunity for him to be distracted and escape from brainwashing through body. However, in that virtual environment some details coincide with parts of the glass labyrinth, which complicates this simple contrast.

Secondly, if we just want to "awaken" somebody, we only need to nudge those virtual glasses fools from time to time, or just construct a normal labyrinth. But Chen gives us a glass labyrinth. What are the implications of glasses here? Not only does this labyrinth let us bump around in it, it is also supposed to be seen by us. We can stand aside, watching those sleepwalkers in the labyrinth who are wearing glasses and rambling. Here the labyrinth amounts to a Foucaultian panopticon, an extreme stage displaying the class situation of VR immersers. Wasn't I right when I said above that VR will become the entertainment of slaves? Look at those people sleepwalking in the glass box: they somewhat look like slaves, don't they?

Now the third tactics. The smell of a panopticon becomes stronger due to a design in the installation: the labyrinth is in fact two labyrinths, both physically and virtually. The visitor can freely decide which one to enter. The two virtual spaces provided by the two mazes are interconnected, inter-visible, and inter-embedded. Inside any one of the two spaces, the experiencer can see a sand table model, a miniature version of the another space. Watching a miniature model naturally suggest a condescending perspective of god. But in this twofold virtual reality scenario, the spacetime of a "god" has been made into a miniature model in another spacetime. The gods here are mortals overlooked there. This inter-embedded structure turns Chen's two mazes into a sort of Taijitu ("Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate") - white inside black, and black inside white, as if each space contains a wormhole leading to another one.

If unpreparedly bumping into the glass wall is like a barrel of cold water being poured into the mist of virtual reality, this smaller space embedded in the virtual space is like an enlightening sharp warning detonated inside the virtual world. This doesn't just remind of Echer's impossible circles or word plays like "there is a temple in the mountain, and a monk in the temple", but hits the bullseye of VR: we who are watching this exhibition. Is there a higher being overlooking us above our so-called real world? In his eyes, are we only tiny ants who are busy holding and watching the exhibition? The real world and the virtual world are just like Tajitu's double fishes, inter-embedded, transforming and flowing into each other.

Today many artists has been using VR technology, or about to, but most of them are still under the spell of the media utopia of VR. Various works cheers the advent of this new form of experience, chanting for the opportunities it may provide in entertainment and education, with no spare time to comprehensively reflect on its spiritual and sensual implications. And many unreflecting people (more in number), who are growing into content providers of the giant VR entertainment industry, vigorously pursues the Creation pleasure of a model-building laborer, constructing one real or surreal environment after another to accommodate rambling visitors.

The exhibition of Chen Baoyang is a work that reflects on the politics of VR. Wisdom needn't be profound. Wisdom often is on the surface. The emperor is naked, but one who has been brainwashed by a full set of mechanism will see the emperor's gorgeous new clothes. To speak out that the emperor wears nothing, what one needs is perhaps not some acute insight, but courage.


2017 By 邱志杰

“缸中之脑”本来是一个哲学概念。在认识论中,人们曾经孜孜不倦地争论人类关于外部世界的知识究竟从何而来。彻底的经验论就是彻底的唯我论:如果我们知识的来源是来自外部世界的感觉,我们的心灵就像洛克(John Locke)所说的只是一个白板,接收着外部世界在它上面留下的投影,那么这些投影可能完全由某些力量所伪造,所操纵,所预设。它们所为你提供的这个世界的假象可以和真实的世界毫无关系。直到有一天,大脑会认为这个世界实际上可能并不存在,他所感知到的只不过是他自己因为机理的错乱而产生出来的幻觉。这样我们便轻而易举地来到了贝克莱主教(George Berkeley)唯我论的世界。












如果说,猝不及防的物理身体受到玻璃墙面撞击的经验,是对虚拟现实的迷雾所浇上的一盆凉水,那么这个嵌套在虚拟现实空间中的更小的空间则是爆发在虚拟世界内部一声棒喝。这不仅仅是埃舍尔(Maurits Cornelis Escher)的怪圈或“山上有座庙庙里有个和尚”的语言游戏,而关涉到VR的要害之处:正在观看的这个展览的我们。我们自以为所处的这个真实世界,会不会有一个更高的存在,正在俯视我们?在他眼中看来,我们只不过是在微缩景观中忙着办展览看展览的小蚂蚁?现实世界与虚拟世界,正如太极双鱼一样,互相转换流动,但又互相嵌套。