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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.

缸中之脑与皇帝的新装


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。

于是,“缸中之脑”为我们描述了一个充满阴谋论的世界。一个泡在营养液中的大脑,被插满电极,输入各种各样的脑电信号,从而描述了一个实际上并不存在的世界,讲着各种各样绘声绘色的故事。这个大脑因之而激动、喜悦、愤怒、哀伤的一切,都只是一些信号和这些信号所引发的条件反射。这个充满阴谋论的世界和“控制”、“洗脑”等反面乌托邦的词系紧密地联系在一起,让我们深觉恐怖。

虽然我们其实深深地知道,“缸中之脑”就是现代大众娱乐方式的最高追求。从“总体艺术”的教堂到全景画,从电影院到游戏机,从锐舞夜店到流行歌手和追星族的集体癔症现场,哪一个不是这样的“沉浸式体验”呢?好莱坞科幻大片,除了机器造反的故事,另一个就是伪造的虚幻世界的故事了。“游戏精神”这个词汇,已经从“茶余饭后的”,“可有可无的”,“应该抱着轻松心态去加以对付的”,“不用太当真的”等等一组语义中溢出,变成了“假作真时真亦假”,让人们沉溺、上瘾,成了一种需要加以戒断的病症了。

说起来VR其实不是什么新东西,我们目前所见的虚拟现实设备的早期版本,几十年前被用来作为培训手段,特别是用于战斗机飞行员的模拟训练,及实习医生的模拟手术等等领域。几十年前或许是比较初级的、仿真程度和互动水平都不够高的VR,但是作为一种提供仿真环境,并且能够利用互动性在身体反应和环境信息反馈之间建立连接的教学手段,它无疑是够用的。这种虚拟体验往往是把现实主义给推到了极端,它们所追求的就是非常古典的“身临其境”的体验。作为对于火灾现场、战场、人体内部肠道等极端环境的模拟和替代,这些环境在日常生活中不容易体验,但却是世界上真实存在的,它们只不过难于抵达,或者重构的成本过高。VR本是教学手段,而今天虚拟现实的大爆炸是娱乐化的。作为游戏体验的虚拟现实,就像电影一样,本质上是一种造梦工厂,它必然走向刺激感官、提供猎奇经验的方向。因此,创造日常经验所缺失的崭新体验,将成为它的一大目标。在这样的沉浸式体验中,已经暗暗地潜伏着一种危险,那就是体验者的感官世界所体验到的环境,和他真实的身体所处的物理环境发生的剥离。

如果仅仅是提供娱乐,那么我们大可以坏笑一下,然后说,虚拟现实最广阔的娱乐应用领域很可能会发生在虚拟红灯区、主观镜头成人片等等领域,其实本来也无伤大雅。就算有些人喜欢整天沉浸在虚拟现实所提供的美好幻觉里面,也无非就像有人喜欢天天泡在电影院里面,或者网瘾小朋友们天天打游戏玩物丧志罢了。又或者是一些公司把虚拟现实用来卖房子、卖体验、卖度假目的地,应该都是可以理解的行为。就算国家拨款花重金到处建设虚拟现实国家教育实验室,一时风尚,有些是实用的,有些是锦上添花,浪费一些钱,也不算大毛病。到了一些小创客工作室打着STEAM教育的旗帜,忽悠一些小学校建立虚拟现实课程,用来演示海底世界太空宇宙,这也还算有趣。但是到了幼儿园也开始把VR用来教小朋友识字,这就开始有点让人担心了。在课堂上有位学生跟我说,他正在实验要把虚拟现实用于儿童的早期教育,我连忙劝告他,一定要千万千万谨慎再谨慎。

据说有人把虚拟现实教程用于孤独症儿童的治疗,可以整合感官建立统觉的功效,这我完全相信。在发育心理学家的操作之下,这很可能会是一种功德无量的艺术治疗。但所谓“是药三分毒”,能够用来把原本破碎而分离的感觉加以整合的手段,也就有可能能够用来把原本完整而互相连接的感觉弄碎。对正常儿童而言,以传统的讲故事、看图说话,甚至死记硬背的方式来传递知识和构建情感,已经行之几千年并且证明有效,不妨先用着。但把VR这样一种东西,未经谨慎的心理科学实验,由各种各样“万众创业”的小创客们大面积地在教育中运用,把人格尚未完全成熟,自我尚未完全强大的儿童,扔到一种激烈的虚拟与现实之间分离的情景中,对他们的精神心理是否健康是值得怀疑的。

“身临其境”,“情景式教学”,这些本来都是好词,想象的世界侵占真实的世界,体验者不再能够区分游戏性和真实性。它所能导致的轻微的结果就是一个人变得不太靠谱,而严重的结果,在精神病学上则称之为“人格解体”。转基因食物是否可以吃,在社会上争得沸沸扬扬,而虚拟现实这样关系到心理健康的经验在少年儿童课程中的运用,却几乎没有人发出过警觉的声音,这是不可思议的。很有可能在STEAM教育的一片好心和一厢情愿的风潮之下,我们正在根据笛卡尔的逻辑错误,生产着身心分离的新一代后人类。

更何况,对于看多了好莱坞科幻片阴谋论的我们来说,这样一种把人全面地装进一套制造出来的人造感官中的行为总归有点不靠谱。这实在是太像一种别有用心的身体管制行为。沉浸式体验再往前走一步就是洗脑,洗脑当然就是操控,就是极权统治。在这样一种权力关系的结构中,VR很容易被理解成一种奴隶的娱乐。想象一下,未来的奴隶主住在真实的黄山上和西湖边上,享受着新鲜而清冽的空气。而底层的奴隶们在他们的蜗居中戴上VR眼镜,同样自以为身在西湖与黄山。“平等”将被生产出来并大批量分配。

当陈抱阳试图开始对虚拟现实这样一种让我们猝不及防的经验进行本体论反思的时候,他为我们提供了三种策略:

首先他使用玻璃迷宫来让VR眼镜佩戴者的身体觉醒。体验者在虚拟空间中行走的同时,时常与现实身体所处的迷宫墙面相遇。此时此刻的身体感觉的瞬间恢复,将体验者从虚拟场景中拔出,重新创造了此时此地感。玻璃迷宫的触觉体感对浸入体验的颠覆,这是一种破坏,就像当你沉浸在电影剧情中的时候,有人用手电筒照亮黑暗的电影院中的装饰。身体经验与虚拟经验之间的冲突提供了一个机会,让人走神出逃,这是一条沿着身体逃离洗脑的道路。但虚拟环境中时而出现但与玻璃迷宫环境吻合的局部,却让这种简单的对比变得浑浊了。

其次,如果仅仅是要完成一种“唤醒”,那我们只要时常拍一拍带着虚拟眼镜的傻子们就可以了,或者是设置一个正常的迷宫就可以了。而陈抱阳提供给我们的是一个玻璃的迷宫,这里的玻璃意义何在?这个玻璃迷宫不但让我们撞,还让我们被看。让我们得以置身左右,围观这几个戴着眼镜在迷宫中游走的梦游者们。玻璃迷宫在这个时候变成了一座福柯式的全景敞视监狱,为VR沉浸者的阶级处境提供了一种极端的舞台。不是吗?我说VR将是奴隶的娱乐,你看那些正在玻璃盒子中梦游的人们,是不是有点像奴隶了?

最后,这种全景敞视监狱的感觉由于陈抱阳装置中的一个设置而变得越发强烈了:陈抱阳的迷宫,不管在物理上还是虚拟空间中都分为两个。访问者可以选择去进入其中任意一个迷宫,这两个迷宫中所提供的虚拟空间互相连接也互相观望,但同时又互相嵌套。在其中任何一个空间中,体验者都可以看到一个沙盘模型,那是另外一个空间的微缩版本——面对微缩景观的模型,人们很容易获得一种居高临下的上帝视角。但是在这个双重虚拟现实的情境中,“上帝”所处的时空本身就是另一个时空中的微缩模型。此处的“上帝”在另一个空间中是被俯视的模型中的芸芸众生。这一相互嵌套的结构,把陈抱阳的两个迷宫变成了一种太极图的结构,黑中有白,白中有黑,每一个空间都有一个虫洞通向另一个时空。

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。

今天大多数将要或正在使用VR的艺术家,许多人还正处在VR这个媒体的乌托邦的狂热中。各种各样的作品,为这样一种体验方式的到来而欢欣鼓舞。赞美着它所可能提供的娱乐和教育的机会,尚未来得及对其精神和感官的影响展开全面的反思。更多的不加反思者,则正在积极投身于建模民工的创世快感,构造着一个个现实或者超现实的环境,让观者投身漫游,他们即将成长为巨大的VR娱乐产业的内容提供者。

陈抱阳的展览,是在哲学水平上对VR的政治进行反思的作品。道理并不需要多么的深沉,道理到底经常就在表面。皇帝什么都没有穿,但是被一整套机制洗过脑的眼睛,会看见皇帝花枝招展的新装。说出皇帝什么都没有穿,所需要的或许并不是多么犀利的洞察力,而是一种勇气。