It was not so long ago that most kids in school experienced a predictable "Oh Wow!" moment when they learned about atomic structure (that's "Oh Wow!" as in, "What if our solar system is, like, you know, just an 'atom' in this, like, really big 'molecule' thing called a galaxy and…").
Today, of course, that Oh Wow! moment is more likely to be sparked by a video game or, more recently, a visit to a virtual world. And after all, it was time for a change anyway, what with the discovery of subatomic particles, and the assumption that there's no physical "there" there at all – just electronic charges. Or whatever. Personally, I've always found the video game day dream more appealing and amusing than the atomic theory in any case. After all – how much difference is there between energizing a monitor and the Big Bang? Oh Wow!
The old concept of life as being something other than what we suppose returned to me just now while checking in at Bob Sutor's Open Blog, where I read about a Virtual Worlds Conference held at MIT on June 15 (you can view the agenda for the event at Bob's blog here, and find a live blog entry at Virtual Worlds News on a panel that Bob moderated here). And yes, there's (of course) a standards hook in here somewhere.
You'll find the standards connection in a related article (catchily titled Standards to help users keep virtual clothes on). In that article, IDG's China Martens interviews Sutor in advance of the Virtual Worlds Conference. Given that Bob is not only a recently hooked virtual world fan but the chief standards and open source guy at IBM as well, he had a few thoughts about why virtual worlds need standards. For example, the article includes this:
"A lot of people are looking at Second Life and saying, 'Let's do one of those,'" said Bob Sutor, vice president of standards and open source at IBM Corp. "The last thing you want is a lot of different ways to do the same things. You need standards for how to teleport between different virtual worlds and to bring objects with you." …Besides an avatar's clothes, those objects could include the money it was using in your home virtual world as well as a presentation you might want to share with your colleagues or potential customers.
Hmm. Sounds like a real problem you'd want to tackle - who (certain publicity hungry celebrities aside) would want to arrive in a room full of people unannounced with no money and no clothes, even virtually? But as virtual worlds get fine-tuned to this degree, the old "Oh Wow! What if…?" question may be moving from the fun to the mildly uncomfortable.
Why uncomfortable? Well, have you ever noticed that no one has a clue what or why gravity is? We observe it, we measure it, we try and fit it into a Grand Theory of Everything, but we haven't a clue what "it" really is. "It" just "is." Full Stop. In trying to quantify it and fit it into some logical relationship to other (equally unknowable) strong and weak forces, it's easy (and comforting) to forget that we haven't even a tentative theory to explain what or why graviey "is" at all.
Or how about mathematics? Math doesn't exist in any sense other than that physical objects often seem to be better at it than many of us are - and it always works. Always. Now why exactly would that be?
If an explanation of gravity cannot even be imagined, as compared to simply the detailed description of its effects based upon observation with which we must satisfy ourselves with today, then perhaps we are left only with the assumption that gravity is simply the manifestation of a standard, to which the world we observe is required to comply?
Making the assumption that the world is governed by rules instead of laws helps solve a lot of puzzles.
After all, Newtonian physics work, but not all the time. When you get down to the realm of the really small, then you have to pull out a different rule book (the quantum physics one) to explain why things happen the way they seem to. And how about that pesky Dark Matter? If all physics is just a collection of imposed rules rather than the observable physical laws we think it comprises, then we never have to figure out where all that Dark Matter is hiding. It becomes just another "known issue" that the programmer fudged. Once we quit insisting on immutable laws and think in terms of design rules, used only to the extent that they're really useful and not in the way, we don't need a Theory of Everything and bizarre patch jobs like string theory at all.
Feeling uncomfortable yet? Well, let's try this then. Imagine yourself sitting with others at a white board at Linden Lab when Second Life was first being spec'ed out. All kinds of decisions would need to be made, wouldn't they? Should gravity apply, or not? If it does apply (but not so inflexibly – those lucky avatars can fly!), then we need rules for things like acceleration, or all chaos would result as Second Life gets more densely populated? And to implement them in software, we'd need to have formulae, to make them feasible and predictable, wouldn't we?
Now let's say we wanted to be more conservative and anal than the Linden Lab folks were, or perhaps we just wanted to make our virtual world much more complex (as Linden Lab may well do over time). We might then want those rules – standards, after all – to interoperate seamlessly in order to permit that complexity to operate successfully. If we wanted to allow space travel to other virtual worlds, we'd need (and depending on our personalities, want) to work that out, too. And so on.
Viewed from that perspective, what are physics and astrophysics and the math that serves them but a set of standards for how objects and energy are permitted to act? And so we see that when physical laws are viewed simply as design rules, then gravity needs no more explanation or reason for existing than does math – it could be just a feature the designers thought would be useful. Once described and encoded, the rule must be obeyed. "It" then just "is" because "it" is the implementation of a standard that governs the world (virtual or real).
That of course leaves open the same old Big Question: So who "wrote" the standards? A Creator in the traditional, religious sense? Some cosmic virtual world vendor? A standards committee (composed of who, or perhaps what)? I'll leave that question up to you. (But I will add a last grumpy question or two to whoever it was: if it was all discretionary anyway, why didn't you let me fly? And isn't it about time to release Earth 2.0, maybe without Dick Cheney this time?)
Regardless, the more detailed and finely tuned our virtual worlds become, the more uncomfortable this type of question may feel, as the similarities between our real ("real?") world and these virtual worlds increasingly outweigh the differences. As this occurs, more questions may arise, like this one: perhaps the Kidnapped by Aliens crowd may not be so crazy after all – maybe the standards committee for our virtual world just did a lousy job on the travel between virtual worlds standards Bob thinks we need. After all, a few bad standards would really add to the credibility of the theory, wouldn't it?
So there you are. Something to think about the next time you have nothing to think about. And if you do, here's one last question to mull over: will our world (game?) really end when the sun becomes a red giant and roasts us to a cinder, or will some cosmic server simply and inevitably crash someday – set up with a faulty backup program?
No burn, no bang. Just an all too imaginable whimper as the hard drives coast s-l-o-w-l-y to a halt…
Damn! I hate it when that happens!
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If that all seems too preposterous to you, here's a challenge: leave a comment below that includes an irrefutable proof why our world can not be a virtual world. It's harder than you think (and no, "42" is not an acceptable answer).