Secret Project: The Virtual World

“What do I care for your suffering? Pain, even agony, is no more than information before the senses, data fed to the computer of the mind. The lesson is simple: you have received the information, now act on it. Take control of the input and you shall become master of the output.”

— Chairman Sheng-ji Yang, “Essays on Mind and Matter”

The video clip isn’t anything too special, in and of itself.  It’s just a low-res depiction of a guy suspended in a strange device with a voiceover.  At the end of the video, we flash inside the man’s head to discover that he is experiencing something tranquil, if not desolate.

But the video is just there to support the quote.  And the quote is simply magic.  In a few short sentences, Reynolds has Yang eloquently expound upon the real reason why Yang’s philosophy seems so alien to most players of the game.

Going back to the 18th Century, the liberal philosophical tradition has considered the mental state of the population to be of intense moral concern.  Utilitarians like Bentham believed that maximizing the sum total of the balance of pleasure to pain experienced by each person was the true and proper goal of society and public policy.  At the same time, Locke and others defended representative government and the sanctity of private property in large part on the idea that this social order would lead to widespread flourishing.  This is why Jefferson chose the term “pursuit of happiness” when writing the American Declaration of Independence.

This idea has gone on to become the default moral intuition for educated people in Western societies.  Which, quite naturally, make up the vast majority of the target demographic for SMAC in the late ’90s.  So it’s quite jarring to someone who simply takes this for granted to hear Chairman Yang dismiss the very idea.

But the real genius of the approach is that he couches this in nerd-speak.  Yang grants the Church-Turing algorithmic equivalence of the human mind to one that can be rendered on a common computer.  It’s a fairly common science-fiction trope to have intelligent machines running around.  It’s a little less common to see people getting their minds uploaded onto a silicon substrate, but it’s certainly not unheard of.  Certainly, the idea that you are fundamentally your pattern of cognition and not your meatsack is one that the presumptive player of SMAC will be familiar with and likely find somewhat congenial.

So Yang turns that on its head.  If you are just a meat-based computer, then why should he care about your suffering?  Why should he care if your pain accumulator has a high number in it or a low one?  Why should anyone, really?  Your mental states are only relevant insofar as they drive your actions – what Chairman Yang refers to as the output.

We’ve seen Yang thinks in the tradition of Eastern meditative philosophy in his other quotes.  And given this perspective, it makes total sense.  Meditation is all about directly manipulating one’s mental state from within.  Rewriting the program running on the computer of the mind, so to speak.  It really changes your conception of what is actually possible.  In a truly profound way, Chairman Yang is what you get when you approach the reality of cognition from a certain unsentimental perspective.

So, let’s loop all that back around into game mechanics.  The Virtual World allows all the faction’s Network Nodes to also serve as Hologram Theaters.  A common research-boosting facility thus serves double-duty as an expensive morale-boosting facility.  One can pretty readily imagine that, for most factions, this Virtual World would be something like an MMORPG of our time.  It would be something that you can go online using your network connection and actively experience, gaining the happiness benefit of attending a futuristic theater.

This is a pretty powerful boost, especially for the University.  But we are made to believe that the Hive were the ones to build the project in canon.  After all, Yang was chosen to give the quote.  So, then, we are asked to imagine what would the Chairman’s approved Virtual World be like?  Why did the Hive spend so much effort in the early days of colonization on this?

I think the answer comes from the video: Yang is using the Virtual World as an intensive, in-depth meditation training tool to help his followers gain in enlightenment.  He is literally exposing his followers to intense, mind-shattering agony.  Then he uses the virtual reality device to help the user learn to channel those sensory inputs in new and different ways.  So, instead of recoiling from the pain, they can learn to treat their own agony with the same indifference the Chairman does.  In doing so, they are rewriting their brains to become more perfect instruments of the will of the Hive.

I can’t help but find that creepy.  Alien.  But it is Reynolds’s genius that the only grounds I can find to reject Yang’s philosophy (or any of the others, really) is by embracing another set of axioms.  He’s not wrong in any factual way.  Nor are his ideas shallow or trivial.  Once you grant his premises, his conclusions and preferred social model immediately follow.

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