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Inner Space – Technology’s New Frontier?

by Matthew Gilbert

A young man returns from Iraq and finds it increasingly difficult to manage his affairs in a “civilized” world. The war haunts him still, his old friends no longer “get him,” and holding a job is a lot more difficult than holding an automatic rifle. He knows he needs help, but he’s just not comfortable attending meetings or reaching out to people he doesn’t know – or trust. He’s at risk and running out of options.

A child walking to school through a battered neighborhood sees only what isn’t working: abandoned lots, boarded-up storefronts, garbage spilling onto the road. Over time she becomes subtly (and not so subtly) programmed to expect a future with more of the same, and whatever hope she may find in class is compromised by the reality around her.

These challenges aren’t new, but a growing number of innovative folks are devising solutions at the intersection of technology and transformation. The returning war vet, for example, might find his way to Coming Home, a program developed by the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command (RDECOM) that uses virtual reality to help vets with mental health issues who wouldn’t otherwise seek help. Here, in an environment of complete anonymity, they (via their avatars) can find support from peers and counselors, learn relaxation techniques, and even travel a labyrinth.

For the young girl there is, a unique educational program for disadvantaged and underserved youth that uses augmented reality and geo-spatial mapping to help them re-imagine – and even create – new futures for their neighborhoods in a virtual community environment. KZero Worldswide, a UK-based consulting company, claims there are now nearly 180 virtual worlds live or in beta, with over one billion registered users, many of them youth.

This is seriously trippy stuff – it’s immersive, it’s interactive, it’s embodied (sort of), and it’s actually changing people’s lives, tapping into each individual’s potential to get beyond their conditioning and become engaged in transforming themselves and their world.

I discovered these programs (and others) at Immersive Tech Summit 2010 last October in Los Angeles, a first-of-its-kind event drawing techno-pioneers from diverse fields of interest. “Why immersive technology?” the brochure asks. “Because it provides the ability for people to experience things they can only imagine in dreams. Because it empowers people to transcend physical boundaries. Because it increases the possibility set of what we can experience in our lifetime.” But can it make the perfect latte? (Actually, the event commons did feature a $6000 push-button espresso machine that steamed some pretty good java.)

I have remained a resolutely late adopter of cutting-edge gadgets and a reluctant participant in social media’s networked omniverse, but it was hard not to get a bit charged up seeing some of the amazing tricks up the technorati’s sleeves. Sure, there were plenty of applications of the whiz-bang variety – fine-tuning the art of distraction will always be a part of technology’s evolutionary imperative. But tucked in between is a remarkable intention to marry these marvels with causes for the greater good.

At the recent Bioneers conference, Kirk Bergstrom of Worldlink: Education for a Green Economy asserted that “New competencies are needed…driven by changes in consciousness…that address ‘habits of the mind’ using ‘dramatic’ educational tools.” (Worldlink’s “interactive earth” will be launched in Spring 2011). David McConville of Geodome also called for new tools for “telling a new story of emerging planetary consciousness.” (These imperatives are right in line with IONS’ Worldview Literacy Project™). His consulting company, Elumenati, is part of an elite consortium of science educators called The Worldviews Network that is committed to cultivating ecological literacy using new media technologies to more creatively raise awareness of critical issues within whole-system thinking. The Network plans to go live in December. (Also of note: the second annual Wisdom 2.0 Conference in February 2011, a gathering of neuroscientists, teachers of contemplative practice, and social media architects from Google, Twitter, and Facebook. For my report on last year’s event, go here.)

These technologies are taking many forms, from brain-tweaking eyewear and next-generation interactive programming to “immersive visualization environments.” IMAX was the first to showcase large-format global theaters, and today’s immersive pioneers are taking this experience to scale – a smaller one, that is. McConville has worked often with 30-foot domes, while Vortex Immersion Media’s Ed Lantz  showed off what a larger (but ultimately still portable) dome could do with a series of mind- and body-bending shows at his 50-foot bubble-sphere next door to the ImmersiveTech conference. The intimacy of their size, stunning graphics, and exceptional sound quality have endless potential to educate, inspire, and ultimately rewire.

The conference ended with a stream-of-consciousness manifesto delivered by John Smart of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, a futurist-oriented think tank focused on the influence of technology on, well, everything. Drawing from a report called the “Metaverse Roadmap” (metaverse: the point of convergence where virtual and physical reality meet), he clicked off the many areas, including addiction management and even self-actualization, where a 3-D web environment will serve the human cause, aided and abetted by cognotech, evo-devo, and “transhuman symbionts.”

The report concludes

Most importantly for each of us, at this pivotal moment in human history, there are unique opportunities for enlightened corporate, political, and social leadership in Metaverse exploration and development. We propose that the best use of the Metaverse Scenarios and Inputs in this inaugural roadmap is not simply to consider them for near-term economic potential, but to ask how these technologies might help or hinder our ability to manage humanity’s larger concerns, both now and in the future. How might we use the various forms of the Metaverse to guide our response to global warming, and the emergence of “climate neutral” energy and transportation? How might we use these systems to avert a war, improve an election, reduce crime and poverty, or put an end to human rights abuses? How might we use the Metaverse, in the words of Jonas Salk, to become "good ancestors" to our descendants?

It is, indeed, a brave new world – again.

  • Tam Hunt Dec 09, 2010

    Nice piece Matthew. It is indeed an interesting conundrum we find ourselves in with respect to technology and living an authentic life. I just came across The Shallows, a continuation in some ways of McLuhan's work re how media literally changes our brains and our worldviews. A little scary but I'm generally optimistic that technology will lead us to better futures despite some pitfalls along the way.

  • Anonymous Icon

    olafa Dec 13, 2010

    I think technology is finally slowed up enough to let morality and ethics begin to catch up with it.
    Finally a beginning for the human race to reach out to help instead of for wealth. Lets hope anyway.

  • Matthew Gilbert Dec 13, 2010

    I'm not sure that the pace of technological change has slowed, olafa, but at least its impacts are starting to be scrutinized in a new way . . . while progressive, creative, well-intentioned people are using some of these changes to facilitate positive evolution of our thoughts, beliefs, actions, and even healing. Like everything else these days, media and technology offer deep paradoxes of hope and despair. Neuromarketing, anyone?

  • catharine Dec 14, 2010

    very interesting and hopeful. we will educate our inner landscape, create willingness, and begin the green work on mother earth in earnest. we will create new paradigms for illness and poverty outcome.

    but i also see a dark more sinister side if used to manipulate. our inner landscape is manipulated daily by media and cultural trends, and we do not want more of that.

    again, very hopeful, useful and exciting,
    thank you, catherine

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