Tuesday, January 6, 2009

as time goes by

Perception of time is a funny thing. We can perceive time to be going very quickly or slowly depending on our mental state. I have always found it fascinating that people are capable of assimilating vast amounts of information in the form of written stories that they would not be able to consume if it were in the form of a movie. That is not to say that for everyone or every book a book would take less time to purvey the information of a story than a movie. Rather I'm saying that the upper limit of how quickly a story of a particular length can be absorbed is limited in the case of a movie to the regular flow of time. Just as in a book we can give the viewer the impression of months or weeks passing when only a few seconds of viewer time have passed. In a book all it takes is "weeks passed" while in a movie a quickened sequence of images (say of the sun rising and setting) would also do the trick.

Interestingly any movie represents vastly more information than any book. That is if we wanted to write down a sequence of symbols that would allow someone to reproduce a book our job is already done the book is composed of a sequence of symbols. For the movie the task is a little harder but it is also fairly easy to do. In fact because it is more robust than the analog method of storage all movies are now recorded digitally which is to say they are recorded as a sequence of symbols. Most of the information which we capture with a movie is nothing that anyone will ever give the slightest attention. The fact that there are exactly 137,021 leaves distinctly visible in scene 2 at second 12.6 is not something that a viewer is capable of taking away from the film. The precise nature of the tapestries behind the dueling figures is not important. In a book the author could not give us such details even if they wanted to because the line "he tied his shoe" could then take hundreds of pages to fully describe.

Because of the incredibly streamlined way that the information of a story is contained in a stream of language it is possible to experience a book much much faster than you can experience a movie. Jenna reads twice as fast as I do but that does not in any way diminish her capacity to believe the action. Of course if you have ever (and I have) watched a movie at 1.5x or 2x the normal speed while you can still understand what is going on (most of the time) the degree of approximation to reality is quite lost.

The question I have then is this, how fast is a human being capable of experiencing a compelling story? If someone reads the lord of the rings trilogy in a little over a week reading every day for a number of hours we would not begrudge them the claim that they "experienced" the story in the books. At least I would not though I would be more than happy to raise the question more seriously. However if someone else were to read all three books in the span of an hour or two I might not be so willing to accept that what they had done constituted "experiencing" the story. Even if I could then quiz them and found that they had precisely the knowledge of the tale that the other slower reader had that would not demonstrate to me that the two people had an equivalent experience with the book.

But where do I draw the line? At what point is someone experiencing the book too fast? Very probably we should make our judgment based not on how quickly someone assimilates information but on the mechanism of assimilation. Did the person who read the books in an hour visualize all of the scenes? Did they let themselves feel fear or sadness? Did they hear the distinct voices of the characters in their minds? If they didn't but the slower reader did then it is easy to give the slower reader the label of "experiencing" the story whereas the quick reader perhaps simply absorbed it.

Different types of processing take different amounts of time within the brain. I don't know precisely what the figures are but it takes more time for someone to hear someone say "it was an apple" than it takes for someone to envision an apple. Thanks to our wonderful visual processing capacity when we read we recognize the different shapes and can process the information from written words much faster than we could process the information if someone said it out loud. But sensory processing is not really absolutely necessary to understand a story. You can understand the statement that "then the spaceship exploded in a brilliant silent flash" without visualizing it. In the end all the generated imaginary sensory information will fade away. You probably won't remember what you imagined the black hole to look like but you will remember that while they were trying to fix the engines to escape the black hole the crew accidentally blew themselves up.

That is to say that in the end your mind will probably only see fit to store the semantic information not the generated sensory information. More to the point your brain saves a summary of the information and then you can generate at will any sensory information you like. Of course this may not be true of all people and sometimes the only thing you might remember from a book is a powerful image that took your fancy. But the essence of the issue is that even if you remember the book in a sensory way the information is conveyed in a semantic manner. When I say the word "pink" while I am giving you a sensory input that input is in no way pink. The word "pink" is just a series of sounds and in your mind the word is assosciated with the visual input which is gotten from seeing the color pink. So even in the case of a stunning description of a visual display in a book it is perfectly possible (and even probable) that you store the image away not as an image per se but rather as enough semantic information to be capable of regenerating that image.

All of this rambling is intended to help in the analysis of a question about virtual realities. The examples of movies and books are both examples of virtual realities in the case of a movie and a book both are capable of giving impressions of stories that take years in only a few moments. Because of the purely semantic nature of books they are capable of transmitting stories much more rapidly than are movies. The question is this: In the future how quickly will it be possible to transmit experiences?

Lets say a person is capable of experiencing completely immersive VR how fast can we push the brain into experiencing a story? If we are stuck simply giving direct sensory input then we don't really have control over how fast someone experiences something. This mode of immersive VR is something akin to the holodeck where the experiences happen in real time. But what about an the immersive VR version of a movie? Where all of your emotions and reactions and sights etc are already predetermined for you and shaped to give you the experience the creator wished to give. I would be willing to bet that we could up the clock rate of the brain in a situtation like this. Since responses aren't required you could push the experience faster and faster. At this point I am only guessing but I would be willing to bet that you could make someone experience a complete 24 hours worth of experiences within the span of 4 hours. That is I'm betting that you could trick the brain into experiencing things about 8 times faster than normal. This is because for the most part our brains operate on a tick rate of something like an observation a second or maybe a little slower. But in cases where our brains have to react to something very quickly we can act and think in a time span of as little as a tenth of a second or so.

Finally though we come to the area of memory implantation. I see no reason that in the space of a few hours it wouldn't be possible to implant decades worth of memories into someones brain. Perhaps the capacity to do this will never in fact be possible but lets think of the implications for a moment. This would very likely be a much more effective way of giving sculpted experiences to people instead of making them experience them in fast forward. In the space of a few hours you could get the memories of having been part of a story that could have lasted weeks or months or years. If it were possible to make the memories more or less perfect instead of the usual patchy memories people actually have how would this differ from being able to sit back and watch it at will? This would be the sort of perfect rewind and fast forward we would already know what happened and what would happen and how we felt at each moment. This is fundamentally different from a story which it is possible to transmit now even though we all have experience with these kinds of stories. Is such a thing even desirable?

No comments: