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Shalev Moran

Deep Dive | Universal Perspective Machines

What do the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the fictional god Cthulhu, and a computer game in which we manufacture tons and tons of paperclips, have in common?

27/09/2020

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One of the many philosophical sci-fi whimzies In Douglas Adams’ the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the machine called “the Total Perspective Vortex”. The imaginary machine is based on a real scientific concept: if each object in the world affects its environment, through forces such as magnetic fields, radiation, gravity etc… then each object has always been affected by the entire universe. We can all still feel the currents of the Big Bang, and if that is so, we do not even have to look at the night sky to get a clear picture of the universe. Theoretically, it is enough for us to direct a sensitive enough sensor to any object, and by the powers operating on it, infer everything – the locations of all planets, the entire histories of all galaxies. “The Total Perspective Vortex” is an attempt to imagine such a machine: on its one side, a super sensitive sensor stares at a tiny cookie and infers from it the entire universe. On the other side of the machine, a booth designed for one occupant, presenting to them the picture of the entire universe and the occupants’ relation to it.

In Adams’ book, a scientist invents a “Perspective Vortex” as an answer to his wife, who used to rebuke him for spending a disproportionate amount of time working. When she enters the machine, the scientist discovers one more important fact: anyone who enters the vortex and sees for an instant the entire universe and history in relation to themselves, instantly loses their mind.

To [the scientists’] horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion. – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Chapter 11, Douglas Adams

This funny-scary metaphor was written by Adams three decades prior to Morton’s Hyperobject concept, which guides this issue of Utopia Magazine [presented by Eden Kupermintz in our opening article on Inhuman Scales followed up a deep dive by our colleague Gili Ron. Nevertheless, it gives a remarkably accurate description of it; the universe is the ultimate Hyperobject, the cathedral in which all objects conjoin, and above all, it nullifies definitions and proportions that humans try to hold on to. “The universe is getting colder” is one of the scariest sentences ever: it depicts the horror of something that is unthinkable just as it is undeniable.

But what if we had a machine that is similar to the “Total Perspective Vortex?” And what if, when entering it, we discover that the perspective does not make us feel completely horrified, but awakes completely different emotions? What if instead of fleeing the dread of hyperobjects, we can use this machine to try and adapt to life by their side? In fact, there are several versions of this machine, and they are found in a slightly unexpected place.

“Clicker Games” are a genre of computer games that is named after its main activity: clicking the mouse button again and again. This genre has two additional nicknames: Incremental Games and Idle Games. Those nicknames represent the common processes in these types of games. We begin with a simple task, like producing a product. On screen is a ticker that follows the number of units we produced, with a big button next to it. Each time you click the button, you produce one unit of the product. After we’ve produced a certain number of units, we can start acquiring other products that will allow for automatic production of the product, and we can stop clicking the button ourselves. This is the stage where the game turns from a “clicker” game to an “idle” game. From this point on, we basically do not have to do anything else, as the game starts to play by itself. However, we can still invest our production profits in buying more and more automated production systems and derive pleasure from increasing the production rate and the rising number of units produced – hence the name Incremental Games.

Most of these games start with the production of something mundane: wood logs, cookies, eggs. However, to maintain the pleasure of the numeric increment, numbers must grow in an exponential rate, together with the metaphor: Wood choppers expand their village and build a town with the wood logs they collected, and the chicken coop extends to an empire that produces billions of eggs via robots, distributing them all over the galaxy, in spaceships. 

Slowly, an absurd perspective is uncovered: who needs all these eggs? How many trees can you chop before consuming the entire forest? The absurd of chasing big numbers, together with the simplicity of clicker games, made them popular amongst researchers, mainly as a tool for satire. The philosopher and game designer, Ian Bogost, created the game Cow Clicker as satire of the games company Zinga, which is infamous for the abusive practices of its Facebook games. In the satirical game Cow Clicker, one of the first major clicker games, the players are required to click on their cow every six hours, and if they want to shorten the process, they must pay money or ask friends for “help”. Unfortunately for Bogost, his satire gained popularity just as that of the games he wished to ridicule, and the abusive practice he asked to criticize, only gained greater popularity with the arrival of games like Candy Crush.

Image from Cow Clicker, game by Ian Bogost

The game Universal Paperclips was created by games scholar and creator Frank Lantz as a demonstration of the thought experiment suggested by philosopher Nick Bostrom, known as the “Paperclip Experiment(1). In the game, we embody an artificial intelligence trusted with the management of a paperclips factory. However, just like the scientist’s wife claimed about his relation to his work, the AI lacks proportions, and so we find ourselves consuming all of Earth’s natural resources towards our goal – manufacturing more paperclips. When we finish with the Earth, after it has been completely consumed, we expand our paperclips business to the entire universe.  

On the surface, both Universal Paperclips and Cow Clicker ask to be interpreted as parodies of the neo-liberal economic worldview. The former ridicules the idea of “infinite growth”, including the ecological damage and social alienation it brings with it. The latter tries to peel off the layers of fat over the so-called casual, popular games, to expose their true face as another type of abuse in disguise. 

However, underneath the social critique and intellectual amusement, the emotional experience of playing these games, as well as other less critical clicker games, offers something completely different. Something in these games has the potential to give some solace to the shock caused by encountering unthinkable objects such as the coronavirus or natural disasters.

First, perspective. In our everyday lives we are chained to our personal human perspective. From our infinitesimal place in the universe, the latter might seem too big to take in. Art can offer us other perspectives, and clicker games almost always present a completely flat view: the one of computers. We see the world via a data table that hosts a set of growing numbers. All numbers are different from one another quantifiably, but not essentially: like the computer that produces paperclips, we have no relatable scale. All numbers are different from one another in exactly the same way, i.e., identical to one another in every human aspect. If there is a graphic representation on screen, it stays similar as well: the visual difference between a factory that produces a thousand eggs to a factory that produces a billion of them is trivial to us, because we would not be able to present this change in proportions, without ruining the game. Vis-à-vis the lack of difference, that existential Absurd that Camus wrote about, awakens: the tension between action and its lack of purpose. Even though in mathematical terms the game describes infinite growth, properly speaking it describes an ongoing, progressive present-state: if we narrow our eyes in front of the computer, we would not be able to determine whether we produced one hundred or one billion cookies. The game is still fun though – a happy Sisyphus comes to mind.

Second, the fact that these games are addictive. Highly addictive. There is something distilled in the experience of seeing a number growing, knowing that every click on the button will make it bigger. This is an almost-sensual pleasure, simpler and more pure in comparison to that of complicated games: like a drug that is extracted from plants that contain the active ingredient of it in lower dosage. This specific pleasure, the seduction of growing into titanic, universal dimensions, might soften a bit the experience of titanic, universal phenomena in life itself.

To understand this temptation, let’s turn to the originator of the sci-fi & horror genres mix that became “weird fiction”, early 20th century author, H.P. Lovecraft (2). The Lovecraftian literary aesthetic received the nickname “Cosmic Horror”, for dealing with massive natural phenomena alongside scientific research that uncovers the secrets of the universe, and representing them in fiction as the discovery of gigantic monsters and ancient gods that hide beyond the horizon, awakened from their sleep. In his recent book, The Weird and the Eerie, philosopher Mark Fisher noticed that the main emotion provoked by Lovecraft’s stories, both in the characters and the readers, is not exactly horror, as the writer himself figured, but rather fascination. The phenomena that dwarf us, whose sheer size and meaning nullifies our miniscule significance, are so incredibly huge that they stop being scary: they charm and captivate us. The heroes of the stories, and us with them, are drawn uncontrollably to the mighty gods Lovecraft writes about, especially when the mind cannot contain them. The cosmic horror is not as threatening as it is tempting. Perhaps “Cosmic Temptation” would be a better fitting name for the genre.

Surprisingly, clicker games offer a similar temptation. Each of them has a moment in which quantity becomes quality: the ungraspable size of the factory you built, even if it is a chicken coop, even if it is on the tiny screen of your mobile phone, is astronomical. There is something fascinating about this size. The action itself, of following big numbers going up and down the screen, is very reminiscent of the obsessive refresh of online feeds or news about the number of people with coronavirus or reports about gas emissions. Through your virtual farm, you can learn to live with big numbers, and maybe even understand our attraction to them a bit better. 

We can use clicker games as a cheap and safer version of the “Total Perspective Vortex”. Just like the ancient gods and monsters, this imagery can teach us how to live with big numbers. But we must not become indifferent to them. The rate of melting icebergs, the national budget, the number of deaths from coronavirus, Bill and Melinda Gates’ investment portfolio: big, unthinkable numbers that we cannot comprehend, exist in real life just like small numbers (which are more  measurable for us), and they dictate our lives just the same. We must learn to live with big numbers, but it does not follow that we must live with them in peace.

Recommendations

Spaceplan

A clicker game designed by a solo developer, which may be the best example for “cosmic temptation”, not only because it is not as addictive as many other clicker games (see warning at the end of the recommendations), but also because it directly engages with cosmic scale. In the game, you are the commanders of a small spaceship that orbits around an unrecognized planet. With the help of the spaceship’s computer, you will investigate the planet, collapse the solar system, and even make it to the end of the universe. All of this accompanied by a calming electronic soundtrack that stimulates in us the feeling of floating in outer space.

Available on Android or iPhone.

Image from the game Space Plan

You are Jeff Bezos     

The short and brilliant work by Kris Ligman from 2018 interweaves Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and journalism, and it is sort of an upside-down clicker game: instead of accumulating imaginary fortune, you have to spend the ‘real’ fortune of billionaire Jeff Bezos in a way that will benefit the world, according to (rough), research-based cost estimations.  

Free on your computer.

Image from the game You Are Jeff Bezos by Kris Ligman

Universal Paperclips

Frantz Lantz’ game begins with Bostrom’s thought experiment and sails further on, to the edge of its reason. In an interview from 2018, Lantz said that he would like to bring the player to the same obsessive place of an AI – to understand how computers “think”. This game is slightly more complicated than its generic peers, and it includes a bunch of surprises that will constitute a non-trivial challenge, which even looks like an antithesis of idle games. However, underneath these surprises, all the  challenges of this game demand basically the same thing, which sometimes seems to be the top priority of computers in contemporary culture: optimize processes. 

Available for free on your computer, paid on Android or iPhone.

The Horror of Universal Paperclips and Space Engine

The video of YouTuber Jackob Geller presents a similar thesis to that presented in this article, yet Geller chooses to remain with the feeling of existential horror. Geller recommends among others, another YouTube video that depicts the distancing of galaxies and the existential simulation, Space Engine.

Available to watch on YouTube   

An image from The Horror of Universal Paperclips and Space Engine by Youtuber Jackob Geller

Everything

Not a clicker game at all, but a different way to describe equality on a universal scale, “Everything” by David O’reilly lets us experience the “viewpoint of every object in the world” – from a bus to a polar bear, a cloud, a whole galaxy, a lice and a single electron – and then dance with them. All this while listening to recorded lectures by Beat philosopher Allan Watts. This is an outstanding aesthetic experience, and it also conceals a sort of idle game: if you turn on the game without touching the remote or the keyboard, after a minute or two it will start to play itself. 

Available on your computer or on PlayStation. 

An Image from Everything, by David O’reilly

A warning

The article specifically makes mention that clicker games can be very addictive. This is a serious matter, as some of these games can provoke uneasy emotions, and a compulsive-obsessive experience: these games demand players to give them more and more attention, constantly spinning the wheel. One simple way to keep caution is to avoid clicker games that are also free-to-play, meaning that their profits arrive from recurring micro-transactions, or from advertisements. These games have a huge incentive to be addictive, and often their creators do in fact design them to be that way. Bottom line: games that are prepaid are usually safer to play.


Footnotes and Other Stray Thoughts

1 // The Paperclip Experiment

 In his work, Bostrom engages a lot with AI, ethics of technology and the existential risks to humanity. In a famous article from 2003, Bostrom suggested the idea that without a sense of ethics or moral code, advanced AI that leans on instrumental logic only, might be harmful and even constitute a risk to humanity, even when trying to achieve a seemingly innocent goal. To demonstrate this idea, he suggested to imagine a sophisticated computer that manages a company for paperclip manufacturing, without any rules of ethics. In an attempt to maximize the cost-volume-profit relations and to create paperclips, the computer will try to find strategies that would turn the entire earth and its population into paperclips. The thought experiment might be science fiction, but it sheds light on less extreme displays of this mechanism that take place online already today. For instance, the algorithm on YouTube that automatically choose the next video for you, was made to maximize profits and fund additional content that would interest each viewer, but its side effect caused the creation of millions of troubling videos that were designed to terrorize children.

2 // H.P. Lovecraft

Despite his groundbreaking ideas, Lovecraft was conservative in his opinions. In the prologue of his most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu” from 1928, he wrote: 

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

In his stories, Lovecraft equated this universal knowledge to ancient gods that human soul was not meant to contain, due to our infinitesimals. Lovecraft’s gods attract today more than ever, progressive contemporary thinker such as Mark Fisher, Graham Harman and Donna Haraway. They use Lovecraft’s world of imageries to discuss what is hard to discuss, what resists definitions: the Hyperobject.