Battlepanda: The Holodeck as Experience Machine


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Holodeck as Experience Machine

Julian Sanchez introduced me to Nozick's idea of the Experience Machine. After a few back and forths, it struck me that the purest approximation of the experience machine in pop culture is the holodeck on Star Trek: TNG. A couple of the episodes are great meditations on this theme. In one of my favorite episodes of all times, "Hollow Pursuits", the daffy and clueless Lieutenant Reginald Barclay allowed himself to become addicted to holodeck programs where he was the darling of all the women, decked out in renaissance costumes in a romantic forest, and bested his superior officers in swordplay. Eventually, he was persuaded that he was needed out in the real world, and erased all his programs (but one!) at the end of the episode. So far, so conventional. Reality trumps fantasy pleasure, which has no value.

However, the cookie crumbles much more subtly in another great episode -- "Ship in a Bottle". A holodeck character, Professor Moriarty to be precise, has somehow gained consciousness despite the fact that he is a program. Like the character he is based upon, Moriarty is devilishly clever. He soon manipulates and blackmails the crew into scrambling to find a way to make him, and the woman he is in love with, real. Despite the fact that Moriarty is amoral, we sympathize with his struggle to attain reality along with the love of his life. The ending is clever and curiously moving -- Moriarty and the Contess are convinced that they have been beamed off the holodeck and into the real world (through "uncoupling the Heisenburg compensators" -- ha!), but what the crew really did was luring them into another set of programs that mimicked the world, with a lifetime of experience so that they would stay blissfully aware of their unreality until the end of their "days". It is clear by the careful way that Lieutenant Barclay (curious that he is also in this episode) handled the little chips that housed Moriarty's world that their experience, although entirely consisting of zeros and ones, is considered no less precious than any others. Questions for the class:

1) As Moriarty's violent actions demonstrated, he eschewed a holodeck existence to the point where he would take a big risk of complete annihilation to attain reality. Why, then, would it be morally wrong for the the chip he now resides in to be destroyed?

2) As utilitarians, if it is our responsibility to maximize happiness, why would it not make sense for us to manufacture a whole bunch of chips with happy sentient characters blissfully aware of their unreality? Or even sentient characters that embrace their unreality?

3) I have now outed myself as a trekkie. Will you ever respect me again?