by Mike Meyer
We are becoming virtual and hardly anyone understands what that means. Yet the power of virtualization is taking us to a new level of existence and is a major indicator of our specie’s evolution.
The fact that virtualization is generally known as something that computer devices, smart phones, and weird headsets provide when we’re bored with what’s going on around us has complicated the more important forms of virtualization. Unless you work in Information Technology or science you don’t have any idea of how pervasive and transformative virtualization is in our world.
We will return to that shortly, my focus here is not the technology of virtualization as it exists today but the difficulty that people have in understanding it. And what it will come to mean to us tomorrow.
In its basic form ‘virtual’ means ‘almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict definition’. From this we have the computer term defined as an approximation of something as displayed by a computer. This also includes computer resident things such as ‘virtual libraries’.
Notice that this already begins to blur around the edges as some things are virtual versions of physical things but are no longer identified as virtual. Directories are now virtual computer based directories almost by definition. The virtual can become real very quickly in our world.
The original directory is best described as the traditional library card catalog. We don’t even think of that as a directory now. For many of us the books described in the directory are actually housed in a directory as, yes, virtual books. I maintain a directory of my working library that is with me on all devices. Not a listing but all roughly three hundred books.
Virtual Reality (VR) is a direct outgrowth of computer aided animation from the production of films such as Star Wars to Black Panther and almost all films and many video presentations. From phone games based on Pokeman to educational presentations and VR based games our entertainment is already predominantly virtual. It is already common that virtual people are influencers. Instagram personality Lil Miquela is an early example.
At mid 2019 the VR headset is still the world of early adopters and people with time and money to play. A variety of standalone headsets are out such as Occulus Go but are not really worth the money if you have a compatible smart phone, e.g. Samsung Galaxy or Google Pixel. These will give you a taste of Virtual Reality but not a virtual world.
The limitations at this point are purely technical and cost based. Large clumsy headsets are a problem although much better than the earlier tethers to a very expensive, high end graphics based PC. The technical problems are ways to emulate the tricks of the human eye that really only focuses on a relatively narrow range for full binocular vision (114 degrees) but with full monocular vision at 200+ degrees.
Augmented Reality (AR) is much wider spread although it is still limited primarily to industrial or professional use. This adds information to what you are seeing and produced what can only be called a freak out when Google Glasses were introduced several years ago. These have become the standard in industry for AR providing both training and reference information for engineers and technicians and training for doctors and medical technicians.
Interestingly the public reaction was over the ability to easily snap pictures with Google Glasses. That rapid rate of change makes this humorous as cities, buildings, elementary schools, and bars are rapidly being equipped with face recognition systems that are directly aimed at identifying everyone, everywhere, and recording what you are doing whether you like it or not.
The use of AR equipped ‘sun glasses’ by Chinese police allow facial recognition and have resulted in arrests of fugitives. This is spreading rapidly. With the presence of surveillance cameras in many cities tied to facial recognition cloud services, the early upset over having pictures taken by people with Google Glasses seems provincial.
I doubt that anyone would not find AR equipped facial recognition useful in everyday life. With most people living in urban regions providing thousands of faces we are well beyond our unaided human ability to recognize and remember all of the people we meet. For business reasons alone having an instantaneous reminder of name with relevant employment data, as an example, would be irresistible, privacy issues be damned.
These things are here now and will spread quickly. In fact AR has already ceased to be considered virtual. The line between reality and virtual reality is fading very fast. If you visualize walking around your home city with AR equipped glasses reality becomes, at your choice, names and public information on the people you pass in the street with ‘directory’ information floating above every business and building courtesy of 5G fed through your smart phone to your glasses.
This, of course, includes marketing information on the today’s featured specials at each store you pass. This augmentation of information becomes part of our reality. Whatever we may complain about we are information animals who desire more information rather than less. With more information we feel more secure.
We are already very close to a new type of handicap if we are unable to access or process augmented reality information. The most common example of this is the insecurity of older people today who feel unable to manage smart phone use. As anyone who is heavily involved in information technology knows, older people will immediately begin asking for help in gaining access to augmented information. Those that do not ask for help will often admit to being handicapped. ‘I don’t know how to do that’ is a declaration of significant limitation.
While Augmented Reality is now becoming normal with its absence seen as an abnormality, virtual reality has not yet made that change. That seems to be a far greater leap for many people. Things that are fully virtual seem alien and, I would suggest, produce feelings of the ‘uncanny valley’ seen in humanized robots. For many people, in my experience, virtualization is rejected as not just unknown but as slightly repulsive.
The Virtual Cloud
The greatest area of dysfunctionality is Information Technology and, what are still often called, cloud services. As mentioned at the beginning virtualization is massive in IT. For years now servers, i.e. information provisioning computers, have been virtual machines. This also includes professional cloud storage and backup systems. For almost as long, personal computers have also been virtualized using the Virtual Desktop Interface included in most Operating Systems.
Most large enterprises use virtual desktops for workers as these are superior in operation, instantly changeable, very efficient, secure, and economical to manage. Financial institutions often use Virtual Desktops for the reasons above but also, increasingly, for data security. Yes many people, even if they use virtual systems at work, don’t really understand what the these virtual machines mean and why they are so important.
Managing an enterprise with several thousand ‘computers’ plus servers and storage with backups, redundancy, and disaster recovery while protecting privacy and data security means constantly dealing with people demanding old fashioned physical machines. This is a constant battle with a significant portion of the population in these enterprises.
The most difficult to understand aspect of the reluctance to use virtual computer services is the failure to understand the nature of the services you are using and the convenience of having all services, files and applications securely stored in a professional data center. The laptop or tablet used to display the services and files is a generic device, a client, that hosts no data or applications. Having the client device stolen is a cost but not a data disaster. Yet many people cannot seem to grasp this value in abstracting your desktop computer with apps and files to a cloud based service rather than a burden and security threat. That will change but the slowness is amazing.
Even among professional IT people there is a conservative element that fights against virtualization. This is understandable to an extent as moving to full virtual environments is difficult, expensive and requires a range of new skills. Often security of corporate data is used to as a counter to virtualization but this is often the result of confusion between full cloud based virtualization and operating with owned hardware as the base for the virtualized machines and storage.
As with everything else in our world virtualization is seen as a threat to jobs. The most common IT position is support technicians rushing from office to office to deal with hundreds or thousands of expensive hardware devices. A virtual version of this is instantaneous to reset completely by the users or with a simple voice or text request.
But my focus here, again, is not the technology that does this but the human interface and changes that these services represent. The point is that we are becoming virtual and that means that we are moving away from a specific view of reality that only exists as fixed, tangible objects.
This is a very clear difference between our previous universe of Newtonian classical physics and the new Quantum Mechanical universe of superposition, potentialities, and fields of energy. These are not academic abstractions now but exist as part of all aspects of our daily existence and require a set of attitudes and working knowledge that remains alien to many people.
This is the source of difficulty that many people have with the changes that are transforming our universe from classically physical to virtually idealist. That is a very big change. No wonder it scares the crap out of people not yet adapted to the new world we live in. The implications of those most threatened by this new order is seen n the violent rejection of knowledge and even facts by people lured to images of some past world where things are completely physical. Not only was that world no great but it is already gone.
At an even more fundamental level, many people have resisted this change as they are still tied socially and intellectually to an even earlier myth based universe that has not existed in the dominant planetary cultures for several hundred years. This is a normal human situation as human history, particularly, in times of great change stretches across a range of concepts that can easily include people with very different perceptions of the world we live in. We need to be sensitive of this to understand and manage the stresses of change.
At the everyday human level virtualization forces a movement away from physical reality. This was presaged by the arrival of the internet and web services. Having spent the last forty years working in technology and higher education I can recall the difficulties I had dealing with websites, not because of their content, but because there was no there, there. Where did these things exist? As we all know, instinctively now, they exist only in virtual reality. Where virtual reality actually exists is no longer even a question for our three youngest generations.
But many people have not yet accepted that as ‘real’. Hence the problems of virtual machines and virtual storage of data that is in, no way, tied to physical media or even physical reality. While those of us who manage these systems know that there is a ‘bare metal’ machine acting as host for many virtual machines, they all work in exactly the same way. The virtual machines are exact replicas of metal machines but less wasteful and more efficient but also prone to the same types of problems.
Only the Beginning
Our universe has been reformatting itself, to use IT terminology, for about one hundred years. This change is geometric in form so most of that time saw steady but small incremental changes. These have now started to wipe whole ranges of human experience and replace basic concepts with new. That is causing the massive disruptions and reactions that are clearly beyond rational explanation.
Virtualization is a very important aspect of this very large process. As we become virtual new ways of thinking and new opportunities become possible and understandable. We are now beginning to consciously virtualize ourselves. But this also means that others can virtualize us.
The opposite side of facial recognition and instant identification with complete personal tracking extends to creation of multiple versions of our selves not all of which are under our control.
This is the essential problem of the early manipulation of social media as a virtual environment. In 2016 we had several million Americans that were made into virtual versions of themselves to influence other Americans who were seriously overwhelmed by this process.
In many ways the problem is larger than lies, truth, or misinformation. Everything can be virtualized and will be. We need to learn to understand and manage all of the virtual reality around us.
That is the point here. Failing to understand what virtualization is means we cannot manage our virtual selves and those threaten to replace reality.