A human nervous system receives and processes roughly 1 million bits of information per second. Per second, we are aware of only 20 of those bits. Our conscious mind has no access to the other 999.980 bits. The conscious mind thinks
it perceives everything. It thinks
it is in complete control of our senses and actions, but it does not have a clue. Breathing, walking, even talking are largely unconscious actions. The conscious part of the brain may decide to walk in a certain direction, or express a certain thought, but it has no idea how this is accomplished.
The man-made world is mostly a reflection of our consciousness. Stories, art and music are the rickety bridge to where the other 999.980 bits are dancing.
Ever since our particular evolutionary branch of the ape tree has roamed the earth, we were mostly surrounded by the natural world. But this is changing. The natural world has been altered and trashed by h. sapiens - the "wise" man. We live in cities with hardly a tree in sight, and even contact with our fellow wise men increasingly takes place through some narrowed-down bandwidth of our making (telephone, video, *text-messaging*).
Cities have existed for a long time and we are aware of the shortcomings. But this steady creep of the virtual is relatively new. Here is a quote from Hans Moravec, the robotics researcher, futurist and transhumanist:
"....One would still view the cyber world in terms of location, color, smell, faces, and so on, but only those details we actually notice would be represented." (from "Pigs in Space") This is the assumption that needs to be addressed: "What we actually notice" is next to nothing. Great for bandwidth reduction, but horrible for us. I am staring at an LCD screen while writing this. With a few mouse clicks I have access to the most appealing imagery and sounds. It is so damn seductive. Who needs the real thing? It is the seductiveness of a drug. "Only the details we actually notice" are represented and it feels good. It feels better than the real thing. But something is terribly wrong. Something is dying. It is our nervous system starved of its bit stream.
Aldous Huxley was the first thinker who assumed we would need a happy-pill to cope with this brave new world. It has come to pass. You are either high, depressed or on Prozac and even the fish in Puget Sound and the Mississippi delta are buzzed on SSRIs.
Do we need better drugs or a better virtual environment?
Arctic, Jungle, Desert - In every natural environment we are surrounded by thousands to millions of species, each using its own unique niche of the bandwidth spectrum. Every living being is immersed in this sea of noise. When we are subjected to sensory deprivation, we eventually go off the deep end. It is a form of torture. In varying degrees, all man-made environments cause some level of sensory deprivation.
The brain is very good at "filling in the blanks" and "reading between the lines". When the circumstances are right, we can generate at least some of those 999.980 missing bits. But our senses need to be well nourished to pull this off. As long as we remain immersed in the full-bandwidth bit stream of the natural world, there is enough to resonate between the conscious and sub-conscious parts of our nervous system. How do we synthesize this bitstream in a meaningful way for the virtual world?
The arts try hard to make us whole again. They make connections between those things of which we are aware and all that is hidden within and without. They make things resonate. But every creative expression is frozen in time and therefore it seduces and imprisons us as much as it sets us free. We will need something more to thrive in a man-made world.
Every scheme that does not take the above into account, including going completely "artificial" (as in "Against Nature" by Huysmans) will be at most a sarcastic footnote on the gravestone of h. sapiens or its enigineered successor.
Maybe it is possible to create an artificial environment of enough complexity and diversity and just the right amount of constant change to keep us fully functional, but it will involve a very different approach.