Thursday, August 07, 2008

"Defective Learning In - Bad Actions Out"

Watching yet another Nintendo Wii advertisement on the train this morning (one of the two over-door displays runs soundless TV advertising - along with made-for-the-train ads), I contemplated scenes of people standing on a board, playing virtual soccer, walking a virtual tightrope, balancing virtual this or virtual that - and it occurred to me that people are basically giving their bodies & minds defective programming. Standing on a board that is very nearly motionless, they watch a screen showing a soccer ball come zooming in - which they virtually hit by moving their head as though they are knocking it back out onto the field on the screen (no impact, no pain); or virtually ski or perform virtual balancing acts, watching the screen indicating steep angles (while their feet are in fact resolutely parallel to the firm floor of their living room); etc. etc.

Great fun, sure. But what happens to people over time when they have ever less interaction with the physical world and ever more interaction with a heavily flawed virtual world? If kids are on a swing set, they learn what happens when they jump off of a moving swing - how far up they go, how far out, how hard down (Gravity-101). If they climb on a jungle gym, they learn how much time they have to grab a bar if they begin to fall. They learn the pain of hitting their heads on actual steel bars (hopefully not hard enough to be actually dangerous), and they learn a whole range of physical facts related to motion and balance. All real and applicable to other physical things in the world.

Another example of defective learning so obvious, that it is simultaneously laughed off and underestimated - TV & movies. I hadn't thought about this for most things, but a couple of events prompted me to give the concept some serious thought. First there was the incident at Shin-Otsuka Station some ten to fifteen years ago in which a drunk man fell off the platform. A train was approaching the platform and there was no time to do anything, but a man jumped down to help the man who fell, and another man (a friend of the second man) also jumped down. There wasn't time to get out of the way of the train, and all three men were killed under its wheels.

While it's admirable that they wanted to help the man who fell, you have to wonder if they would have committed suicide with him if they had known there was no possibility - even remote - of actually saving him. I have grown up seeing movies in which people are remarkably saved from being hit by a speeding train/truck/bus/car/skateboard/explosion(!)/bullets(!) at the last possible moment. Sometimes it's clear that with the speed of the train/car/bus, whatever, the person would be dead - 100% dead. But no! Rejoice movie viewers! For the laws of physics have been suspended once again, and our hero is saved!

Aside from the fact that I very greatly detest that sort of dishonest trick in movie-making (how much happier the audience is to discover the hero alive after having given them up for dead), after seeing that for two or three or four decades, what sort of answer does your brain throw back at you when you suddenly find yourself in a similar situation, when you need to make a microsecond decision about what to do - as the man who jumped down to save the other guy did? In his case, his brain - in pre-thinking automatic mode no doubt - went with Hollywood screenwriting, and now he's dead. Who knows, maybe the guy had never seen a TV program or movie in his life (coming from a modern society, there's a very slim chance of that), or maybe he would have done it anyway, but you have to wonder.

There was a news story about a man in a parking garage who saw a couple of car thieves beginning to drive off in his car. What to do, what to do.... But of course! Jump on the hood! It always works in the movies! "But wait... these criminals don't look upset that I'm on the outside of the car, looking through the windshield at them... they're laughing at me! Speeding up! Turning on the windshield wipers and washers! Laughing! Swerving and speeding up still more! Oh no...." And the guy ended up pleading for his life - telling them they could keep the car, but please let him live!

There was a hijacking in Japan something like fifteen years ago, in which a man who had spent long hours virtually flying a game airplane took the controls of a 747. The pilot tried to get him to make the necessary actions to keep the plane in the air, so the idiot with the virtual brain and real knife, stabbed the pilot to death and kept on operating the real plane the way he had learned to fly the virtual plane (which was too slow to actually keep a real 747 in the air). Fortunately, there were two off-duty pilots on board who realized that the plane was on the verge of stalling and falling from the sky, so they forcefully broke into the cockpit and wrestled the real idiot with the virtual brain away from the controls, and then flew the plane as it needed to be flown - saving the whole planeload of passengers and crew from certain death (except the murdered pilot).

From live news shows - in helicopter views of real car chases in which someone is trying to speed away from the police in Los Angeles, I've seen several where the car tries speeding straight through a red light and then hits a car in the intersection. Could the adrenaline decision to speed through the red light be influenced by a lifetime of watching heroes speeding through red lights in the movies (and miraculously just making it, while the pursuer doesn't)?

Admittedly, those are mostly extreme circumstances, but my point is that with ever more virtual reality exposure, people are going to be making ever more misinformed and bad decisions, performing sloppy actions that work on electronic sensors in games/machines but don't fly in the real world. Perception is reality? No. Reality is reality. Some reality bites and some doesn't, but what's real is still real, even if people don't realize it.

Lyle (Hiroshi) Saxon

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