What if the World Was Literally a Stage?

Kedrick Brown of the “The Actor,” his latest short story from our [November/December issue, on sale now!], discusses the inspirations behind his latest piece, ranging from virtual reality to optimism for a better future in the face of climate catastrophe

In 2015, excited about some new developments in virtual reality (VR) technologies, I began writing the blog “Our Virtual Future.” After serious consideration I had concluded that VR had the potential to be a tremendous net creator of useful and engaging remote jobs, helping in the process to alleviate global natural resource waste. I understood that the path to this one possible future (out of numerous possibilities) wouldn’t be easy, but wanted to show in the blog that it was feasible.

My journey toward writing “Our Virtual Future” began when I read Martin Ford’s book The Lights in the Tunnel, in which he sounded an alarm about automation’s potential to destroy large numbers of jobs. My instinct was to take Ford’s alarm with a grain of salt, as technologies that have led to large job losses have repeatedly paved the way for other jobs and business models to succeed, even though the transition periods have sometimes been tumultuous. Nevertheless, the possibility of such a tumultuous transition period bothered me in this case. Could it be possible, I wondered, for the job market shocks resulting from automation to cause Great-Depression-like problems before the economy recovers? And if so, what steps could society take to ensure that any such transition period would be smoother than the Great Depression?

Getting satisfactory answers to these questions was especially important for me as a father, as I hoped to find some assurance that my children would have a stable and functioning job market during their careers.

I also hoped that they would inherit a stable and functioning climate. Although natural resource extraction had enabled tremendous increases in human living standards, usage patterns were clearly causing serious ecosystem issues. Was there a way for all humans to share the world’s resources while wasting less of them, and yet collectively live at far higher living standards than most enjoy today?

As I pondered these difficult questions, I imagined one possible future in which VR played the role of a broadly beneficial technology instead of a dystopian one as in the movie “The Matrix.” In this hypothetical future, I imagined that if a business closure in one region of the country suddenly put thousands of people out of work with few new job prospects, the public sector might rapidly step in to fund the creation of temporary VR jobs, via the modern equivalent of Great Depression era programs like the WPA.

As one example, if a large mining operation in a rural area were suddenly shuttered, the public sector might fund a university program that offers the unemployed workers temporary jobs in a VR asteroid mining simulation set in the far future. Decades later, data from this simulation might be used by public agencies or private firms to plan actual asteroid mining missions, saving lots of money and potentially human lives. The miners who participated in the simulation would gain new tech skills, test complex equipment virtually, and help to improve the quality of national VR infrastructure. In turn, as national VR infrastructure improved, it would  make massive numbers of new jobs and business models possible, as previously occurred with electric and internet infrastructure.

Was there a way for all humans to share the world’s resources while wasting less of them, and yet collectively live at far higher living standards than most enjoy today?

It seemed to me that no matter how widespread technological job shocks turned out to be, a properly prepared society could use VR in this way to create temporary jobs tailored to the skills of people who wanted to work but had no chance of finding jobs in reasonable timeframes. Although the resulting job descriptions would vary widely, the vast majority of them would be improvisational acting jobs in simulations designed to utilize the workers’ expertise to provide future value to society.

Yet, the ironic thing about a future with amazing VR infrastructure and millions working as improvisational actors in VR simulations, is that it would require a completely reliable technological foundation to function smoothly, with plenty of AI-assisted automation of the kinds of work that people do today. The inhabitants of this unique future would ironically see automation in hindsight as a beneficial trend that had helped humanity transition to a sustainable future with higher living standards, rather than a negative trend that had stopped humanity from reaching a better future.

I found it enlightening to think about the march of automation and AI through this startling lens. Just as technology once paved the way for most human work to migrate from farming and hunter-gathering to today’s collared jobs, I wondered if it might be paving the way for most human work to migrate from today’s jobs to improvisational acting jobs. The best way to explore the long term human implications of this general premise was by writing fiction, and this is the goal of my short story “The Actor.”

“The Actor” was inspired in part by the cover of Lester Del Rey’s 1966 novel The Scheme of Things, which I discovered during research for my first draft of the story in a science fiction writing class. I was also closely inspired in writing it by the treatment of existential themes in movies like The Matrix, The Truman Show, and Inception, and most importantly by Daniel Galouye’s book Simulacron-3 (which in turn inspired the movies World on a Wire and The Thirteenth Floor).

In the story, I work to show readers a society that embraces and centers improvisational acting on a grand scale. In this society, actors are not cluelessly involved in dramas forged by essentially alien entities like the machines in The Matrix, but in dramas of their own society’s creation that they agree to participate in. What would an entire society organized to support this, as opposed to supporting GDP generation for instance, look like, and how would its inhabitants relate to each other? What kinds of jobs or roles would have prestige in such a place, and what questions would occupy the minds of those with power?

If you find all of these questions as interesting as I do, I invite you to read “The Actor” and to think more about how humanity can continue to value human creativity and artistic expression no matter how much technology transforms the world around us.

Kedrick Brown, now residing in Cambridge, MA, is a trader and inventor who believes in the power of stories to inspire amazing forms of human cooperation. His first introduction to science fiction was watching episodes of Star Trek in Liberia, which later helped inspire him to major in physics at Rutgers as an undergraduate. Kedrick has been most inspired in his writing by science fiction works that suggest that the Universe may be far more wondrous than commonly believed. He also has an MBA from Wharton and is pursuing a Masters in Design Engineering at Harvard.

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