Thoughts on ‘The Stars My Destination’ and parallels between metaverses and the consequences of instantaneous travel
My sister gave me a copy of Alfred Bester’s ‘The Stars My Destination‘ for Christmas. I belatedly thanked her by sending her a download code for Disco Elysium. Having read the book, I’ll admit that my gift to her was less inspired – no disrespect, Disco Elysium.
‘The Stars My Destination‘, previously titled ‘Tiger! Tiger!‘, is a work of science fiction by Alfred Bester, published in 1956. It’s a story of revenge, set against the backdrop of a world where almost everyone can jaunte – teleport hundreds to thousands of miles at will without technological assistance. Thankfully, there’s no room for Star Trek inspired arguments on whether that means life or death.
While there’s plenty to say about the book’s Count of Monte Cristo-esque plot, its structure and Bester’s choice of protagonist, I was taken by the treatment of teleportation and its consequences. It seems weirdly relevant against the impending arrival of metaverses and the slow erosion of distinctions between the physical and virtual world.
Not that I’m suggesting physical teleportation will happen. But the ability to access virtual locations, people and their possessions instantly will. Given that, perhaps some of Bester’s speculations are relevant to our future.
What Is The Stars My Destination?
It’s a science fiction novel set in the Twenty Fifth Century, where eleven million million people occupy all of the habitable planets in our solar system. All but a very few can jaunte, so vehicles are only required to traverse space (you can’t jaunte through space). The book’s protagonist is Gulliver (Gully) Foyle, an abnormally typical man with a dead-end future job as a crewman on a cargo ship.
The story begins with Gully as the lone survivor on a wrecked spaceship – the Nomad – stranded in space with no chance of survival. Luck guides another spaceship – the Vorga – to his location. Distress signal spotted, Gully’s salvation seems guaranteed, but at the last moment the ship deserts him.
Abandonment awakens dormant talents in Gully. He stops waiting for rescue and miraculously saves himself. The sole driving force – to enact vengeance on the ship and its crew.
The story is about Gully seeking out the Vorga. As a character, his main characteristic is an unpleasant drive for revenge. The book’s brutal and unsentimental, but maintains a clear theme throughout – everyone can determine their own fate and shouldn’t be treated as children (that was my reading, anyway). Very democratic and individualistic.
An Overview of Bester’s Treatment of Teleportation
Surprisingly, the book’s pinnacle is the introduction. It starts with a seven page pop essay that explains how teleportation was discovered, taught to the masses and then explores the consequences of instantaneous travel.
Beginning with the chance discovery of teleportation, it focuses on the scientific community’s murderous efforts to harness the phenomenon. Initially, jaunting is only sparked by an absolute fear of death – i.e. drowning or burning alive. Suicide subjects are placed in fatal scenarios, with chemical reactions duly recorded against successful and unsuccessful jauntes.
Eventually teleportation can be taught. Disseminated to the masses, long thought extinct viruses cause pandemics, geographic borders no longer restrain invading species, while the geographically disenfranchised suddenly relocate at will. Enormous societal changes ensue. New hierarchies are established based on an individual’s ability to jaunte and drastic measures have to be taken to guard possessions and bodies from pillage.
There are a couple of areas that aren’t explicitly explored; how mass instantaneous transit could destroy natural geographic barriers and the fundamental concept of the nation state. Still, they’re alluded to through the implied collective unity across single planets and satellites.
What Does Teleportation Have To Do With Metaverses?
Teleportation and entering a virtual reality are different mechanisms with similar ends, depending on how the latter is implemented (ideally not as a closed garden). Realised, both share certain consequences.
Sure, it’s difficult to imagine how metaverses would compare to teleportation right now. There’s nothing inspiring about Meta’s most recent demos of Texas Hold’em and quarterly earning Powerpoint slides broadcast through VR headsets.
However, fully expanded metaverses could act as the platform to a world where pseudo-teleportation was realised.
The promise is vast.
Instantly visit a virtual location, talk to someone face-to-face instead of sending an email, engage in virtual hookups with complete strangers, invest money in a completely new frontier, forget reality and start a new cult based on this whacked out Twitch stream.
Both teleportation and immersive virtual worlds have the potential to turn long established social norms upside down.
But Aren’t The Physical & Virtual World Distinct?
Most people’s current conception of metaverses still supports a clear distinction between the physical and virtual world. But in the future, I think it’s a safe bet that the virtual and physical will be indistinguishable – a single entity.
I can think of three basic arguments for this:
1. Virtualised Services are Already Invading the Physical World
At an extreme, imagine personalised adverts viewed through smart glasses. Or how about keeping an empty seat at the bar for your friend’s avatars to join you?
Unlocking certain physical services already requires the use of digital platforms; from vaccine passports to using your phone to pay for shopping. This will increase, making individual interaction with a virtual world a non-optional necessity. When launching a metaverse, basic services will have to be integrated; payment systems, chat, video, encryption. The dominant platform is likely to dictate how these services eventually interact with the physical world.
2. Reduced Importance of the Physical World
Activities that previously required us to step outside, handle goods and talk to people are being replaced with virtual alternatives. Have you ordered groceries from Gorillas or Getir? (Have you also wondered what the hell their business model is? I assume its based on Uber’s and doesn’t require profit)
With enough services moving into a virtual space, basic tasks in the physical world will become more abstracted and less obviously physical. Without clear differences, or at least differences you or I care to explore, the need for the unique aspects of the physical world will decrease.
3. Economic and Social Incentives Abound
Bird flu, covid, climate change, waste. The ability for companies and Governments to track you more. How about selling virtual real-estate or crappy pixel art?
Investors & companies are driven by profits. Governments by efficiency. And everyone likes big data. It’s in a lot of peoples’ interests to develop an alternative to the physical world and to force you to use it over the physical world.
But That’s Horrible
The critical point here is the second – reduced importance of the physical world. Likely, you’re horrified by the prospect of a virtual world akin to JG Ballard’s ‘Intensive Care Unit’, a short story about a man who’s never met his wife or children and views the world through a screen. However, future generations probably won’t be, because the merits of the physical world won’t be the same as they are now.
I think the horror Ballard’s story inspires is generationally subjective. We don’t like the idea because we’re not used to it; we associate freedom of movement with freedom, but freedom is a complex concept. It doesn’t necessarily have to include physical freedom.
Imagine telling someone in the 14th Century that in the future humanity would spend most days staring at illuminated panes of glass. It would spark revulsion.
How’s It Linked To The Consequences of Teleportation?
While reading Bester’s piece, I felt three immediate consequences of teleportation jumped out as relevant to a mixed virtual / physical world.
1. Redefining Privacy
Right now, I’m writing in my room. The door’s closed. For someone to get in, I’d have to invite them or they’d have to force their way in. Physical action is required.
In ‘The Stars My Destination’, an interesting consequence of universal access to teleportation is how completely private and restricted locations are unlocked. Rape, theft, murder, arson, exhibitionism – they all ensue. The rich devise ways to create teleportation-free rooms, using complex physical mazes. While many apply Victorian constraints on the movement of women to ‘protect them’.
While virtual environments are typically secured with a combination of encryption and physical devices (take Microsoft’s Pluton security chip), data that would have been stored locally is now either duplicated or completely held on remote servers that thousands of users plug into for services.
Programs will always have vulnerabilities. When more of your life is moved onto a virtual platform, either virtual property in Second Life, assets in the form of NFTs or explicit pictures for ‘your fans only’, it becomes more integrated. The distinction between the private and public sphere blurs. In these situations it’s highly possible that a short term reaction by some will be forcibly excluded from virtual platforms, for their own protection.
2. Death of the Nation State
Globalisation may be in full swing, but we’re all still connected to a specific geographic region through citizenship. This limits where we can travel, work and access public services.
In ‘The Stars My Destination’, instantaneous travel to any location is possible, leaving border control in tatters.
Already, you can work certain jobs remotely, transcending geographic boundaries without too many complications. As more and more necessary activities are moved from the physical world to a virtual one, the relevance of a geographic mother state will become questionable.
While there will still be a need for Governments to provide certain basic services and infrastructure, the importance of said infrastructure is probably going to be rebalanced. Further, it will beg the question of how you can apply national jurisdiction and law across a stateless (virtual) world.
At present, if the development of metaverses continues to be led by private enterprises, where IP investment is largely in software, it won’t be long before people start questioning the relevance of national Governments and the arguments against devolution or some form of Anarcho-syndicalism.
3. Ownership of Physical Objects Will Become A Luxury
There’s an ongoing debate about whether in the future, objects will be rented or owned. The continued mass production of cheap goods in China says the latter, while a western drive for sustainability would suggest the former.
In ‘The Stars My Destination’, antique petrol powered vehicles are only accessible by the ultra-rich. Combine harvesters become status symbols.
Depending on how much resources start to dwindle, perhaps that’s foreseeable. From people paying ridiculous amounts for Pokemon cards, to trainers that were probably manufactured in a Vietnamese industrial free trade zone, the accepted value of many physical items is already highly abstracted.
Moving to a world where physical items are less fundamental to existence though, will probably drive a similar impulse to peacock with ancient artefacts. So maybe don’t scrap that 1992 Nissan Prairie; leave it to your great grandchildren instead.
The End of Travel Time
Ultimately, the advent of metaverses won’t run train, bus or uber drivers out of jobs. Automation will get there first. Still, while there are plenty of nice moments for contemplation while sitting on the top deck of the No. 38, personally, I don’t think losing travel time is actually a loss.
Still, my thoughts here are purely speculative. However, I do think it’s pretty impressive that in the 1950s, Alfred Bester managed to write a pulp science fiction story that still appears to have synergies with the not-too-distant-future we’re staring at today.
NB: He even anticipated Doom’s Telefrag, a video game mechanic that allows players to kill enemies and other players by teleporting or respawning directly onto the same map coordinates. Funny, isn’t it?