And while I’m quoting from Gray’s book, I thought of it again when I read this article about Stanley Kurzweil claiming that immortality is only twenty years away. Gray refers to Stanislaw Lem’s novel Summa Technologie, in which a ‘phantomatic generator’ enables users to exist in virtual worlds:
Virtual reality is a technological simulation of techniques of lucid dreaming practiced by shamans for millennia. Using fasting, music, dance and psychotropic plants, the shaman leaves the everyday world to enter another, returning to find everyday reality transformed. Like virtual reality technology, shamanistic techniques disrupt the consensual hallucination of everyday life. But with this crucial difference: the shamans know that neither the ordinary world nor the alternate worlds they explore in trance are of their own making.
[…] The phantomat enables us to live, die and be born again at will. By glazing over the fact of mortality, it leaves us with no check on our wishes. Our experiences are confections of our desires, and no longer connect us with anything else…Lem’s prescience regarding virtual reality technology is extraordinary; but the risk of all-encompassing unreality to which he points is itself unreal. The idea that we may be on the way to contriving a fiction from which there is no exit endows technology with a power it can never possess.
[…] Lucid dreaming is a dangerous sport; those who practice it must expect to encounter things they could not have imagined…Lem envisaged his phantomat as a generator of perfect illusions, but any actual machine will be prone to accident and decay. Sooner or later, errors will creep into the program its designers have written for it, and the virtual worlds it conjures up will come to resemble the actual world it was meant to transcend. At that point, we will find ourselves once again in a world we have not made. We have dreamt of machines that can deliver us from ourselves, but the dream worlds they make for us contain rifts and gaps that return us to mortal life.
Personally, I still think that the ultimate nasty surprise would be realizing that knowing you were immortal would actually be a form of hell, a torment you’d soon be desperate to escape from.