Virtual Pilgrims

Mr. Aalam Khan, a devout Muslim, is dying of cancer. Before he dies, he hopes to take part in the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, because he has never done it before. It is a requirement that all Muslims take the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime. However, his doctors say that he does not have much longer to live, and he most certainly will not be able physically take the trip.

Aalam’s solution to this was simple: why not allow him to do it virtually?

“If I can virtually and mentally make the journey, even though my physical body can’t, surely it should qualify as fulfilling the Hajj?” he asks.

Although virtual-reality advocates say this digital realm is no match for real life experiences, most argue that in the absence of travelling overseas, it is one of the best available means of cultural exchange.

At the Dubai Women’s College, professors saw an opportunity to use Second Life to connect students with the world outside their tiny Arabian Gulf state. As a virtual orientation, the group visited a Second Life re-creation of Darfur and made an online pilgrimage to Mecca. Most notably, they met regularly with a group of Korean students in computer renditions of each other’s campuses to practice English and learn about one another’s culture.

CS Monitor, Study Abroad Through Second Life

We have reached a stage where we cannot distinguish the real elements of our thoughts and feelings from the virtual ones. We cannot draw demarcating lines around the “Digital Us.” As we gradually adjust our lives to the latest digital experiences, we stray further and further from the world of here and now, and that world becomes less and less satisfying. Once we’re wired for a virtual world, the present world goes dim and fails to satisfy our digitized needs. This is the situation the world is coming to.

The Internet, unlike television or newspapers, provides interaction. Everyone contributes in some way to its organization. We may call it a huge dream machine. We know we are likely to fall asleep anywhere, and on the Internet we are prone to spiritual sleep. But probably the Internet is less sleep-inducing than TV because surfing the Web is a relatively proactive pursuit.

The problem with high tech is that it tends to impede spiritual growth. No doubt, superhighways facilitate speed. But speed is basically injurious to the spirit. We need time to pray, to meditate. And a mad rush is not likely to yield any spiritual benefit., Islam in Cyberia


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July 6, 2008

I Remember

Written by on July 2, 2008 | Letter Fragments

Dear Martin,

Brother, I forgive you, even though you killed me twice.

The first time was an accident, sure. The night was dark, vision restricted to blurred shadows. You were drunk, and I wasn’t drunk enough. I remember the panic as I sat, clutching the door’s armrest. The headlights illuminated the road ahead just enough for my eyes to grow fearful of the unknown.

The wheels of the car locked, we hit the barrier …

You swore. I remember that, but not much else, not until I opened my eyes again. Mom was crying, her large shoulders shaking, her face painted with grief. You stood next to her, ashen. Doctors camouflaged in white coats blended into the sterile background, monitoring and taking notes on their electronic tablets.

“Mom,” I said, trying to reach out to hold her hand. “Don’t cry. I’m alive.”

She fled the room.

Only then did one of the doctors explain. My body had died, he said, but they’d saved me.

It was tough. I felt like me, looked like me. But I wasn’t, and everyone knew. I was smarter, stronger.

You were always the stronger one. But now, I had that too.

And that’s why you’ve killed me a second time.

We grew distant, and you turned your back. I was different, but still me. Remember that time you chased me down the road as a child, with a knife in your hand, pretending you’d kill me? Or when we’d run off together and hide down the stairs from Mom as she brandished her wooden spoon?

I remembered. The memories and emotions were as real as the world I could see around me. It wouldn’t go away.

We were always so close. But now, you were far in the distance, across oceans. At first, I couldn’t understand why. If I behaved the same, remembered the same things, felt higher love and deeper sadness – what is a human but those things?

Then I overheard the two of you talking. I understood.

“It’s not right,” Mom said. “He’s different.”

“I wish we’d never agreed,” you muttered. “It’s like seeing a zombie. He’s just a machine.”

If I can be copied, what does that say about the human soul? That’s why you were repelled by me. It wasn’t the Uncanny Valley. It wasn’t that you were jealous of me. You feared that your soul didn’t exist, that your God was dead and no-one cared.

Is a person with artificial legs not human? Why not an artificial body?

You were just afraid, you and my friends. So was I, but no-one had bothered to ask.

It’s not me that’s jumping off this roof. You’re pushing me. I can only hope that there’s nothing left for them to bring back, no trace of me.

Except your memories of me. I hope you remember.

Your brother,

In Isaac Asimov’s robot novels, the Frankenstein complex is a colloquial term for the fear of robots. Asimov’s stories predict that the phobia will be widespread against machines that resemble people (see android). It is similar in many respects to Masahiro Mori’s Uncanny Valley hypothesis.

The Frankenstein Complex, Wikipedia.

However, being optimistic about human capabilities, we expect computers to surpass us in most fields by 2015. As we approach the point of human-computer equivalence, progress will accelerate faster. As we pass it, the progress curve takes a very rapid turn upwards which will not stop until the development cycle is suddenly stopped by ultimate barriers imposed by physics – or God.


It is certain that there will be strong reaction to this tinkering with the human species. Not everyone will welcome it, either for religious or ethical reasons, or simple preference. Many people will dissociate themselves from genetic manipulation or cybernetic technology. These people will remain as conventional Homo Sapiens (we will rename them Homo ludditus for obvious reasons). They would at best have to co-exist with these other human offshoots, who would dwarf them mentally and physically. They would not be able to compete, and they may have the same relationship to the human variants as pets do today.

The Future Evolution of Man, Ian Pearson, Chris Winter & Peter Cochrane.

Why we should fear the future

Written by on July 1, 2008 | Out Of Character

The Speculist stuck up an interesting essay recently saying that “pessimism is the new racism”, noting that “we must recognize that the memeplexes that have built up around our fear of the future — pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, misanthropy — are both factually and morally wrong”.

I found this interesting, since I consider myself to be quite pessimistic about certain things. The majority of science fiction I enjoy tends to be dystopian, as does my own personal writing. I have optimism about other things, but that’s rather beside the point.

While an obsession with a fear of the future is probably unhealthy, I probably take the completely opposite point of view: we’re not pessimistic enough. I don’t think we ask enough questions about new technologies, new laws, new wars. We’re too quick to brand people as Luddites, doom-sayers or non-patriots. We don’t spend enough time trying to forecast unintended consequences and don’t pay any attention to our future, and are instead fixated on short-term self-gratification.

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