daily preciousness

Friday, November 17, 2000

dream of the cuttlefish

There’s an animal called a cuttlefish that lives in the waters off Micronesia. Not only is it unique to this corner of the world, it is unlike any other animal in the sea.

The cuttlefish is a distant cousin to the squid and the octopus, with a soft body and 8 long arms. But unlike its relatives, the cuttlefish has an epidermis filled with red, blue and yellow pixilated cells (chronospores) that can alter their coloring. In addition to a well-developed cerebellum (about the size of a dog’s), the cuttlefish has a special brain center that’s wired for color control. It can mimic, chameleon-like, the surrounding seabed, or it can generate its own unique colors and patterns at will.

The cuttlefish recreates the colors of its environment as it hunts for its main prey: hard-shell crabs. Of course, being a soft-bodied creature it’s nearly defenseless against the sharp pincers of its main food source. Offense being the best defense, the cuttlefish approaches the crabs carefully, mimicking the surrounding terrain. It approaches with its arms spread eagle, its vulnerable underbelly, where its mouth is located, facing the opponent.

But the crab is no fool. Even it can see past its aggressor’s disguise at close range.

So the little crab goes all systems red, pincers at the ready, in an attack posture. At this point, the cuttlefish’s true talents are revealed. Not just to its pray, but to you, as well.

The special nerve center at the base of the brain stem of the cuttlefish does not merely serve to recreate its environment, but compose new and original patterns as well.

As the crab assumes its defensive posture, the cuttlefish’s pixilated cells suddenly burst alive with a psychedelic display of cascading colors and patterns. Imagine the broad palette of colors of the underwater world, flashing marquis-style from the center of the cuttlefish to the tips of its outstretched arms.

The contents of a lava lamp, poured into a blender might – might -- produce such an intensely kaleidoscopic pattern forms the skin of the creature. Imagine that wildly eccentric pattern, shaped like an octopus, slowly wrapping its arms around you in an ineffably beautiful, undeniable embrace.

You have to pity the little crab. Of course, the prey entirely forgets what he was so worried about a few moments earlier and just focuses on this incredible head-trip made real. He is totally vulnerable. At this point, the cuttlefish attacks, taking a big bite out of his prey.

This full-body color morphing capability of the cuttlefish isn’t only used in feeding, however. The creature also uses it to communicate. Like many other animals, the cuttlefish uses its colorful epidermis to attract a mate.

In effect, the animal is its own avatar, or self-created visual representation. Its brain, hardwired for chameleon-like alterations in its epidermis, can re-invent itself in a remarkable, Madonna-like manner.

So what is this biological vignette doing in my journal entry?

Because I heard a guy speak so lovingly about his dream of the cuttlefish. Well, honestly, he spoke about the creature lovingly but with a tinge of jealousy.

Jaron Lanier is a virtual reality theorist. At 6 foot two, this heavy-set guy cuts an imposing figure. He has elbow-length dreds and flips them out of his face like a veteran Cher impersonator. Lanier was a guest speaker at the university last week. I went to hear his lecture on where we’re headed.

He began his talk by introducing us to the cuttlefish. Then he explained how it related to the virtual world.

Ultimately, he said, he’s a man trapped in a man’s body. (I wonder why that has not yet been adequately addressed on the talk show circuit yet?)

However, if he were more like the cuttlefish, he could alter the way he is perceived by others, in effect, creating his own avatar (in this case, an online self-representation).

"It’s not about the intricately wired glove and the big, clunky headset," he said about VR. "It’s not about these rides at the theme park. Just forget all that. It’s about transforming the way we perceive ourselves and others in a virtual world."

During early childhood, we are all blessed with an amazing imagination. Little by little, we are weaned from it by daily doses of the Real World. So, ever so slowly, we inch ourselves out of an inwardly focused existence. We’re faced with a dilemma, of sorts. In our inner realm, we are all powerful -- but with one small problem. We are the only one there. It is a stark contrast: In our imagination, we are completely alone, but all-powerful. In the real world, we are impotent but surrounded by others.

Sadly, our rich and fulfilling inner lives cannot be a shared experience because we are limited to very crude tools to describe and explain what we imagine. Physical expressions, words, music and images are all we have to convey our rich inner worlds.

As Flaubert reminds us, "Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."

Our dreams, spectacular as they may be, are ultimately unfulfilling, if we cannot fully share them, breathe them into life, by speaking them into existence.

"Virtual reality is the shared dream," he explained simply. "It is the experience of refashioning yourself, just like the cuttlefish, to be anything you want to be and communicating that altered state with others."

That communication – that intimate sharing of our inner worlds – can be used as a benchmark by which we measure our progress as a species, Lanier reminds us. Instead of viewing history through the lens of technological development or political hegemony, we can judge cultural development by the extent to which we can meaningfully share the intricacies of our inner selves with not one single other human, but with a substantial portion of literate humanity (who can read about us in blog postings).

So I drift languorously into the dream of the cuttlefish, along with Jaron Lanier. I'm grinning at the thought of drifting in a sea of meaningful communication, where information is embedded in each cell (or is it pixel?) of my entity. How intimate. How lovely. How human, to share ourselves and our inner stories!

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