The time we’ve been waiting for has arrived (well, for some of us at least). The Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 is shipping and beginning to arrive safely in people’s hands. Initial user reviews are glowing, and although I won’t be receiving mine for at least a month being caught up in the enthusiasm of this new technological horizon is tangible and more than a little bit addictive.
Amongst all the growing hype, however, was an interesting post put out to much attention by a former Valve developer – Fabian Giesen – who very publicly stated earlier this month that he thinks ‘VR is bad news’. In particular, that the idea of a massively-multiplayer shared virtual universe will lead us down a path that promotes isolation from our peers and encourages deepening attachment to corporate conglomerates who see us as little more than product slaves in the advertising long-game.
It’s not the first time we’ve heard this, but coming from an industry insider it carries an authenticity that gives it additional weight. So, as the technology continues to gear up for a full-scale consumer release in the year or so to come, we really need to take a closer look at these claims and consider how we can best mitigate the chances of succumbing to the darker side of VR technology. To what extent is an online virtual universe inevitably going to prove to be “fundamentally anti-social, completing the sad trajectory of entertainment moving further and further away from shared social experiences“?
Before we begin the caveats of Fabian’s initial post should be reiterated. Nobody is questioning the capacity for VR to revolutionise many different and valuable areas of entertainment, education, business, therapy, medicine, narrative and human identity. The positive impacts for those with various kinds of disabilities alone is enough to warrant massive investment in the field, and when you consider the experiential education opportunities the affirmative case for the technology as a whole is really closed before you even begin to explore its deeper facets. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. What is being discussed are those aspects which promote a stronger (and addictive) connection to a virtual environment over the reality of our physical environment – what might we miss out on if we end up favouring virtual forms of socialisation over the visceral, instinctive and infinitely nuanced experience of physical day-to-day human interaction?
Nintendo superstar, Shigeru Miyamoto, presents us with another voice of concern. He sees the inherent idea of wearing goggles and thereby becoming isolated from one’s peers as cause for “uneasiness with whether or not that’s the best way for people to play.” Nintendo’s whole philosophy has been to get people playing with one another in the living room, jumping around and waving about, which is in many ways the antithesis of VR that sees people literally shutting out the physical world around them with goggles and headphones. Mark Zuckerberg on the other hand has unsurprisingly focused more on the communication aspects of the technology when Facebook acquired Oculus Rift VR (to the ire and suspicion of many), highlighting that this technology should ultimately enhance our social opportunities – “Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
Yet despite these possibilities the privacy concerns following the Facebook acquisition are real, and Fabian Giesen’s post was rightly strongly worded when he says that “given the current set of business practices in the tech industry, [selling your attention to advertisers] is pretty much what you end up with no matter which big player ends up owning the thing.” Although the more tech-savvy VR enthusiasts might be able to overcome the privacy concerns and inherently sinister ‘you are the product’ mentality, the average consumer will be locked into a model that opens them up to flagrant abuse of their attention and data in too many areas to cover in this post (we’ll return to some of them at a later date).
When you combine these concerns with the trend of behavioural ‘nudging’ from both corporate and government sectors the danger of seeing examples of psychologically scarring activity on the back of virtual reality technology pretty much becomes a foregone conclusion. We will be sold on as consumers, manipulated as citizens, emotionally influenced for other’s benefit as human beings, and we may not even know it is occurring until our thought-patterns and subsequent actions have already been changed. In a very real sense these are aspects of virtual reality that will likely prove to be inherently anti-social even beyond the personal consequences of isolation from one’s peers - in that they work against the widely held ideals of a free, peaceful and open society.
Fabian’s post ends with the thought that this is all “a very cyberpunk future all right, but one I’d prefer not to live in.” Most cyberpunk narratives tend towards a dystopian future, often one where there is conflict between the rule of law and the rule of business and our humanity gets trapped in the crossfire. Losing sight of the line between physical and virtual realities, and the consequences of such, are powerfully depicted in genre classics such as Gibson’s Neuromancer and Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The risk of losing ourselves in escapism through shared hallucinogenic spaces is posited in Philip K Dick’s before-its-time The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch and the Metaverse concepts from Stephenson (analogues of which are the primary target of criticism in Fabian’s post) are developed through the likes of Ready Player One from Ernest Cline or the epic Otherland series from Tad Williams, whilst movies such as Strange Days and The Matrix have taken these literary tropes and depicted them in equally down-trodden, desperate and dangerous ways.
All of these examples (and these are just the ones that I’ve read/watched, please do add others below!) take a similar approach to virtual reality, which is to warn us of the dehumanising capacity that such technology has the potential to bring with it. As much as we are inspired by these narratives to create the networks and virtual worlds they depict, we shouldn’t rush to forget the underlying philosophical and spiritual messages that they contain. We are instinctually suspicious of this technology, and have been from before it could even be properly conceived of. We are enmeshed within physical reality – it is us and we are it – and the power to create a subset reality within that goes far beyond the entertainment novelty that we are currently engaged with and burrows down into the core of our collective being. This should cause us to be equally exhilarated and terrified, but I wonder whether there’s enough of the latter going around at the moment…
Like all technology VR has the capacity for great benefit and great harm – it’s all in how we use it. The difference this time is that we are working with something that will eventually mimic the very foundations of our existence. This will open up potential for currently unimagined experiences of joy and love, adventure and learning, freedom and communication – but it also leaves us uniquely vulnerable. Vulnerable to our own personality flaws and addictive qualities. Vulnerable to the machinations of societal structures that often lose sight of our humanity. Vulnerable to the deepest levels of ideological and experiential abstraction that have enabled humanity to flourish but could also ultimately leave us adrift in-between worlds, unable to fully reconcile fragmented overlapping realities.
Virtual reality will prove in many ways to be socially uplifting and revolutionary. It will also prove, in numerous examples over time, to have anti-social effects. Which is why we should not shy away from the question, and cannot allow ourselves to hide from the plausible repercussions of this new technology. We must develop a public and academic maturity to this conversation that enables us to explore the pitfalls, and mitigate our exposure to them, before we find that we’ve unwittingly become detached from our peers or those we love most and possibly cast adrift even unto ourselves.