Virtual Unreality

Boxed in: The Problem with Programmed ‘Experience’

Not long ago, I read a thought-provoking piece in California Sunday Magazine by Carina Chocano entitled, “The Last Medium,” which dealt with the arrival of virtual reality headgear in Hollywood. While mostly discussing storytelling potential, Chocano’s piece touches on many of the issues with virtual reality — but ultimately, it shies away from detailing the darker side of storytelling’s ‘final frontier.’ Then, I read Dan Kaplan’s hopeful, but, in my opinion, short-sighted (no pun intended) piece, “How Oculus Rift Will Make Us Into Better Humans (And Maybe Help Save The World),” and felt compelled to offer a rebuttal on behalf of real reality.

First, there are a number of issues tied to our increasing dependence on technology and the sedentary lifestyle that it has made possible. Already, we move around under our own power less than at any point in human history, and tend to interface more with screens than we interact with people—this much is obvious to anyone who has taken the bus home from work since the advent of the iPhone. The photographic illustrations accompanying Chocano’s California Sunday Magazine piece hint at just how far that could go — rather than, at the very least, being able to look up from your screen to engage with your family members around the living room, you’ll be strapped into a VR helmet that makes engagement with reality (yes, the real kind) all but impossible. It’s voluntarily submitting to an outcome not unlike The Matrix, all while sitting comfortably on your couch.

But that’s not the worst part.

Kaplan’s argument hinges on the idea that these realistic experiences (“presence,” to use the virtual reality community’s preferred term) will give us a greater ability to empathize with our fellow man, by exposing us to virtual reality versions of events, traumatic or otherwise, that might befall people in other parts of the world. The problem is, this not only inhibits the growth and development of our physical experiences and imagination — the only human faculties capable of producing real empathy — but goes so far as to produce a false sense of experience: a further perversion of Plato’s “shadows on the wall.” Instead, we will be served up a packaged notion of reality (and packaged by whom?), without being asked to bring anything to the table ourselves.

The pernicious truth about the above approach is that you will walk away thinking that you really do know ‘what it feels like’ to be a child growing up in rural Africa, or Southeast Asia, or wherever might be unknown to you in the real world, because you will have had an experience that, in many ways, felt real. But you haven’t really experienced it, you weren’t really ‘present,’ and you will never know what it’s like to have been born there or to have grown up under those circumstances — your ability to come close to understanding, to empathy, is based on your ability to imagine yourself in another person’s circumstances. The above approach doesn’t allow you to imagine it for yourself—your role is completely passive, and it presents you with someone else’s point of view of the events, packaged as though it is ‘the truth,’ or ‘reality.’

No two people’s experiences of reality are the same, but people’s experiences of virtual reality can be exactly the same, hence its potential as a storytelling medium, but also its deceptive — and ultimately unrealistic — nature.

It is the loss of self, and yet ultimately, it is completely self centered. All of the interviewees in Chocano’s piece talk about how the experience of the virtual realm cannot be entirely dictated by the ‘creator’ (how about that for a loaded term), at least in terms of camera angles, etc., if the sense of reality is to be complete. This gives the viewer (“experiencer?”) a false sense of control, when in fact he or she has only predetermined choices based on the creator’s predicted scenarios or preplanned narrative.

The fact is, you can learn more about empathy by going outside and playing a real pickup soccer game in a real park with real people than you can by watching some unknown creator’s interpretation of the world. Unlike a book, where the author presents a point of view, virtual reality threatens to disguise the fact that that point of view exists.

While Kaplan argues that the virtual experience will result in greater empathy, he fails to address the idea that this technology could be used for the same purposes as those that he bemoans in his earlier piece for TechCrunch, “Facebook 202x: How It Becomes a Multitool for the Modern Totalitarian, Part I.” The deeper we dive into virtual reality, the more we turn over the keys to real reality (to whom?), and allow our views of the world to be determined by others. If they were to integrate the existing data accumulated through social networks, as in “Facebook 202x,” virtual reality could even be individually crafted to our liking based on our previous Zappos purchases.

In other words, it has the potential to become the ultimate tool for despots — or maybe even an invading race of aliens who use humans as batteries to power their dystopian, robot-dominated world. Either way, not great.

Thanks, but I think I’d rather go play catch.