After all, what is 'reality'?
The world of stories long explores the possibility of transposing the reality perception to an alternate universe, virtually created, which can either set an aspirational possibility or a destructive and agonizing overcome.
I'm not mentionion the natural projection of a history, ie, the fact that you observe the narrative within the context created for this, since every story, even those based on real events, is the result of fictional view of the writer. I'm covering specifically those narratives that offer the protagonist the opportunity to live a parallel life, even within the storyline.
“Playtest”, episode 2 of the third season of Black Mirror — reinforcing what everybody is saying, the best TV series about technology and human behavior — brings the already established model of dystopian application of technology to the field of generating emotions and the construction of an alternative reality. Being careful with any spoiler, thanks to a head implanted device, the protagonist goes through terrifying virtual experience that, for him, is as real as the screen you are holding to see this text.
Back in 2009, the film Surrogates, with Bruce Willis in the lead role, teased the society with the possibility of putting people controlling robotic avatars who “lived a real life” as their operators were protect back in their homes.
The escape from direct experience, however, did not stop there; with the advancement of immersive systems, the perception of reality generated by virtual stimuli rapidily approaches physical reality.
In times of increased and virtual realities, to paraphrase Morpheus in The Matrix, another classic of the alternative reality model narrative:
"What is real? How do you define ‘real’? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain."
When our senses, the gateway to our notion of reality, are virtually stimulated, at what time our mind crosses the barrier of accepting as real what virtually surrounds us?
The movie Inception plays with the universe of dreams that do not meet the symbolic Freudian interpretations, but are constructed analogous to the “real reality”; task done by a ‘dream architect’. At the movie, one of the dilemmas is precisely Mal's (wife of the main character Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) disability to distinguish the difference between the multiple layers of dreams and the real world.
If, on one hand, we see innocent uses of senses' stimulation — as at Disney World attraction Soarin ‘over California, which seeks immersion through vision, hearing, smell and touch stimulations as you fly over US west coast in hang-gliding) -, on the other, we will certainly have to deal with applications that will increasingly look after senses' manipulation to build alternate realities.
How ‘real’ is the virtual?
A direct impact that could be studied is how virtual immersion experiences affect memory formation and cognitive processes, shapping our future behaviors. After all, we are shaped by our experiences and memories; could virtual experiences affect our mental models?
At first glance, it seems so. Simulators are used by air pilots to practice procedures and virtual reality is also used in phobias' treatments; so, there is a ‘mind hack’ process in order the person to consider those virtual experiences as part of the real life.
At the book “Brain Bugs”, Dean Duonomano states that “ultimately, what we are as individuals and society is defined not only by the amazing capabilities of the brain, but also its flaws and limitations … our memory can be unreliable and biased". Thus, by inducing senses and stimulating behavior in an immersive virtual environment we may falsely be feeding up the brain with life experiences that can trigger some moral dilemmas.
If a playful immersive experience encourages, for example, killing another human-being, would this moral barrier be broken up in the real world? I’m not talking about nowaday’s experience, where there is still a clear distinction between the playful and the real, but about truly immersive experiences, where, for a moment, the individual has all his senses and sensations transposed to this alternate reality.
Finally, if we could create and live an immersive alternative reality where we were protected from any bad income and the existence were molded by our most positive desires, would we want to get out of it? “Oh, but we need to feed ourselves, go to the bathroom, we would need some time out.” In fact, my body is who need to be fed, the biological substrate that carries the mind, this hidden entity among the 100 trillion brain synapses, between biology and psychology, between the real and the virtual .. until they both become indistinguishable.