The Virtual Reality Crossroads

Are we creating a safe, authentic and human future for our kids?

Yesterday my friend Om Malik described attending a panel hosted by Anneke Elyse Jon focusing on a recent NPR podcast featuring Philip Rosedale and Sherry Turkle. Philip, as both the founder of Second Life and his company HiFidelity, has spent the bulk of his life attempting to create virtual worlds as close to real life as possible — Sherry’s career has focused on the impact of digital technology on social behavior, often with a focus on kids. Om described feeling unsettled, partly because

as keepers of the future (we) have no clue how the powers of the future, aka kids today will related to technology and virtual reality. I also argued that we as today’s generation are doing such a poor job of keeping the future interesting and safe for the next generation.

As a father and longtime virtual reality evangelist, his comments struck a powerful chord — ironically both Robert Scoble and I said it would take a day or so to digest and comment.

I woke up remembering my 10 year son Theo’s comments when I breathlessly described the Oculus Rift to him last week — told him that in the next few years we’d be able to be in worlds that looked as real as “real life”. The same kid who spends hours a day online said, “I don’t want that — it sounds scary and sad.” Wow.

As technical leaders, grownups and architects of “the future” we tend to breathlessly describe what’s possible while forgetting whether it’s desirable. Om put this nicely (remember, he’s spent the past decade decoding the social web while sharing his life, often intimately and movingly with us)

But the biggest argument I made was that it is becoming increasingly difficult to be honest and transparent in online existence and that it is difficult to not self-censoring one’s self. It is crazy, but the social media weirdness has made it difficult to honestly express one’s self, especially in shorter formats such as Twitter, which is essentially more of a platform for cable talk show like screaming matches, except in 140 characters.

I agree —but the question is perhaps “why”? First of all, it’s obvious that as social media has evolved, we’ve had to decode each new communication type and fit it into a matrix of platforms to figure out which is appropriate for what type of sharing. Briefly, I’d say that as our offline and online lives get closer it’s confusing to figure out what’s safe to say in various online context. In person amongst friends is safe. Email is fairly safe. FB is kind of safe but only for family shots, humblebrags, selfies and glory moments. It’s not a place for vulnerability. Twitter — who knows?

But Periscope and Google Glass began to make me feel uncomfortable — not so much as broadcast tools but because each allowed intimate conversations at full video fidelity to be public (and possibly permanent) without my explicit permission. At the same time, I think we crave honesty and vulnerability in our online lives without the reputational repercussions that such confessions might allow. I often fantasize about the day where I’ll have made enough money that telling the unvarnished, intimate truth won’t imperil my security offline. James Altucher talks often of this — he’s that rare person willing to live a life in public, warts and all, though even for him, the price is an extended family who won’t talk to him.

In the consumer sphere, this need for public honesty has been (un)satisfied with a few half-measures, most notably Secret. Secret’s weakness, at least for me, was that in hiding identity it allowed both confessions catharsis and poison.

So even in the social web we feel a gap of intimacy and authentic relationships, especially amongst the young. Sherry Turkle’s studies point to a 70% decline in childhood empathy over the past 30 years, largely attributable to online immersion and a lack of face-to-face conversation. Her prescription is elegant

Conversation is the antidote to the algorithmic way of looking at life because it teaches you about fluidity, contingency and personality. This is our moment to acknowledge the unintended consequences of the technologies to which we are vulnerable, but also to respect the resilience that has always been ours. We have time to make corrections and remember who we are — creatures of history, of deep psychology, of complex relationships, of conversations, artless, risky and face to face.

It strikes me that we stand at a crossroads between the virtual world and the real world — the metaverse and meatspace. Perhaps even a precipice. At the moment, virtual reality is largely a gimmick — the displays are captivating but clunky yet we cannot conceive of a time where the purely virtual might replace the physical. When Facebook bought Oculus it became clear to me that this was in the cards — a future that linked my true identity, relationships and memories with a technology that enabled face to face, multi-person interactions in a vast virtual space. Philip Rosedale paints this picture vividly in a recent interview with Nautilus.

By a time like 2050 you can expect us to be approaching the limits of what atoms we can do computing with — aluminum, say — and those limits are staggeringly high. Those limits suggest that if we had just a laptop sized computer in that time frame, that computer just by itself, in other words containing inside itself one virtual world, that virtual world would have enough detail to not only simulate the whole Earth, but also simulate the brains and everything that’s going on in humans, down to the atom, for everybody that’s now living on Earth. We’ll think of our lives as being mostly virtual, and the real world will be something that maybe we come back to as a kind of a museum to marvel at as part of our past.
There will be people who do kind of choose to stay in the world, and then there will be people that kind of choose to participate increasingly in the digital world — a world, I think, populated by beings or people or whatever that are quite different than us, and quite a bit smarter. We’ll have this kind of co-evolution that will be an interesting choice.

This binary choice for some reason makes me incredibly sad — as if my children will need to choose between the real and virtual. They’ll choose whether to be old-fashioned “humans” or “smart beings”. Of course these choices are synthetic, but the power of techno-utopianism is that it defines progress as “what is possible”.

Neil Postman hinted of what an image-driven future might look like in his prophetic 1984 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. He describes the growing dominance of entertainment and images over words and critical thought. In predicting the future, he compared an Orwellian future with society controlled by a central state vs. one like Huxley’s Brave New World — a world where through individual choice for entertainment, society would amuse itself to death. Ten years ago, if I had told you that by 2015 we’d all live in a virtual world and that everyone on the planet would be able to see into our private lives, you’d imagine this to be the work of an oppressive Big Brother state. The truth is, we did it to ourselves.

So as a father, I feel concern for the future my kids will inherit, the world they’ll inhabit and the way they’ll connect with each other and society. I think the best way to imagine their future is as a form of media, which I think will progress rapidly between the simple phones and TV’s of today.

A screen is defined as a surface where pictures can be projected for viewing. This term is not just related to media, it defines it; the screen is the membrane that “mediates” or stands between, an image and the individual viewing it. What happens without a literal screen? That image simply pipes directly into our mind’s eye so that we can “see” it in the same way we “see” a dream.

In this future, with or without screens, we will connect to share a common dream. My strongest hope is that it’s a place rooted in reality and moored in honesty, truth and vulnerability. These qualities are, after all, the things that make us uniquely human.