In Defence of Unreality

This article originally appeared at

High quality augmented and virtual reality technologies are on the cusp of going mainstream. Mobile game Pokémon Go topped 21 million users in 2016, Samsung shifted 5 million VR headsets in the same year, and Microsoft’s “mixed reality” HoloLens has already been released to developers. Gone are the days when AR was a pipe dream and VR was a low resolution, motion sickness-inducing gimmick; these technologies are here, and they will transform our daily lives, plunging us into a new world of “unreality”. The boundaries between the real and the unreal are about to get blurrier. This is not a change of direction for humanity, but the next stage in a natural trend; we should be cautious, but optimistic about what is to come.

First, a word on the difference between virtual and augmented reality. Virtual reality is a full simulation, a full immersion in a fictional universe; in general, VR technologies consist of a screen that you strap to the front of your face, accompanied by headphones and controllers. Augmented reality or AR is a newer concept, where simulated elements are superimposed on the “real” world by means of a mainly see-through interface such as glasses or a phone screen. For example, you could superimpose a Rolex watch on your arm, which only you or someone wearing AR glasses and running the same program would be able to see. There is also “mixed reality”, where virtual objects are not merely superimposed but are treated as if they were part of external reality.

It’s clear to everyone that there’s something ostensibly “unreal” about virtual and augmented reality. A person with an AR Rolex watch is not actually wearing a Rolex watch, in the sense that they don’t actually have a finely crafted lump of timekeeping Swiss metal strapped to their forearm. There’s another sense however in which the watch is perfectly real: it’s not imaginary, and it’s not a hallucination; it exists in reality as a timekeeping device, it’s just made of digital information instead of metal and glass. We need to start questioning the traditional dichotomy between the real and the unreal. Our new simulated world should not be considered “unreal” but merely a different kind or a different part of reality.

Isn’t there something rather sad though about a person who chooses to “pretend” that they are wearing a Rolex watch when they “really” aren’t? There appears to be something evasive, perhaps even pathetic, about wanting to adorn the world with simulated elements rather than face it as it “really” is. But how is this any different from painting the bare wall of a house, or putting make-up on your face to cover blemishes? Human beings have been decorating the world around us to make it more pleasing for tens of millennia. And there are certain advantages to a simulated Rolex watch: whilst looking and functioning the same, we can assume it would cost a lot less, be easier to produce and use fewer resources. We don’t need to pretend that augmented reality is non-simulated in order to enjoy its many benefits.

There’s nothing fundamentally different or less “natural” about the partly simulated reality we’re moving towards. Virtually all of the environment that human beings live in every day has been artificially constructed. I am currently wearing plastic clothing, sitting in a house beside a road, typing on a tablet computer. There’s a solitary tree outside fixed into the pavement and pruned into a pleasing shape. The natural environment of human beings is a constructed one; the entire history of human civilisation has been a movement away from bare nature and towards a more intensely artificial way of life. With the dawn of ubiquitous AR, our constructed human universe will simply have a lot more pixels in it; it will be no more unnatural than it already is.

And finally, as we become more attached to our new world, the line between real and “unreal” will blur completely. Perhaps one day you’ll go to a party, and some of the guests will be simulated humans superimposed on the room. They’ll look and sound real, perhaps even feel real. The programs underlying them may have human level intelligence. When we reach this point, how ludicrous it will seem to accuse the seemingly living, breathing, feeling entities before us of being “unreal”. When our art and culture is made of ones and zeros, when the messages we send to our friends are but pixels hovering in the air, when our most precious moments are spent in worlds forged in silico, how repulsive it will seem to want to leave and return to some supposedly more “real” world.

I for one welcome the coming unreality. Is there a danger that governments, criminals and nefarious corporations could hijack our simulated reality and use it to fool, cheat and control us? Of course. But this is no different from how the powerful can take advantage of the internet, television and newsprint. The solution is not to fear technology; the solution is to fight power with power. Technology empowers people, both the good and the bad. Our new world will bring with it as many opportunities as dangers. If approached with cautious optimism and diligence, our partly (and perhaps one day fully) simulated reality will provide even more opportunities for authentic success and happiness.