VR Philosophy & Bradbury’s Veldt

Today we ask questions about VR.

“The lions were coming. And again George Hadley was filled with admiration for the mechanical genius who had conceived this room.”

The room in question here is a highly advanced nursery with walls that create virtual realities for George Hadley’s children. Whatever the kids imagine, the walls of this magical nursery conjure up with such accuracy, that the experience feels utterly real.

“Occasionally they frightened you with their clinical accuracy, they startled you, gave you a twinge, but most of the time what fun for everyone, not only your own son and daughter, but for yourself when you felt like a quick jaunt to a foreign land, a quick change of scenery. Well, here it was! And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and startlingly real…”

That’s just a short excerpt from Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt, a haunting short story that is required reading in most high school American Literature classes. I had to read it when I was a junior at Cupertino High, but the story completely slipped my mind until I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago whilst researching VR technology for this blog.

In a nutshell, The Veldt is about a family whose VR-powered nursery goes wild. Of course Bradbury doesn’t actually use the term “VR” in his story, since the technology that has now taken Silicon Valley by storm didn’t exist in 1950, when The Veldt was first published. That said, Bradbury’s description of the magical room and the horrors that it derives, brings into question the potential consequences of our increasingly mechanized modern life.

Throughout his life Bradbury was generally suspicious of mechanization. In his most-read novel, Fahrenheit 451, the author describes a dystopia where people are obsessed with the pictures playing on their walls; images and characters that take on the role of family members and entertainment. In the twisted world of Fahrenheit 451, books are banned and every bit of the human experience is controlled by some machine or another.

It’s chilling to think how close Bradbury was with many of his guesses about the future. Most of us can relate to turning on Netflix or YouTube when we’re home alone, just for the comfort of having friendly noise on in the background. And then of course there is the idea of virtual reality which, as we often say in this blog, is now very much a real thing.

Just because we’ve come a long way with our technology does not mean that it will lead us to the horrific and estranged reality that Bradbury so often portrays. It would be simplistic to write off technology as solely a threat to our well being. After all it is not hard to argue that machines have changed the world in more good ways than bad.

I think the problem is merely that with most technologies, the fact that they are so new means that we haven’t had enough time in order to really start any kind of philosophical dialogue about how they affect our lives — whether in good ways or bad.

When it comes to VR that discussion has definitely yet to begin. I won’t make any cases in this post but I do want to ask questions, as Bradbury does. We should consider where VR technology is taking us as a society, how it can affect social and professional experiences, and how it might change our experience of the present moment.

Perhaps all Bradbury wanted was for us to be aware of the power machines can hold. One should always strive to be a conscious consumer and consider his or her impact in the world. So let’s start talking.

*This blog was originally published on www.vrgility.com | June 8th, 2015