Environment & Sciences / Society

The Final Disconnect

Can virtual reality become a danger to mankind?

by Marie Baleo

Palmer lucky time magazine cover

Palmer Luckey. Image © Time via VG24/7

On 17 August 2015, readers everywhere discovered, on the cover of Time Magazine, a photo of a young man jumping barefoot on a beach, wearing strange, clunky goggles. The oft-satirized portrait was that of Palmer Luckey, the 23-year-old prodigy who invented the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality (VR) head-mounted display which collected over $2.4 million on Kickstarter in 2012. In March this year, Luckey’s VR technology company Oculus VR was purchased by Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg plans on making Oculus “a platform for many other experiences”.

Virtual reality is a set of technologies which allow a user to become completely immersed in an imaginary world. VR technology usually takes the form of a helmet (although Canon may soon release a handheld VR device) featuring a panoramic display. In order to give as realistic and immersive a sensation as possible, a user’s head and eye movements as well as certain motions and gestures can be paralleled in the virtual universe. Many virtual reality entrepreneurs are working on making VR a more sensory experience using, for example, haptic feedback or ellipticals which give the user the impression that he or she is walking in the virtual universe.

Virtual reality has mostly been explored by the gaming industry, but its applications are unlimited, and other industries will likely catch on to the potential profits offered by incorporating virtual reality technologies into their activities.

However, for now, VR leaves a lot to desire: from its unesthetic headsets to its side effects (including dizziness, which has discouraged the US Army’s Simulation and Training Technology Center from using the Oculus Rift), the technology still has a long way to go. But although it may take a while, there will probably come a day when one is able to leave their physical body behind in its current location and bring their conscience along to a different, virtual location, much like the way a lucid dream might operate.

Us army Virtual Reality technology

The US army uses VR technology for training purposes. Image © Wired.

Disconnected from reality

The effects of the advent of social media on our social relations has already been documented, and all signs point to the fact that social media has been slowly and surely disconnecting us from the world around us. But virtual reality promises an immersive experience whose potential for disconnect is far greater. The foreseeable rise of virtual reality must force us to ask ourselves the following question: how much value do we place on actually being somewhere as an event unfolds, as opposed to a fairly convincing imitation of actually being there? Just look at the title of this Mashable article: “Experiencing this concert in VR is better than actually being there”.

Virtual reality may very well disincentivize us from pursuing our dreams and aspirations in reality. Why tolerate the pain, effort and financial investment linked to, for example, trekking in the Himalayas, when a convincing, effortless version may be available from the comfort your couch? When in every home is a device that provides a complete, immersive escape from our lives, there will be no good reason for us to strive to solve the problems which arise in our real lives. Why cope with an unsatisfactory, disappointing life when a convincing version of a perfect life can readily be experienced?

Controlling time

With the rise of technology in the last few decades, individuals appear to have become increasingly convinced of their ability to control time and twist it to their advantage. Success is based on someone’s ability to multitask, to put every single minute of their time to use. This craze, and our growing impatience and aversion to time, may explain our interest in virtual universes.

Indeed, time flows differently in a virtual universe than it does in reality, something which further increases the potential for disconnection from reality. The dangers of virtual reality, compared to other sources of entertainment which may claim all of our attention, like television or Internet, is that VR wants to provide the sensation of leading an altogether different life.

But in virtual reality, there is no past, no future. The essential components of life which the passing of time allows: evolution, progress, maturation, are nowhere to be found in virtual reality, although it claims to emulate life so perfectly. The absence of time is what makes virtual reality specifically more dangerous than other attempts at providing us with immersive experiences and momentarily removing us from the reality of our lives.

man wearing virtual reality headset

Man wearing VR headset. Image © VentureCapNews

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day…

Boredom is a fundamental ingredient in building young minds, stimulating imagination and thought. The greatest works of art and inventions came from their makers’ unbridled imagination, in moments of inactivity and daydreaming. Imagination is not just something we are born with, it is a skill to be cultivated, fueled by long hours spent thinking.

With the foreseeable democratization of virtual reality, there will come a time when every household can purchase and own VR technology. No child will want to spend their time thinking and daydreaming when a virtual world is available at arm’s length. One need only look at the alarming amount of time we spend on our cell phones and our tendency to grab our phones whenever we have nothing to do – standing in line, waiting for someone, commuting. Our precious time spent with ourselves, observing the world around us and reflecting, is dwindling.

Virtual reality will be the ultimate enabler, encouraging us to disconnect from our surroundings, our time, our reality. It will hinder our ability to daydream, imagine, and display creativity, more significantly perhaps than any other technology ever has.

“How is this different from watching television or playing video games?,” one may object. The Oculus Rift website promises an experience that will make us feel “like we’re really there” and advertises the “magic of presence”. For all of television (and film, and literature, and music)’s entertainment value, TV doesn’t deprive us of our sense of location. We know where we are, watching television, watching a play, or reading a book. It is much harder to immediately remember where one is when immersed in virtual reality, which has no physical boundaries or frame.

Eschewing the sensory experience of real life in favor of a virtual escape is especially dangerous for children and teenagers, whose minds are still developing, and whose brains might be permanently affected by the overuse of virtual reality technologies. An American Academy of Neurology study has uncovered a connection between playing video games and the release of dopamine, the pleasure chemical, in the brain. These findings undoubtedly apply to the prolonged use of virtual reality technology. As a potential addiction, virtual reality may be a risk to individuals’ mental health and social relationships.

Why experience reality when you can chase a highly convincing illusion of it?

There are many valuable reasons for exploring virtual reality: beyond its mere entertainment value – and what a stunning advancement it is, in that regard! – virtual reality will benefit industry, science, education, and arts. Technologies like the Oculus Rift could help train pilots, surgeons, first response workers, police officers, and so forth, by providing a useful educational tool for training them on how to deal with complex or dangerous situations.

However, while mankind has made spectacular technological progress all throughout history, it does not exactly have a stellar record in figuring out how to put said technological advances to use in a way that benefits all. In other words, we have a habit of pursuing technological advances just to see if “it can be done”, without ever stopping to think why we should or should not actually “do it”.

This is true of other technologies, and we are not suggesting that VR companies should all keep a philosopher on their payroll. But would it really hurt to sit down for a minute and think of all we stand to lose, in terms of imagination, time, connection and human relations, by giving in to the temptation of an alternate, unreal life?

While it is clear that humans have always had a God complex, the trend has clearly accelerated in the last few decades. The last generations have been taught that they can design and control their fate. We strive everyday to fashion our lives into whatever it is we desire to be. The goal itself hardly matters, as long as we don’t sit idly watching our lives unfold.

None is more despised than the individual who lets their life flow, not exhibiting any sense of direction or any desire to achieve a set goal. Instead, we praise our own attempts to control every turn in the road: what do you want? what are you doing to get there? what practical steps have you taken toward your goal today?

In this regard, virtual reality is the ultimate dream for many of us: never has designing our own lives been so almost perfectly feasible. You may be a twenty-something-year-old, lost, confused, a young cog in the corporate wheel, secretly convinced of your inner worth and waiting for your calling to become apparent. Wait no longer – put on your VR headset and you’ll be an athlete, a leader of crowds, a hero, travelling to the end of the world without the dread and the waits and the dull times spent in airports eating awful meals and wallowing in self-doubt. Put on your goggles and have sex with a harem of pixelated women while the memories of your last significant conversation with an actual person finish fading away.

Science Clarified writes that:

“Critics fear that large numbers of people might come to prefer virtual worlds to the real one. Like the philosopher Plato, they would feel that the everyday world is an imperfect reflection of an ideal, but, in opposition to the prisoners in Plato’s imaginary cave, they would see the ideal world as the one shown on the screen and the imperfect world as the one outside.”

plato's cave jan saenredam cornelis van haarlem

Plato’s Cave by Jan Saenredam, according to Cornelis van Haarlem, 1604, Albertina, Vienna. Image in the public domain.

Virtual reality offers an unprecedented opportunity for us to become someone else and to define our identity more freely than we might be able to in reality. Nothing is impossible anymore when any identity, any life could be yours, and you no longer have to lead just one existence.

Our interest in virtual reality’s potential for escape is the direct result of our choice to lead our lives instead of living them. We have come to think of living as somewhat similar to driving a car to a chosen destination. But life is not a car, it is the road and everything by its side: unknown, full of irregularities, and definitely, absolutely, beyond the reach of our desperate controlling hands. Life is what happens to us, and in hindsight, we may find that the uncontrolled things, the accidents, the painful moments were the salt of our lives – that they were life itself.

Some are lucky enough to be born with this knowledge, innately wise as they are; I wasn’t, and had to learn. When I was a child, I had a life-threatening medical condition which, on several occasions, made a fast-approaching death a very tangible probability. Thankfully, I lived, and every moment following those instants of dread was brighter, louder, and more colorful, and I found that there was nothing to love more, nothing more worthy of awe than the little things, the details, the incidents, the kinks, the unscripted dialogues, the moments of boredom and observations that filled them, the unpredictable and the unexpected, the less-than-perfect and the banal. You have heard this message from many others before, but never better expressed than by American Beauty’s unforgettable Lester Burnham. In the last sentences of the movie, a recently murdered Lester, whose life had long been dull, unsatisfying, and miserable, tells us:

I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me… but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life… You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. But don’t worry… you will someday.

plastic bag american beauty

Remember the plastic bag? The plastic bag is why we don’t need virtual reality – at least not for escaping our lives. Image via Toprale on Cowbird

Our lives are, by definition, fleeting and imperfect. They are not a contest, not the convincing, sensorily-enveloping virtual worlds built by fantastic technological advances. Our knowledge of our own finite nature is a privilege bestowed upon our species exclusively. Our knowledge of our imperfection is closely derived from this, and no less treasurable. Our inherent lack of control is something most of us have always been in denial about. I propose that we embrace it instead.

Virtual reality, like many technological advances, is both an incredible opportunity and a threat with heavy moral implications. But we will be fine as long as we remember that this, right now, is our life, our reality. It is strange, incomprehensible, flawed, and escapes our vain attempts at exerting power. Yet we don’t need anything else – especially not a technologically-enhanced fantasy life. We only need to learn how to appreciate it.


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