Virtually There by Pat Harrington

When you are a prisoner, it is your duty to escape…    (Ursula K. Le Guin)

The term virtual reality is heard more and more these days in the media; but what does it really mean, and what are its social implications?

The popular vision of VR is probably akin to Science Fiction. Indeed, Reality Forbidden by Philip E. High (Ace Books, 1967) explores a society enslaved to a device called the “Dream Machine”. When this device is used:–

The subjective or imaginative products of the mind became, to the user, objective. If he wishes to fly like a bird then he will fly — subjectively. No-one will see him flying, but as far as he is concerned he will be soaring above the roofs.

Is this not what people look forward to? To don a VR helmet, slip on a data glove or full body suit — and for VR to supply the sensations (and experiences?) without any great physical commitment, without the inconvenience or danger of a real experience? The social and ethical questions this raises are complex and I will consider some of them later. For now we have defined VR as it approaches our aspirations and desires, but what is its technical definition?

There are, as you might expect with a new field, different definitions. Most professionals agree, however, that virtual realities are computer generated worlds which can be explored in real time. “Real time?” I hear you ask. Real time simply expressed means that the world you explore is continuously re-computed as it is explored. A virtual world is not like a CD or film which plays a set pre-recorded experience. Rather what you do will affect what happens next. The computer will respond to whatever you do inside the world.

What happens in such a world is determined by the underlying computer programs which become in effect natural laws. If the laws say that you can fly then you can. If they say that you are bound by the law of gravity then you will be. To create a realistic world requires a huge amount of programming. Just think about it — if you are simply walking down a street within a virtual world, the software will not only have to model geometrical shapes from every possible perspective, it will also have to render surface textures and lighting effects accurately. At present as anyone who has used VR machines (such as at the Trocadero) will know, the images presented are cartoon-like.

In High’s book it was the individual user that created his or her own world. This interpretation was perhaps drawn from an analogy between VR and mind-altering drugs. In our reality, however, VR is going to be a consumer item which only large corporations have the reserves of money, technology and skill to produce. The writer/scientist Steve Jeffery has argued that the mass marketing of VR as a consumer product will lead to missed opportunities; in particular:–

One of the most exciting ideas behind VR: to interact with really impossible planes of existence. Not just fantasy lands of dragons, but the mathematical spaces of Hawking or Mandelbrot where real discoveries may be made, rather than escapist entertainment. In reality, it is more likely that mass exposure is going to come in a welter of half-assed TV ads, probably following a glut of Terminator 2 and Lawnmower Man style “morphing” in the next few months. If not an electronics K-Mart (for whose products the street will find new and unexpected uses), a worse scenario is the dance of the virtual coffee beans all over our screens!

Many are also concerned that the growth of VR will have the effect of increasing the rate in which our perception of community or even society fractures. The growth in communications media has already split us apart (paradoxically) as we share fewer and fewer communication experiences. We are not all consuming the same information products, indeed the few that most share consist of soaps and news as entertainment. It is argued that VR could encourage the individual to step further down the path of isolation. It has even been suggested that linking VR technology with a computer network we would be able to travel to work and execute tasks without ever leaving home. Let’s face it, for many people a VR world might be preferable to the one in which they currently live. VR promises to alleviate the reality of disenfranchisement, with the illusion of omnipotence…

Will we lose even the sense that there is a subjective reality? Articles in our radical sister publication Third Way have discussed how entertainment forms such as soaps can create a perceived peer-pressure (because people identify with the characters) and consequently changes in behaviour. I will never forget hearing about the number of people who sent letters of condolence when Meg Richardson died in Crossroads. Soap stars have become more familiar to many than members of their extended (and in some cases nuclear) family. Virtual Reality will remove the need for an actor-surrogate — you can become the character in a dream created by a corporation, but based on your desires.

The most fascinating and threatening aspect of VR is the fact that it represents a further attempt to turn our very thoughts, fantasies and fears into  commodities. The marketplace is a total concept extending as far as it is allowed. To view the marketplace as a space within which things happen rather than as a dynamic force, was one of the most dangerous mistakes made by the failed politicians. In advertising it is realised that you do not really sell products you sell promises — your messages are most effective when addressed to the satisfaction of a psychological need.

Capitalism was thus always more truly totalitarian than Communism simply because it had found the means to interact effectively with wants and desires. The next evolutionary stage of Capitalism will be based around the related areas of entertainment, information and psychology…


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