I’d Love to Talk, but I’m in Virtual Tuscany

Virtual reality might be so awesome that we end up entirely alone.

With Oculus Rift and any treadmill with motion detection I could go for a run in the morning in some exotic beach and in the evening stroll the streets of some city. I could hang out with a wolf pack or climb Everest with an expedition. . . . In fact these experiences will be so real, without risk, and of course cheap that I might actually have second thoughts about traveling. . . . Antarctica without the cold. . . . Jungles without the heat and bugs. . . . I want to "travel" every evening for an hour or so without putting up with all the crap that comes with real travel.

—An enthusiast at the Oculus online forum

My father had a birth defect that required a below-the-knee amputation when he was 15 years old. In the 1970s he became one of the first amputee downhill skiers. He used one conventional ski and, instead of poles, two small outrigger skis. So when swishing down the untrammeled morning snow at the Mary Jane, instead of two tracks, he left three—and this became his name. His CB radio handle, which he used as we barreled across Nebraska at 85 miles an hour in our Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, racing to the Winter Park slopes, was Three Track. My dad was cool and heroic. He transformed his disability. I learned courage and overcoming from him.

We only learn virtues such as courage and patience by contending with an unbending, distinct-from-us world that does not accommodate our every whim, writes John Hick (an Oxford-trained philosopher of religion) in his book Evil and the God of Love. He says the same of morality: we only learn relational virtues such as compassion and fairness through contending with unbending beings who are not us. The alternative is a “world” that is nothing more than an extension of our subjective self, a world with no conflict and thus no need for virtues or morality, a world that responds perfectly to us because it is us.

I have often thought of Hick’s views as I ponder the ascendance of virtual reality. VR presents digital stimuli directly to the senses in pursuit of “immersion,” a perceptual experience so convincing that the brain shouts, “Real!” The technology has recently hit the wow stage, as creative minds imagine awesome possibilities for entertainment, education and connectedness. Which makes cultural worriers . . . worried. They fear that VR will impede human development, undermine connectedness and encourage a flight into fantasy. Who’s right? Is VR a boon or a threat—or both?

I felt my first hint of worry just this past Fourth of July while watching fireworks with my adult kids. The exploding orange tentacles reached down to grab us, and then winked out. “Oooh—they look so realistic!” piped a young voice behind me.

Glancing back, I saw two enraptured six-year-old girls with faces illumined by the flash. “That’s because they’re real,” said her friend.

How cute. I slipped back to when the world for my kids was mostly magical and everything glowed just a little bit.

“No, I mean they look so 3-D!”

That’s when cute became disturbing. The fireworks, apparently, seemed real not because they resembled previous lived experiences of actual fireworks, but because they approximated technologically-produced dimensionality. These next-gen kids, I realized, were measuring authenticity not against what was real, but rather against simulacrums like Michael Bay’s 3-D Transformers. And if movie theater VR is this entrancing, what will the good stuff do?

VR immersion produces deep connection—to the world, to people and even to yourself. VR, for example, can vaporize the traditional barriers to travel of time, distance and money. Earlier this year, a Rift trip to Tuscany that made grandma giddy was witnessed by millions of admirers.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/c/cc/Orlovsky_and_Oculus_Rift.jpg/1024px-Orlovsky_and_Oculus_Rift.jpgMark Zuckerberg has picked up on VR as a tool for social connecting. In July, Facebook paid $2,001,985,000 to purchase Oculus, which makes the leading VR headset called the Rift. Zuckerberg casts a beatific vision of VR’s power to connect far-flung people in beneficial activities such as attending a sports event, taking a class or consulting with a doctor.

And most intriguing, VR can connect me to a new, improved me. In Avatar, the protagonist Jake suffers a lot, but in the end he enters a new and perfect virtual body in paradise. The online magazine The Verge recently described how the experimental group BeAnotherLab is using VR to “promote empathy, tolerance, and self-understanding by showing you the world from another person’s perspective”—males and females swap bodies, a disabled ballerina performs with full use of her legs and a stumbling maladroit becomes a Senegalese dancer.

So VR offers the promise of connecting me immersively to you, the world and myself. But questions come pretty quickly. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, finds VR’s offer of a better life to be its central appeal: "You can be whoever you want to be, instead of whatever cards you got dealt in real life.” But this begs the question: Who has ever been dealt the cards they wanted? My dad certainly wasn’t, and neither was I.

I first experienced the allure of better cards through the granddaddy of virtuality, Dungeons and Dragons. I would leave E.E. Fell Junior High—where life was phony and I had just tossed my 20-page B+ book report on Moby Dick into the circular file of eternal irrelevance—and enter The Forgotten Realms (a.k.a. John Wallman’s garage) to fight a cosmic battle between good and evil deciding the fate of the universe. And I fought not as an awkward frosh with acne but as Gar Strongsword or Barrus Greysmoke, big and magical and with charisma +10.

Today’s gaming fantasies are the same—inner heroes unleashed on a magical world. It’s the technology that’s different. Ours was an icosahedral (20-sided) die and The Dungeon Master’s Guide; today’s is a 1080p screen, souped-up joystick and ultra-fast internet connected to an immersive digital world. Apparently the improved technology has broadened its appeal. D&D has taken in a paltry $1 billion over the past 40 years, while in 2011 alone $19 billion was spent on virtual gaming—an amount projected to rise to $35 billion in 2017. More than half a billion people worldwide currently play computer and videogames at least an hour a day, five million U.S. gamers play more than 40 hours a week and the average young U.S. gamer will have logged 10,000 hours by the age of 21. Back in the D&D day, we’d occasionally hear about someone abandoning reality for life in the dungeon, and our mothers worried. Now it’s becoming the new normal.

And sitting right next to gaming is the cash cow pink elephant (shh!) of VR escapism—pornography. VR sex becomes the apotheosis of Luckey’s vision: I become whoever I want and you become whoever I want. Facebook and Google keep distasteful porn at arm's length, but Wicked Paradise, Somavision, and Veiveiv are all happy, for a small fee, to deal me a sexual royal flush every time.

But . . . so what? So I occasionally express my inner hero or swap the mundane real for an exciting fantasy. If I go too far, nothing real (except me) suffers. What’s the big worry?

Danni and Eytan Kollin’s The Unincorporated Man describes a society that’s four hundred years post an apocalypse caused not by bombs, but by little Susie’s home VR unit. VR technology started slowly with 3-D movies and cool video games, but quickly progressed. Personal VR units became small and cheap—you wore them like salon hair dryers—and incorporated brain scanning to measure and optimize the pleasure response. Families purchased a unit for everyone: father, mother, child and baby. The technology worked well, everyone was happy, they all stopped eating, society collapsed and most people died.

It’s an extreme vision, but I do freak out just a little when Chuck-E-Cheese installs Oculus Rift units in 16 North Texas locations so that children can play with a virtual Chuck-E while zapping floating prize tickets. Or when Michael Abrash, Oculus' chief scientist, says, "We might as well be brains in glass jars with wires coming out of them.” Or when I describe VR porn to my 21-year-old son and he responds, “And what about VR torture?”

So what should we do? Should we heed the prophets and preemptively shut down VR to avert the apocalypse? While there is a certain galvanizing appeal to alarums and strong strident solutions, I don't think this is the way to go.

First, the virtual cat seems already out of its reality bag. By May of 2014, Oculus had sold and distributed 80,000 Rift developer kits. Creative people will develop cool and novel uses, the technology will get better and VR will insinuate itself into the fabric of life. Better to be engaged and thoughtful than distant and scowling.

Second, VR is fun and can produce truly good stuff. The games are exhilarating and Tuscany is awesome. Maybe BeAnotherLab can actually produce empathy. Maybe as virtual sex becomes cheap and legal, commerce in real humans diminishes. Maybe, shifting to my world as a psychiatrist, VR can help vets with PTSD, a disorder in which the brain plunges the sufferer into neurally-preserved virtual representations of past traumas. Most existing therapies don’t help, but recent studies suggest a novel approach: encoding new good memories to contend with the old bad ones. Can we create these through VR?

Finally, what if "What shall we do?" isn’t even the right question—or at least not the right first question? A better place to start might be to ask, what does our hunger for VR reveal about our experience of real life?

1. Reality is big and we’re small.

Instead of saying that escape equals wimping out or moral weakness, maybe we cut ourselves some slack. We think that we are, or ought to be, masters of reality. But what if the opposite is true? What if reality is a bull that bucks us to the ground every time we touch its flank? The dog dies, we get sick, Dad drinks, Mom yells, Greenland melts. It’s all more—way more—than we can possibly handle. The folly of Adam and Eve (We are God-like and can rule reality!) was to rip off the veil only to meet their naked selves. What if Colonel Jessup’s “you can’t handle the truth!” turns out to be a kind and compassionate summary of a foundational principle of human existence?

2. Choose your escape well.

According to Freud, an essential human task since the advent of consciousness has been to construct a virtual self through denial, repression and projection in order to defend our fragile egos against intolerable reality: “I’m not angry. I never feel angry. You, however, seem quite angry.” Escape is not tempting but necessary, and we’ve been doing it forever. The question then becomes not if, but how will we escape. Some of us do yoga, others go to Florida, some read People magazine, others binge-watch Gilmore Girls.

We would, however, do well to know what we’re escaping into. While I may not track with all things Florida, I understand enough about the state to get from its beaches, sunsets and soft-shelled crabs my much-needed rejuvenation. But VR is trickier. It brings me not into something neutral and known, but into the subjective creation of another person. While the mechanics of engagement may be explicit, the culture and values are often opaque, even to its creator. Consider #Gamergate, the recent on-line conflagration in which exposure of the embedded sexualized misogyny of digital gaming culture has been met with vitriolic protective backlash.

VR immersion is so captivating that we can be whisked away before we’ve assented to the cultural fine print. Might we be well-served to at least ask some preliminary questions: What do I want from this reality? What does its creator want from me? Do I get more out of it than I put in?

3. Be a good hero.

Lastly, if escape is okay then (yippee) I get to be my inner hero. Which is awesome, because the world needs more heroes. So the question again becomes not if, but for whom—for me or for you?

Ever since Homer, we have conflated hero with champion or winner. We idolize today more than ever the successful me-first independent self: Federer, Beyoncé, Bill Gates or the latest American Idol. Their allure is their domination of a sphere of life, with all the accolades and rewards that follow. VR is supremely suited to form in us this hero ethic; I too can have awesome powers and conquer the world.

But a hero is someone who uses their powers, however great or small, for the benefit of others. Alice Paul, Mahatma Gandhi, Jane Goodall and Malala Yousafzai all encountered the intolerable, but instead of fleeing into fantasy, they imposed a righteous reality from within themselves onto a defiant world. Intrinsic to their actions was suffering and loss for the benefit of others. This brings us far afield from the likely after-dinner VR offerings. So if we want VR to help form us into heroes who improve real life for flesh-and-blood humans, we must ask for that and be thoughtful about how we implement it.

In the end, I do look forward to awesome immersive VR experiences. But I also think my dad still leaves three tracks in the Colorado powder of heaven, and I want to be formed as a person first and foremost by contending with good old-fashioned reality.

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