Do We Really Want Virtual Reality?

Facebook bought Oculus. Its goal is to control the world you experience while wearing a pair of modified ski goggles. Mark Zuckerberg is stoked. Netflix is stoked. Marketers the world over are salivating. But how should youfeel about this?

Personally, I’m scared. I may even be terrified.

First of all, I don’t want anyone, especially not Mark Zuckerberg, controlling my sensory world.

Secondly, I’m pretty sure we’re not built to be virtually real.

I understand the desire to control our environment. It’s part of the human hubris.  We think we can do a better job than nature. We believe introducing control and predictability into our world is infinitely better than depending on the caprices of nature. We’ve thought so for many thousands of years. And -- Oh Mighty Humans Who Dare to be Gods - - just how is that working out for us? 



Now that we’ve completely screwed up our physical world, we’re building an artificial version. Actually, it’s not really “we” -- it’s “they.”  And “they” are for-profit organizations that see an opportunity. “They” are only doing it so “they” control our interface to consciousness.

Personally, I’m totally comfortable giving a profit-driven corporation control over my senses. I mean, what could possibly happen? I’m sure anything they may introduce to my virtual world will be entirely for my benefit. I’m sure they would never take the opportunity to use this control to add to their bottom line. If you need proof, look how altruistically media -- including the Internet -- has evolved under the stewardship of corporations.

Now, their response would be that we can always decide to take the goggles off. We stay in control, because we have an on/off switch. What they don’t talk about is the fact that they will do everything in their power to keep us from switching their VR world off. It’s in their best interest to do so -- and by best interest, I mean the more time we spend in their world, as opposed to the real one, the more profitable it is for them. They can hold our senses hostage and demand ransom in any form they choose.

How will they keep us in their world? By making it addictive. And this brings us to my second concern about virtual reality: We’re just not built for it.

We have billions of neurons that are dedicated to parsing and understanding a staggeringly complex and dynamic environment. Our brain is built to construct a reality from thousands and thousands of external cues. To manage this, it often takes cognitive shortcuts to bring the amount of processing required down to a manageable level. We prefer pleasant aspects of reality. We are alerted to threats. Things that could make us sick disgust us. The brain manages the balance by a judicious release of neurochemicals that make us happy, sad, disgusted or afraid. Emotions are the brain’s way of effectively guiding us through the real world.

A virtual world, by necessity, will have a tiny fraction of the inputs that we would find in the real world. Our brains will get an infinitesimal slice of the sensory bandwidth it’s used to.  Further, what inputs it will get will have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Ham-fisted programmers will try to push our emotional hot buttons, all in the search for profit. This means a few sections of our brain will be cued far more frequently and violently than they were ever intended to be. Additionally, huge swaths of our environmental-processing circuits will remain dormant for extended periods of time. I’m not a neurologist, but I can’t believe that will be a good thing for our cognitive health.

We were built to experience the world fully, through all our senses. We have evolved to deal with a dynamic, complex and often unexpected environment. That's what it means to be human. I don’t know about you, but I never, ever, want to auction off this incredible gift to a profit-driven corporation in return for a plastic, programmed, three-dimensional interface.

I know this plea is too late. Pandora’s Box is opened. The barn door is open. The horse is long gone. But as I said, I’m scared.

Make that terrified.

6 comments about "Do We Really Want Virtual Reality?".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, September 29, 2015 at 10:52 a.m.

    We're also not built for having teeth that work past the age of 25, or allowing those among us with weak eyesight to get enough to eat to live. Ease up on the fear. None of these corporations are smart enough to enslave, and humans adapt like mad.

  2. Jim Meskauskas from Media Darwin, Inc., September 29, 2015 at 11:39 a.m.

    Actually, I studied the history of evolution at Oxford, and I can tell you that we are built for having our teeth work past the age of 25. And there is plenty of evidence that people with poor eyesight still got enough to eat to live. The issue with our teeth has to do with complex carbohydrates; that's what causes tooth decay. If you had a diet high in protein and unprocessed carbs, they don't decay nearly so quickly. And the eyesight thing, well, that's where communities come in, something humans seem to have been living in for a very, very long time. Before they were homo, and still Australopithecus. But I digress.

    The point I think Hotchkiss is making, while perhaps a bit too breathlessly, is that companies DO addict us through media. The evidence is plentiful on that front, particularly as it relates to digital. That light in our faces? It's like taking a shot of espresso. The blinking and the beeping and the notifying? Little hits of cocaine. He's right to question impact of the medium and the motivation behind serving it to us.

    I for one don't think people actually like it all that much, beyond the neato factor, and some evidence that it is very useful for helping vicitims of physical trauma deal with pain (e.g. watching snow while having a sever burn abraded). I'm sure this will change the better it gets, but if it really does get us the way that Mr. Hotchkiss suggests it will, there are possible future scenarios where people never leave the house, living in a visually virtual world, starving to death while in the throes of an endless orgasm. And those that don't? Will be Darwin's successful adaptations.

  3. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, September 29, 2015 at 1:11 p.m.

    That's me - breathless!

    Yes, David, humans do adapt, but there are societal ripple effects (unintended consequences) that can take a generation or two to emerge - as in Putnam's Bowling Alone. As Jim points out, there is substantial evidence that electronic media has had an significant impact on us. We should be going forward fully aware of the trade-offs and not be blindly trustful in technological bells and whistles.

  4. David Mountain from Marketing and Advertising Direction, September 29, 2015 at 1:37 p.m.

    I bow to Jim's expertise, and should start a business with him that caters to the needs of starving orgasm addicts. Bring gloves and hazmat suits.

    But the greater point remains: fear is tremendously limiting, and future dystopias glorify a status quo that doesn't deserve glory.

    We will tell our kids about how everyone used to know about all sorts of things they would never, ever want to buy, that entertainment and leisure used to be incredibly time-inefficient and cumbersome, and how an unconscionable number of us would die horribly in antiquated transportation. Among other mundane atrocities that will not endure.

    Being as we will be their parents telling them stuff, they won't care very much. Same as it ever was. 

  5. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel replied, September 29, 2015 at 4:17 p.m.

    I don't think it's slavery we need to fear -- it's mere acquiescence.

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 16, 2015 at 8:58 p.m.

    Gord, you are so on target. It is something I have been trying to say but you wrap it better. The "We are begging to be controlled." saying is winking at you. Mr. Mountain, the human animal has been enslaving other humans for millenia and there is still tons of human enslavement all over the globe without more coorporate control. We are all pawns in a game of the few top power moguls who are above financial games. Being in boxes, so to speak, believing what you are told and not true transfers to believing in things that are not true out of the box. There will be consequences. Think child soldiers of Boko Haram. ANd that is just for starters. Gord has all the reason in the universe and beyond to be terrified. If you are not, you are already manipulated.

Next story loading loading..