We live in an incredible time where virtual reality is on the horizon. I’ve had some mind-expanding conversations with several folks about it, and over the course of a few months have compiled a few little thoughts and opinions on VR and the role it potentially has in our lives. I’m definitely not an expert, and I’m sure there are clever people who’ve put far more effort and time into this sort of stuff than I have.
A Train Comes Rumbling Down
One of the first hit movies was a train approaching the camera, scaring the bejeezus out of the crowd. From my initial impressions, VR is currently at this stage, as far as its sophistication goes.
This is not to say VR is bad. Not at all.
- VR could be useful for cognitive-behavioural therapy.
- VR could be useful for people with disabilities.
- VR could be useful for people with social disorders that makes in-person meetings difficult.
- VR could be used as a way to avoid racial discrimination.
Noticed the word ‘could’? I think this is important: while VR does allow for these possibilities, it is by no means a given that it will deliver on the promises.
Even if VR grants an adequate amount of social annealing, then there is the matter of the culture that would arise. Is VR-space going to be predominantly English, with a North American slant? What about body language? Different cultures have different attitudes on the acceptability of meeting the other party’s eyes - and that’s just one tiny aspect.
I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some critical backlash about cultural homogenization due to VR ‘metaverse’ environments. I find it a bit depressing that Facebook is leading the VR social space charge, given how much it’s done to make the Internet a bland walled garden. Throw in the regular censorship and mediocrity that Facebook is known for, and you’ve got a digital version of the food court at the mall. You can make all humans in VR-space look the same, but they aren’t going to talk the same or have the same beliefs. Even if that could be pulled off, it sounds like a boring existence.
An artist dreams of a castle. This is no mere scribbler of an artist - this is Superartist, who can make darn near anything. They make a drawing of the dream castle. They make a painting. They make a sculpture. They make a VR representation. They make a life-sized castle out of stone.
What is the "real" castle? (Anyone’s who’s read Plato might know where I’m going with this). It would seem our dreams are the limit. How closely will VR get to our dreams? Is there a fundamental limit to VR such that it cannot meet or exceed our dreams?
Is VR merely a way to mimic or express objects in 3-dimensional space? This can be handy for physical matter, but dreams are not all about physical matter. Dreams can be sight, sound, smell, even a mood. How do you share a fleeting but powerful mood?
We can think of VR as a means of sharing the vision in our dreams. But would the way I express my dream in VR make sense to you? A symbol that may be emotionally powerful to one person can fall flat to another (the Christian symbolism of a cross would be lost on a Martian with no concept of Earthly religion). The field of semiotics has plenty to say about this, so I’m not going to dig into this too much.
VR has the potential for powerful artistic expression. I think that power will come not from mimicry (eg "look at this virtual representation of Stonehenge!") but from novel experiences that simply cannot be reproduced in any other medium. One interesting example (sadly not VR, but should be) is a digital museum of water patterns generated by various games.
I think there’s some merit to virtual tourism, especially where it’s concerning sites that may be outside of one’s price range (eg the Caribbean), where it might be unsafe (eg war-torn Syria), where it’s too freaking busy (eg the Louvre), or where it may not exist anymore (eg islands that will cease to exist due to rising waters from climate change). Will ever beat the real thing? That remains to be scene.
The Old West of Cyberspace
I’ve heard various thoughts along the lines of virtual reality providing a society with no laws. I think this is a bad idea for a variety of reasons, one of which is spending time playing online games. I tend gauge online games by how long until a 13-year-old calls me a slur of some sort.
While it is possible to cultivate a thoughtful, interesting community, they don’t spontaneously arise. They generate and adhere to social norms, which may not be concrete laws per se. If there is no technological means of punishment for malicious or obnoxious behaviour (eg kicking the person off the server), those who do respect the social norms will not tolerate the behaviour for long. Communities evolve, grow, mutate - ‘laws’ are the byproducts of this change, generally put in place for the smooth operation of the community at large. (I am not a sociologist or a lawyer - I’m sure they have much more informed thinking on this than myself).
Raph Koster gave a really good talk on managing digital communities, and he says more about this with the added benefit of having run large-scale digital communities before.
Some laws that I think are important are the ones outside of VR-space. Patent law, copyright law, standards that allow interoperability between platforms - this stuff is all up in the air, and given the crazy amounts of money at stake, it’s a given that the consumer is going to get screwed in some way or another. I’m not aware of an IETF-type organization that’s trying to standardize this stuff, but if there isn’t one, I hope there’s one soon.
Jacking into the Matrix, or The Death of a Process
Of course, talking about VR leads to the fun idea of uploading one’s consciousness into computers.
When I first saw the Matrix, instead of seeing it as a dystopic nightmare, I thought it was so cool that you could plug in to a different reality and fly around and jump across buildings (I’d be lying if I still didn’t think that’s kind of neat). But at the end of the day, your meat body is still plugged in, and your online presence only exists as long as you’re still breathing. Once VR really starts to kick in, we’ll start to hear about people dying mid-VR session. Heart attacks, strokes, or even forgetting to eat - death will join us, only its exhibited manifestation is unclear.
So how do we skip past that yucky mess of living and venture into digital immortality? Well, first we would have to understand what the heck is encapsulated by ‘the human mind’. The brain is not a Von Neumann computer. It’s chemicals, electricity, and mush. Additionally, it now also appears the brain doesn’t control the whole thinking thing - it’s also things like gut flora, toxoplasmosis, even body part transplants affecting behaviour. How much of the mind is the chemical stew of our own bodies? It’s unlikely that our behaviour could ever be perfectly replicated with a finite state machine.
Now lets say technology somehow got to the point it could make a perfect replica of your thinking. Your problems are still not over! Computers require an operator for continued functioning, and there is the matter of resources as well. A good example of this is seen in the anime Expelled From Paradise. The governing forces control how much RAM/CPU time a process (ie consciousness) gets. Thinking that runs counter to the governing force is seen as non-productive, and is deprived of resources. You aren’t being imprisoned, but are being denied your consciousness, which is now your existence.
Another hazard of the mind in digital space is data corruption. This could be inadvertent (solar flares causing bit flips because someone in meat-space decided to cheap out on RAM this fiscal quarter), or it could be intentional (you don’t remember what you did last night, or you "do" remember). This sort of gaslighting is somewhat possible in our own meaty reality, but nowhere near as clean as what can be done digitally. For example, it is now trivial to add smiles to faces in digital pictures. These tools can be used to touch up wedding photos, or used for blackmail. Now imagine those tools being put to work on a digital consciousness.
Virtual reality is not a grim dystopia. At least not right now, and it doesn’t have to be in the future. I hope a lot of my concerns are unfounded. There’s the real possibility that this will turn out to have been a billion-dollar cul-de-sac of technology. Anyhow, I hope the folks building this new possible future are at least thinking of things besides pixel sizes and network bandwidth.