A few weeks ago, I tuned in to the TED channel on my Apple TV to catch up on some TED talks. One of the most popular that week was Alex Kipman’s demonstration of the HoloLens (I’ve embedded it at the end of this post).
I have a lot of ambivalence about augmented reality and virtual reality technology. I can see benefits for sure—especially for advancing scientific understanding and medical research—but I can also see inside the Matrix and how virtual reality might be coopted by marketers, power brokers, and others who have less admirable outcomes in mind…..such as organized crime along with an industry that is commonly referred to in a 4-letter abbreviation starting with the letter p—I don’t mention the word because I don’t want it on my website…you know the one I’m talking about.
It’s not that I’m a Luddite, afraid of new science, or can’t relate to science fiction. Star Wars (the original) is my number 2 favorite movie of all time, A Wrinkle in Time is in my top 10 favorite books and I’ve been a Harry Potter fanatic since I bought a first American edition in 1998 as soon as it was released here. I love the way Shakespeare combines the real with the magical realm in masterpieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. I’ve read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist multiple times.
I’m also fascinated by quantum physics and try, in my lay-science-geek way, to stay current on the discoveries that are emerging like gravitational waves, Higgs boson and theories about dark matter.
Considering the Effects
All of that said, I don’t have a good feeling about the cultural and social impacts of virtual reality technology (and, for that matter, gene editing). It won’t be long before we have new psychological disorders triggered by the inability to distinguish between reality and the technologically-induced perception of reality.
There’s something different about using the imagination to conjure up virtual worlds and immersion into a technologically-induced alternate reality.
For 99% of us, we know that what we imagine is not real. In VR (according to those who’ve talked about it) the alternate reality presented through the virtual technology actually seems, to our sensory perceptions, to be real.
A Preference for the Virtual?
What we don’t know is how that frequent and easily available sensory immersion into a virtual reality will lead to social withdrawal and a preference for (addiction to?) the virtual world, or perhaps even VR-induced psychosis.
It’s not that everyone will succumb, of course, but once the VR technology becomes ubiquitous in entertainment and marketing contexts, I suspect we’ll have a swath of users who develop “addictions” to the virtual world that play out in various negative societal outcomes. The challenge is, as always, figuring out where to draw the line between individual responsibility and the negative outcomes brought about due to failed consideration of the realities of the limits of human capacity for self-control, at least for many.
If “self-control” were easy, we wouldn’t have so many people addicted to various legal (and purportedly benign) substances—from donuts to alcohol to big Pharma’s cornucopia of “solutions” to whatever ails you.
As a dot-connector, I see implications for VR that extend outside of the realm of science and scientific exploration for the purpose of understanding into the realm of human nature, the capacity of certain industries to manufacture “content,” as well as products (big Pharma) that play upon basic human needs, and human tendencies toward comfort and escapism through whatever means possible.
Perhaps I’m missing it, but I don’t see much in the way of serious consideration about the likely negative human and cultural impacts of VR and similar technology.
The tech world and tech venture capital sees what’s here and what’s soon-to-be-available—they are thrilled. Scientists focus on the capacity to explore and understand new worlds inside the body, beneath the surface of the earth, and beyond the reach of our human eyes.
Politicians ( and government officials outside of the military industrial complex) have no clue.
I rarely hear the “average” person talking about VR.
Once the technology is ubiquitous, most people will simply use VR to the extent their tech skills and familiarity enable them to participate, without consideration of the consequences or the effects, in the same way they willingly consume a host of legal chemicals without considering interactions and long-term effects.
As with big Pharma, the chemical industry, most nano-materials science, and genetic engineering, the adoption and use of virtual reality technology in marketing, entertainment and warfare will be a social experiment conducted in real time.
Once the adverse social effects of virtual reality begin to emerge in the offices of mental health providers and court rooms, it will be too late to stop the runaway train that’s already pulling out of the station.