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Virtual reality just innocuous fun?

The cover of a recent edition of Time magazine (August 17 2015), shows a guy with what seems like a pair of goggles on his face, in jeans and a golf shirt, jumping into the air against the backdrop of a beach scene. Except … the “goggles” are not “look-through”, like normal goggles; he is not seeing the world through them, but “in” them. They are VR, or a virtual reality headset, and behind them trails a long cable of sorts. The image and its caption refer to an article by Joel Stein (Time, p. 32-41), “Inside the Box”, on the progress that has been made in the field of virtual reality, and not surprisingly, it reports the advent of full virtual reality access to be just around the corner.

Stein charts the development of VR from gaming and VR sci-fi movies to the work of Palmer Luckey (the fellow on the Time cover), the founder of Oculus VR — which was bought from him by Facebook for $2.3 billion in 2014 — and claims that the first VR headsets (the “goggles”) will be available this year. Having examined virtually (excuse the pun) everything VR out there at present, from the low-tech Google VR cardboard (with specs freely available online) to Microsoft’s Hololens and Oculus’s Kickstarter (available next year), Stein concludes that non-believers are in for a rude awakening (p. 32): “Skeptics, take note: it’s better than you think.”

Why should this interest one? First, and most obviously, the technology-capitalism nexus has in VR a sure-fire money-spinner of large proportions. If the colossal user-numbers attached to the popular internet online game, World of Warcraft, with its stunning interiors, as well as land- and cityscapes, are anything to go by, if this kind of game becomes available in full-scale VR — where you would not be manipulating your avatar on your computer screen, but BE IN THE SCENE AS YOUR AVATAR, sensorily feeling things every step of the way — the sky is the limit when it comes to numbers of aficionados in the connected world who would buy the necessary VR gateway tech apparatus.

So what, you would say — this is harmless fun, and it is bound to give a huge injection into the economy. Sure, but anyone who has seen Wim Wenders’ sci-fi film, Until the End of the World, and Kathryn Bigelow’s sci-fi noir, Strange Days — both of which thematise the possible consequences of full-scale virtual reality — would know that this is a specific instance of technology as “pharmakon” (simultaneously poison and cure).

Why should this be the case? Well, if one considers how hugely addictive something like World of Warcraft is — or, more generally, people’s dependence on smartphones and tablets — can you imagine the degree of addictiveness inculcated by the experience of unadulterated virtual reality by means of certain devices, like the VR headset worn by the guy on the Time cover? Anyone familiar with the documentary on World of Warcraft, aptly named Second Skin, would recall that it highlights the addictive nature of the online game by focusing on some of the people whose addiction has cost them their families and their jobs. And if this is the case with an online game that has not quite attained VR-status yet, imagine what the real McCoy would do to individuals who have a penchant for all tech-things addictive.

Something along these lines is suggested by Sherry Turkle (in Life on the Screen, Simon & Schuster 1995), where she foregrounds the technologically mediated “virtual” sphere’s capacity to hypnotise, seduce, fascinate and simultaneously also enslave its votaries. Turkle alludes to the movie referred to earlier, which has as its theme the power of virtual-reality technology to enslave, namely Wim Wenders’ Until the End of the World, which revolves around a scientist’s invention of a device that transforms human brain activity into captivating and enchanting images that enable people to perceive their innermost fantasies and memories in mesmerisingly vivid, more-real-than-real, virtual form. For Turkle (1995, p. 268) Wenders’ film issues a stern caveat:

“However, the story soon turns dark. The images seduce. They are richer and more compelling than the real life around them. Wenders’ characters fall in love with their dreams, become addicted to them. People wander about with blankets over their heads the better to see the monitors from which they cannot bear to be parted. They are imprisoned by the screens, imprisoned by the keys to their past that the screens seem to hold. We, too, are vulnerable to using our screens in these ways. People can get lost in virtual worlds … our experiences there are serious play.”

Turkle’s observation is a salutary reminder that technologically mediated experiences have consequences regarding human behaviour; they are not innocuous. Wenders’ film may be fictional, but like many similar works of science fiction it focuses on issues that are already part of contemporary social reality, extrapolating from them into the future — just enough to be able to speculate fictionally on the possible trajectories of their continuing development and the consequences this might have for humans.

If the narrative of Wenders’ film “soon turns dark”, as Turkle puts it, Bigelow’s noir sci-fi, Strange Days, is dark from the beginning (as film noir characteristically is). Set in the context of the apocalyptic expectations pervading the time approaching the year 2000 (remember the Y2K doom bug, which never materialised?), one of the darkest threads of the narrative is the one involving a device, referred to (if I recall correctly) as a “squid” or “octopus”, which is placed on one’s head with sensors attached to your skull, to record vividly a “clip” of whatever sensory experiences you are having at the time on what looks like a mini-DVD. Removed from your head and attached to someone else’s, that person can experience in “playback” mode exactly the sensations that were originally recorded on the squid-DVD.

So, for instance, the noir anti-hero of the film, Lenny (Ralph Fiennes), records his sensations while jogging on the beach, and subsequently gives the device to a friend of his who has lost both legs to do “playback” of the clip, to the utter joy of the unfortunate legless fellow. But the virtual-reality recording device has a demonic side to it as well, similar to the one in Wenders’ film: it is fiendishly addictive, and is used in horrific ways, for example by a serial woman killer who attaches it to the heads of the women he rapes and simultaneously kills, so that they experience his perverse “pleasure” in the very process of being robbed of their lives. Again, the fascination of virtual reality proves to be a pharmakon, and I leave it to you to figure out which is predominant — poison or cure.

This brings me back to that Time cover. Doesn’t it strike you as completely incongruous that someone who would go to the trouble of visiting a beach — to feel the sand between your toes (he is barefoot) and smell the sea air — would cut him or herself off from this healthy, natural experience and withdraw into a virtual world; on the beach, of all places? Even if the guy is not really on the beach, and the beach backdrop was created to suggest that VR is “just like nature”, the photograph would imply the same thing. For me, this photograph sums up the paradox of VR — why go to the trouble of creating the semblance of a natural sphere if the one we have is already wonderful enough as it is? I’d rather swim in the real ocean than in one virtually conjured.

Anyone interested in a more thoroughgoing treatment of this theme, can access my paper: “Cyberspace, simulation, artificial intelligence, affectionate machines and being human”, in Communicatio: South African Journal for Communication Theory and Research, 38:3 (2012), p. 261-278. Available online here.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.