What's to fear from virtual reality?

I’m no luddite but there’s something to understand in the anxiety immersive technologies provoke.

It’s been a good couple of weeks for virtual reality. Mark Zuckerberg put on a clean t-shirt and welcomed us to the future he knows we’re all waiting for. It’s going to change the way we work and communicate, he preached, making it sound exhausting: imagine your stuffed inbox impatient for attention not only in your pocket but winking in your field of view. VR headsets are set to revolutionize everything from horror movies to health care – except that at the same time, they may isolate us from one another, lost in solipsistic fantasies, with 3D porn addicts quelling panic attacks and nascent psychoses, the critics sigh.

Now, who can tell what the new technology will do. When the railways arrived in Camberwell, in 1872, resident John Ruskin called for his horse-drawn carriage and never returned. It was probably an overreaction. Then again, commuters from Denmark Hill may now half know what he feared. But it’s worth trying to gain a sense of why the prospect of ubiquitous virtual reality feels unsettling; a risk. Forewarned is forearmed.

Martin Heidegger can help us. The German philosopher wrote an essay in 1954 entitled, The Question Concerning Technology. It pinpoints the crucial issue. The difficulty with technology, he said, is not that it enhances our lives. It does. Rather, it’s that it radically prescribes the life it enhances in the process.

He realised as much on holiday, cruising on the Mediterranean. Pocket cameras were then the latest thing. And he noticed how the technology reframed the holiday experience. When the ship pulled into a new port, his fellow tourists were no longer excited about the sites they might see or the food they might eat. They pushed their way to the dockward side and gangplank in order to secure the best composition for a photograph. The trip was judged by the quality of snaps secured. Technology simultaneously enhanced the experience whilst also dramatically narrowing what the experience would be.

When he reflected further, Heidegger wondered whether the situation was worse. The ports of Cannes and Venice, Athens and Alexandria had ceased to be romantic places with a history and presence of their own, at which strangers might gaze and wonder. The technology transformed them into stage sets, with a value determined by their usefulness as a means of impressing envious family back home. The camera turned tourists in on themselves. It collapsed their worlds, strangling any openness to the numinosity of new destinations. The selfie stick, which shrinks the cosmos to a backdrop for me, is just the logical endpoint of the technology’s quiet control.

The philosopher Jeremy Naydler applies Heidegger’s warning to virtual reality, in an essay entitled, Living in the Shadow of the Machine. Technology increasingly hardens our forgetfulness of unmediated experiences, he argues. It makes us more dependent upon it by insisting that we orientate our lives towards it, rather than towards life itself. I suppose that’s why people yearn not just for a smart phone but the latest smart phone. It’s as if we’re missing something without it. “A certain weakness insinuates itself into the soul,” he continues, because our sense of equanimity is no longer secured in nature, God, or the soul but is toyed with by the relatively trifling and endlessly flickering dance on the screen.

Naydler notes that one of the most spooky VR developments comes courtesy of an experience called a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment, or CAVE for short. It’s an immersive reality named after the allegory of the cave in Plato’s Republic. Only, whereas Plato argued we need to escape from the cave because its “reality” is merely shadows, CAVE invites us to remain perpetually as prisoners. Which most prisoners prefer, as in Plato’s story.

Conversely, it’s no surprise, then, that gardening and walking, house design and cooking boom in the silicon age. We gaze at growing grass and a setting sun in a daze of half-remembering that life can be embodied. Except that another technology already prescribed the experience for us. The TV. We watch others planting, creating. It’s possible that the populous is actually gardening and cooking less, even as interest in the activities increases, because the technology has already narrowed the invitation: don’t dig potatoes be couch potatoes.

That’s the fear, then. That’s the sense of trouble. Psychic fragmentation will be a constant threat as VR users resign their life and perhaps fatally neglect their ground.

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