In its growing diversification, consumer technology is extending itself into our lives in more and more ways. A new device created by the Israeli company Oculus, a company that now belongs to Facebook, is going to totally transform the world of video gaming. It is a wearable computer device called the Rift, and you put it over the head. You put on the device and you enter a world of virtual reality. Now there are many potential uses for this device, but one that will be of major importance will be that of allowing a person to actually experience living within a video game. Not watching it from the outside and manipulating it from outside, but actually being a part of it.
Gamers will, of course, love this. They will be able to have a visceral experience of the game in which they are participating. It will be qualitatively different from anything they have done in the past. It will provide an incredibly heightened level of excitement, an incredible rush.
It will also have some incredibly dangerous side effects. Virtual reality starts out being a distinct compartment within human experience. But just as people start blending together with computers and robots as they enter the world of experience of these machines, so the borders that exist between virtual reality, on the one hand, and the primary experience of the real world, on the other, will start to blur.
Video games are already an addiction for many young people. Imagine how much more of an addiction will be created by a game in which one temporarily has no experience of any world of experience outside of virtual reality. And video games can be so exciting. By contrast, for most people in modern technological society, life in the primary experience world has become pretty bland, predictable, pedestrian and mundane. So if borders blur between virtual reality and the primary experience world, the direction of the blending is going to be from the virtual reality to the primary experience world, infusing the latter with traits of the former.
This means that everyday life in primary experience becomes infused with traits of the video game. Unlike everyday life, a game is built on defined discrete rules. One’s actions in a game have very precise parameters within which they can operate. Because there are defined actions or moves for playing a game, we can say that there is a delimited infinity of possible actions or moves in a game, unlike life in the world of primary experience where there is a flowing nondelimited infinity of possible actions or moves. Returning to the discussions I have had of different kinds of infinity, we can say that the infinity of actions or moves in a game corresponds to the infinity of whole numbers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. – both positive and negative). And the infinity of actions or moves in life in general more closely corresponds to the infinity of the number of points on a line. Infinity theory in math teaches that the number of points on a line is greater than the number of whole numbers.
So, to the extent that the virtual reality game could infuse our daily lives in the real world, it could gradually mold our responses in life to be like game responses and create a diminished infinity of response possibilities. The focus would be more on black and white moves and actions rather than moves and actions based on a nondelimited infinity of shadings and nuances. The focus will be more on a delimited infinity of defined discrete actions and moves that follow one another rather than a nondelimited infinity of blendable continual moves that flow into one another.
Furthermore, a game model for life presupposes a person moving through life with a series of tactics and strategies for always winning. Such a life posture is not conducive to a person actually bonding with other humans.
Finally, playing in a game does not leave strong imprints on the surface of a field of experience in the way that making a baby, building a business, planting a tree, painting a picture or writing a book does. Yes, in formal competitions, trophies are won and records are created, but such imprints are not left in ordinary private games. And in video games, which people frequently play by themselves, there is not even the fleeting imprint that results from defeating an opponent. Recording a new high score on the video game itself is more like an impersonal mark than an imprint. There is no organic surface in cyberspace that can act as a template for making strong imprints. And if a person is immersed in video games, he doesn’t have much time to make and preserve meaningful imprints to create a meaningful surrogate immortality and prepare for death.
It is not just video games for which the Rift can be used in human life applications. One category of uses is the creation of a virtual representation of a task situation, so that a person can practice a task without making mistakes that could lead to serious consequences. One example of this is a doctor performing virtual operations before actually operating on a patient. In other words, supposedly the doctor would be able to perfect his technique without injuring or killing his patient.
But there may be a problem here. Because of the lack of grounding in a material world, virtual reality is based in an experiential vacuum. Experiential vacuums as a substrate create numbness in people, even when there is a lot of exciting dynamic surface activity occurring as in rock concerts. The overstimulation of the rock concerts is a layer of experience that exists over the understimulation of an experiential vacuum from the lack of grounding of young people in modern life. By the same token, underneath the excitement based on doing a highly skilled risky activity in virtual reality, there is a substrate of numbness living within the virtual reality. Living a lot in virtual reality while practicing a virtual operation will make a doctor increasingly numb. And the vacuum base of virtual reality will blur into real time performance. Rather than preparing a doctor in a safe environment, virtual operations could increase the doctor’s state of numbness even in the material world and cause him to feel understimulated while carrying over the state of experience he had in virtual reality. In other words, mistakes can be made from numbness rather than from the anxiety resulting from practice in real-life performance. Or, by contrast, performing the operation in real life could seem very overstimulating in comparison to the practice that occurred in virtual reality. After practicing in virtual reality, practicing in the material world could generate even more anxiety, more nervousness than if the person had started practicing the operation right away in the material world through primary experience.
Another possible task situation is when a student driver is taught how to parallel park a car in virtual reality before actually doing it in a car. Such a situation creates similar difficulties to a doctor operating on a patient. A student driver could carry over the state of numbness that he feels when he practices parallel parking in virtual reality and be more prone to making mistakes as a result. Or the student driver could be overstimulated by actually having to parallel park in the real world, and increased anxiety and nervousness, as a result, could lead again to being more prone to mistakes.
Finally, another application being conjectured is to be able to talk in the same room with someone who is actually far away. Here we have similar problems to those created by Skype, only more so. Talking with a three-dimensional image of someone is not the same as talking to someone in the flesh. It is a numbing vacuumized experience that will spill over into human interactions in the real world of primary experience. And again, it will numb encounters with real life people, so that bonds that are formed will be more shallow and tenuous. Or else it will make encounters with real life people seem overstimulating and anxiety-producing, and induce a person to withdraw from such relationships. Either way, it will make it more difficult for a person to sustain deep-bonded relationships in the real world of primary experience.
The point is that virtual reality is not a safe neutral environment. It is a sensorily distorted environment that, as a result of the experiential vacuum it creates for humans, also creates new and different dangers for humans.
These dangers must be fully considered, before people start to eagerly embrace the idea of getting involved in all the different possible applications available in this exotic new world of experience. People need organic friction to feel fully alive, something they are not going to get in virtual reality and its vacuumized world. Virtual reality will lead to virtual life.
© 2014 Laurence Mesirow