In the world of movie entertainment, producers have found a new vehicle for drawing customers into theaters to see their films. Virtual reality is being increasingly used to provide a novel kind of movie experience. Spectators no longer experience the invisible barrier of a screen to separate them from the story or the documentary that they are watching. And although 3-D movies did allow people to experience some actual depth in what they were observing, the people were still apart from everything that was happening. With virtual reality films, viewers are immersed in the middle of what is happening almost as if they are actually in the story or the flow of the documentary. Some movie directors feel that seeing a story or a documentary separated by the experience of a screen flattens out the total movie experience for a viewer and prevents the viewer from living the movie experience the way that the director would want.
In effect, virtual reality films are a kind of hybrid between screen reality and virtual reality. Although in some situations there is some interaction, for the most part, the person experiencing these films is still primarily a viewer as would be the case in the world of pure screen reality. At the same time, there is no firm barrier separating the viewer from what he is experiencing, as is typical of screen reality. Screen reality and virtual reality somehow blur together in virtual reality films.
But blurring between different kinds of realities doesn’t stop here. We as human beings primarily function in a world with mass, matter and substance. A world of external world reality. It is a world where we can have rich vibrant experiences and meaningful life narratives that include making, receiving, and preserving organic imprints. It is a world where we can use our preserved organic imprints as a foundation for a surrogate immortality.
We have taken for granted the importance of this world. It is the world that gives us grounding and orientation. It is the world that gives us direct sensory bonding to our surroundings. It is the world where we feel direct sensory impact with the figures that surround us. And we lose all this when we enter the highly vacuumized world of virtual reality where all the figures in it are like animate and inanimate ghosts.
And the unfortunate thing is that as we become more involved with, more immersed in the film worlds created in virtual reality, they will become models for the way we experience life after we walk out of the movie theater. It will lead to an even greater blurring together with external world reality than that which occurred with the screen reality of traditional movies, television programs, video games and computer activities. Screen reality has always been in front of us existing side by side with the external world reality that surrounds the screen. The external world reality that surrounds the screen acts as an anchor in the external world that prevents us from totally immersing ourselves in screen reality. That same anchor of a frame does not exist as strongly in a virtual reality film where we are surrounded by what we see. Granted that because it is a film, it has more of an external world frame than other virtual reality activities like virtual reality visits to places. On the other hand, films are likely to reach groups of people that other virtual reality activities won’t reach. People who like films are likely to go to virtual reality films whether or not they are involved with virtual reality in any other way. So the influence of virtual reality film is likely to reach a lot of people who would not normally get involved with virtual reality.
In previous articles, there has been a discussion of how complex machine and robot figures can gradually supplant human figures as sources of mirroring and modeling for young people growing up. And so machines on the one hand and humans on the other begin to blur together in young people’s minds as composite figures to be imitated and emulated. Now environments themselves can mirror and model for young people. However, because the vacuumized environments of virtual reality lack mass, matter and substance, they are incapable of providing real grounding. They do provide some orientation of place, but without real grounding, it is a little like a dream. Without real grounding, there is a sense of floating in space. This, by the way, is a little different from screen reality. At least with screen reality, there is a kind of frame of external world reality around it. One is partly grounded in external world reality, while looking into a vacuumized space.
So what is going to happen as people increasingly hop back and forth between environments of external world reality and environments of virtual reality? It will be particularly easy and accessible to enter virtual reality as more and more virtual reality films are made so that directors can be particularly sure that viewers “deeply experience” what is being displayed. In fact, virtual reality provides the opportunity to experience intense happenings without meaningful consequences, without a strong impact on mass, matter or substance – in other words, with no real threat of damage or danger to life. And virtual reality films provide a portal to having virtual reality experience for many people who are interested in films and would not necessarily search out a virtual reality experience for its own sake. Which means that films are going to greatly expand the audience of virtual reality experiences. So as more and more people hop back and forth between external world reality and virtual reality films, virtual reality is going to increasingly become a model for how people want to live in external world reality. It is going to mirror external world reality, and find it wanting because the latter has so much friction and is so much less safe as a result of a lack of mediation. It is going to create a greater and greater impetus to make external world reality more frictionless and mediated like virtual reality, in order to avoid discomfort and pain. In people’s minds, external world reality and virtual reality will start to blur together.
However, as people start to experience life increasingly as more frictionless and mediated, because it is being made more vacuumized, people will sink into more profound levels of numbness than ever before. And as they sink into these deeper levels of numbness, their will to conduct their own lives freely will be weakened. In past articles, I have talked about this numbing of the will, and I have called it conative anesthesia – conation being a fancy word for processes related to the will. No wonder so many Americans put their lives in the hands of an authoritarian leader like Donald Trump. He makes executive decisions with a level of certainty that many Americans are having difficulty developing in themselves.
The proliferation of virtual reality films will make an exceedingly numbing experience highly accessible to many ordinary people and push them to fight back in some way against the living death that comes with numbness, the psychological state of becoming robots that are susceptible to being operated by other people. Or, looked at from another perspective, they will feel a need to fight back against becoming like zombies. And a few of these people, in order to fight back against becoming zombies, will commit mass acts of terror in order to generate the abrasive friction inside themselves that allow them to temporarily feel fully alive and fully connected with the external world. Many, of course, will become zombified. Witness all the people who submit their weak wills to the will of Trump. Imagine how zombified they will become as they sink into increasingly deeper levels of numbness from the increasingly deeper levels of numbing experience as represented by virtual reality films.
So virtual reality films may not be the totally positive experiences its promoters proclaim it to be. As numbing as screen reality technology has proven to be, virtual reality technology has the potential to be even more numbing. And, in the long run, even more dangerous to our existence as organic human beings with defined coherent senses of self.
© 2017 Laurence Mesirow