What Scifi Gets Wrong About Virtual Reality

What Scifi Gets Wrong About Virtual RealityI had to laugh when I saw an article entitled ‘What if We’re Wrong About Virtual Reality?’ My snarky Gawker media-brain kicked in: Don’t worry honey, you are. VR and AR have been hot topics since the 80s. Now that Oculus and Playstation VR are here, we’re forced to contemplate what they mean. Is virtual reality going to take the place of real reality?

I’m throwing my hat into the ring of bonafide experts (which means I know as much as everyone else does: nothing) by saying “no.” In fact, most scifi gets virtual reality wrong, and for some very basic reasons. Let’s discuss why:

First and foremost, virtual and augmented reality are information apprehension and manipulation tools. They make it possible for us to look at, and work with, information in a different way. Think of them as the next generation monitor and keyboard if it helps. When it comes down to it, VR does the same job. I’m using my monitor so that my eyes can see the data, and my keyboard to manipulate the data. Have my keyboard and mouse taken over my life? Of course not. They’re platforms to consume and manipulate data. That’s all.

What Scifi Gets Wrong About Virtual Reality

When people talk about being ‘addicted to your phone’ or ‘addicted to your keyboard,’ the device isn’t the issue. The real issue is that you’ve allowed yourself to become addicted to that specific form of information consumption. It’s unhealthy, to be sure, but the phone isn’t the issue. The problem is between keyboard and chair (PBKAC, if you want to be nerdy about it).

We need a way to consume and manipulate information. Virtual reality breaks the current metaphors and analogues of that process, potentially giving us more meaningful, efficient ways to do that.

That’s not to say that this disruption isn’t without risk or cost. New technology disruption often butterflies off into dark, unintended consequences. That’s why scifi is ripe with cautionary tales like Hyper-Reality:

or Stalenhag’s Electric State series.

What Scifi Gets Wrong About Virtual Reality

As use of virtual reality expands, we’ll likely find new uses for it. In fact, as VR use spreads, I can easily envision some 21st century Luddites refusing to use it, leading to other conflicts and opportunities. Hyper-Reality shows what would happen if we let AR and gamification go too far, and we love it because we’re already seeing those possibilities across social media and mobile gaming.

So yeah, it could happen that way. How will it happen? I have no idea. Nobody knew what to do with gunpowder the first time it was used, either. I love my job because I get to think about what those new uses might be. Exploring those ‘what-if’ scenarios is part of the reason I wanted to write in the first place.

Like any other technology, it’s possible that VR can be misused, jailbroken, taken too far. I talk about this in ‘Search and Rescue,’ and I’m talking about it in Mesh, too. At the end of the day though, I have no concerns about VR itself, only the people who use it. At some point, VR will feel as real as a dream does. Humans have been dreaming since the beginning, but we know that we have the choice to wake up.

Plus, let’s be real: scifi isn’t infallible. If you need an example, let me refer you to this great book called Frankenstein. It’s close to 200 years old, and I’ve yet to see a real-life example of him yet, outside of Comic Con.

If you want to be scared of something, don’t be scared of virtual reality. Be frightened of the dangerous behaviors that this tool enables. Think about what mass communication, the Internet, social media, and other similar tools have become. In the year of 2019, they’ve become methods of exploitation and control. Without serious thought and control, there’s no reason to think VR and gamification can’t go go the same way. The tool isn’t the danger; the sociopath wielding it, is.

So, to wrap up yes, you’re wrong about virtual reality. This isn’t the beginning of the end, it’s simply the end of the beginning. Virtual Reality is a tool, like any other. Being so afraid of it that we fail to consider how to use it wisely leaves it up to those willing to break rules, break boundaries. We must be sure that the boundaries we break do not involve our own human rights and safety. We can use the fire to keep warm, or kill people, it’s up to us. Pretending that the tools are the end, and not the means misses the point of their existence.

My optimistic assumption is that we’ll figure this out over time, as humans always do. The future can be bright, if we want it to be. In fact, it can be so bright that I gotta wear (virtual) shades.