Do We Really Want Virtual Reality?

Facebook bought Oculus. Their goal is to control the world you experience while wearing a pair of modified ski goggles. Mark Zuckerberg is stoked. Netflix is stoked. Marketers the world over are salivating. But, how should you feel about this?

Personally, I’m scared. I may even be terrified.

First of all, I don’t want anyone, especially not Mark Zuckerberg, controlling my sensory world.

Secondly, I’m pretty sure we’re not built to be virtually real.

I understand the human desire to control our environment. It’s part of the human hubris. We think we can do a better job than nature. We believe introducing control and predictability into our world is infinitely better than depending on the caprices of nature. We’ve thought so for many thousands of years. And – Oh Mighty Humans Who Dare to be Gods – just how is that working out for us?

Now that we’ve completely screwed up our physical world, we’re building an artificial version. Actually, it’s not really “we” – it’s “they.” And “they” are for profit organizations that see an opportunity. “They” are only doing it so “they” control our interface to consciousness.

Personally, I’m totally comfortable giving a profit driven corporation control over my senses. I mean, what could possibly happen? I’m sure anything they may introduce to my virtual world will be entirely for my benefit. I’m sure they would never take the opportunity to use this control to add to their bottom line. If you need proof, look how altruistically media – including the Internet – has evolved under the stewardship of corporations.

Now, their response would be that we can always decide to take the goggles off. We stay in control, because we have an on/off switch. What they don’t talk about is the fact that they will do everything in their power to keep us from switching their VR world off. It’s in their best interest to do so, and by best interest, I mean they more time we spend in their world, as opposed to the real one, the more profitable it is for them. They can hold our senses hostage and demand ransom in any form they choose.

How will they keep us in their world? By making it addictive. And this brings us to my second concern about Virtual Reality – we’re just not built for it.

We have billions of neurons that are dedicated to parsing and understanding a staggeringly complex and dynamic environment. Our brain is built to construct a reality from thousands and thousands of external cues. To manage this, it often takes cognitive shortcuts to bring the amount of processing required down to a manageable level. We prefer pleasant aspects of reality. We are alerted to threats. Things that could make us sick disgust us. The brain manages the balance by a judicious release of neurochemicals that make us happy, sad, disgusted or afraid. Emotions are the brain’s way of effectively guiding us through the real world.

A virtual world, by necessity, will have a tiny fraction of the inputs that we would find in the real world. Our brains will get an infinitesimal slice of the sensory bandwidth it’s used to. Further, what inputs it will get will have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Ham fisted programmers will try to push our emotional hot buttons, all in the search for profit. This means a few sections of our brain will be cued far more frequently and violently than they were ever intended to be. Additionally, huge swaths of our environmental processing circuits will remain dormant for extended periods of time. I’m not a neurologist, but I can’t believe that will be a good thing for our cognitive health.

We were built to experience the world fully through all our senses. We have evolved to deal with a dynamic, complex and often unexpected environment. We are supposed to interact with the serendipity of nature. It is what it means to be human. I don’t know about you, but I never, ever, want to auction off this incredible gift to a profit-driven corporation in return for a plastic, programmed, 3 dimensional interface.

I know this plea is too late. Pandora’s Box is opened. The barn door is open. The horse is long gone. But like I said, I’m scared.

Make that terrified.

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