On the topic of Virtual Reality (VR) and human experience that you so persuasively deconstructed in your recent article, I’d like to take the debate a bit further. I expect that whatever we might say today will not end the debate about whether VR should be embraced as something that expands our horizons or whether we should reject it as impertinent, immoral or unhealthy. You have made an excellent case for the prosecution, proving that VR is not only bad for one’s health but contradictory with neurological reality.
First, let me thank you not just for the data and scientific principles you’ve provided, but especially for a style of insight we rarely see in the media. By style I also mean substance. I’ll dare to call what you have formulated an example of the “integrated scientific style.” In contrast with much of the science that appears in the media, your approach embraces the full complexity of the physical and neurological universe, without neglecting actual human experience.
The style we have become used to in journalism — even scientific journalism — is one that too often abusively separates the specific domains of scientific endeavor, insulating them from one another. We get a plethora of articles about physics, the mind and technology, each of which tends to remain within its silo. It is typically descriptive rather than analytical. It rarely reveals a sense of real-life consequences. It tends to develop a self-consistent logic that avoids confrontation with the real world. It should nevertheless be easy to recognize that anything we humans can hope to make sense of and learn from concerning the physical environment and its technological applications requires balancing some mix of both physics and brain science.
Why the kind of insight you have shared with us is so rare is a point worth delving into. But let’s save that for a different discussion. As a non-scientist, my interest in understanding VR stems from the fact that many voices in the media are confidently predicting that VR is destined to be a dominant part of our culture in a near but undefined future. I suspect that message has more to do with the way our economy works than with scientific or even psychological reality. But that is yet another topic it might be interesting to explore on another occasion.
VR provides a useful service
Let me begin by playing the devil’s advocate. VR can be as dangerous as you make out, but it certainly has its merits. I speak from experience. The company that recently supplied my new kitchen offered to produce a VR simulation giving me an accurate idea of what I would get if I committed to their offer. The experience was convincing. I recognized the space I appeared to be moving in and saw how it could be transformed. I signed the contract, made a down payment and when my kitchen was installed months later, I recognized in the real world what I had experienced through VR months earlier.
Based on that use case, I would recommend that kind of VR experience. It helped in my decision-making and the result did not disappoint. Of course, I only spent about 45 seconds exploring my future kitchen and thus had little opportunity to feel the effects of nausea.
So that’s it. That’s my argument in favor of VR. Like any technology that does something previously impossible, it’s instructive to assess the simple services it can provide. On the other hand, as someone who is considered an expert on technology and learning, I remain skeptical about what a purely illusory visual experience can do in the way of building understanding or skill. Unlike a professional flight simulator, where the operational physical environment is fully duplicated for direct human interaction, VR seems to me so sensorily impoverished that although it can help to establish a sense of topological relationships, it risks creating sensorial disassociation rather than the kind of complex associations that true learning develops. That is one of the reasons why informal learning – especially in situ – has greater impact than every form of formal learning.
My experience visualizing my future kitchen that lasted less than a full minute has little to do with what people like Mark Zuckerberg are aiming at. As a convenient means of processing limited information about an environment or understanding spatial relationships, VR seems to me to deliver on its promise. But what Zuckerberg and others want, to the point of investing billions in it, is something that, like Facebook itself, is designed not to solve immediate problems but to devour people’s attention and remove them from reality.
VR and hyperreality
My main argument against VR is therefore different from the one you develop in the article, which is why I found yours so interesting. Anyone who has read my columns in recent years has probably had the occasion to discover my discomfort with what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco called hyperreality, a carefully cultivated strategy that serves to distort our perception of the social, political and economic environment. It seeks to substitute for the understanding of our relationship with reality the experience of an artificially constructed network of associations that serve two purposes: generating income (for example, Disneyland, Las Vegas or Dubai) and establishing a framework of beliefs not just about what is desirable and what isn’t, but also about what can be considered natural and therefore real.
Hyperreality didn’t need VR to come into existence for it to begin its political and economic quest to homogenize popular culture. The process began with the modification of material reality itself. You might say the transformation of Manhattan, a horizontal island situated between two rivers, into a vertical forest of skyscrapers – one of which King Kong could perch himself upon to swat at human-crafted flying machines – marked the beginning of the triumph of hyperreality. But of course, cinema preceded that and encouraged it. In any case, hyperreal culture was a major consequence of the industrial revolution or at least couldn’t have come into being without it.
Hyperreality is essentially a mind game that nevertheless also uses a wide range of technologies to transform the way we see and understand the things that act upon us and with which we can interact. It redefines our relationships with the world in ways that directly contradict reality, while paradoxically convincing us that it may be preferable to reality because we feel it is “ours.” The late David Graeber, expressing his disappointment that well into the 21st century we still don’t have the flying cars we were promised decades ago, calls what we got in its place a “celebration of the endless play of images and surfaces.”
VR is hyperreality on steroids. It not only duplicates but exaggerates the notional and ideological framework our civilization has constructed to account for reality in a way that is in direct contradiction with what our senses tell us. For example, imaginary space, like the real space we see in the night sky or in the open desert, should be understood as boundless and independent of human control or ownership. But the metaverse has already been divided into plots of real estate with hefty price tags. It is immaterial but it is designed to obey the laws that we apply to material things. Instead of liberating the mind and the imagination, it further constrains both.
Unlike the hyperreality we have been exposed to since the advent of marketing and PR (thank you, Edward Bernays!), VR works by removing reality altogether. It substitutes a visual experience for everything else our senses perceive. I presume, however, that as it grows, VR will find ways of adding more sound effects than mere voice and maybe even some kinetic effects that add to the illusion, serving to further distract us from the fact that it has divorced us from the real world.
Proprioception and sensorimotor contingencies
Thanks again, Bill, for reminding me of phenomena that have been researched and known for some time. You sum it up with what I take to be a valid law derived from neurological science: “brains can only feel one reality at a time.” Twenty years ago, I read Alva Noë’s book, Action in Perception, which has somehow regrettably disappeared from my library. One key idea I took away from it was his complaint that the way we think about perception disproportionately privileges vision over the other senses. You seem to be saying something similar.
In an article for Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Noë claims that “vision is a mode of exploration of the world that is mediated by knowledge of what we call sensorimotor contingencies.” So here’s my question to you. Am I wrong in thinking that the question of sensorimotor contingencies is related to the reality of that much neglected but profoundly physical concept we call proprioception? It’s a phenomenon that played an important role in the practices of a team I worked with decades ago to optimize foreign language learning. Do you agree that what all the contingencies Noe claims are producing together is our sense of where we are in the world, and maybe even of where the world is in us? And that without the contingencies we are literally lost?
I’ve often claimed that the Artificial Intelligence singularity will never happen for one reason: there is no way of algorithmically creating proprioception. AI can imitate and even accelerate the processes of intelligence. It can animate a robot whose sensors interpret the physical environment. But isn’t there a metaphysical barrier to endowing it with proprioception?
Bill, I’m sure your understanding of the science behind these phenomena will help me and others make sense of not only VR, AI and technology in general, but of who we are and what our own operating systems require. I’m looking forward to your insights.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.