The Dream of Virtual Reality
The Convivial Society: Vol. 3, No. 1
I’ve been in the midst of drafting an installment on how means tend to displace ends when cultures become what the late Neil Postman called technopolies and how that may effect our personal and collective capacity to imagine and desire more than what the present techno-economic milieu can offer. But that is not what you are about to read. What you are about to read is born out of a measure of exasperation, which may not be the most noble motivation, yet here we are.
The exasperation arose as I read some of the claims made by the philosopher David Chalmers in a recent article about his latest book, Reality +, which will be published this week. To be clear and fair, what follows is based solely on what is reported in this article, which is titled, somewhat comically I think, “‘Virtual reality is genuine reality’” so embrace it, says philosopher.”
I think it’s mostly the tag “says philosopher” that amuses me. I don’t know, it almost lends the whole thing an air of parody. And if you didn’t know that it was published on the website of a major news outlet and that David Chalmers was in fact a well-known and widely published philosopher, one could be excused for reading the piece as a bit of parody. I suppose this is why some have argued that it is actually impossible to write parody in our age. In any case, I believe the title also happens to be what philosophers call a non sequitur. It does not follow that you or I should embrace something simply because it is a part of “genuine reality.” This is, for what it’s worth, yet another example of the rhetoric of technological inevitability, or what I’ve sometimes called a Borg Complex. Resistance is futile and all that. There are, in fact, many aspects of reality that we ought not to embrace and that should be actively opposed.1 But then again, I suppose some of this hinges on how exactly we are defining “reality,” because, of course, from one perspective it makes no sense to reject or oppose reality if by that one means denying the existence of something that plainly does exist.
It remains curious to me that the language of “reality” keeps getting deployed in relation to digital media (“Twitter is not real life,” for example) and digitally mediated experiences. Although, in the case of virtual reality, I suppose it is unavoidable. The terminology invites it. The problem, as I see it, is that invoking reality does not get us very far. Indeed, it usually gets us stuck in semantic games and equivocations.
So, for example, Chalmers explains that “a common way of thinking about virtual realities is that they’re somehow fake realities, that what you perceive in VR isn’t real. I think that’s wrong.” “The virtual worlds we’re interacting with,” he adds, “can be as real as our ordinary physical world. Virtual reality is genuine reality.”
I’m not sure how common this way of thinking actually is, but, whatever the case, this strikes me as a rather banal observation if all Chalmers means by it is that virtual reality exists. Of course it exists. Of course the experience of putting on VR goggles and navigating a VR environment is a real, genuine experience. What matters is the specific character and quality of the experience—what sort of reality is it?—and its standing in relation to the rest of our experience. While I think Chalmers imagines that his claim about the genuineness of virtual reality is itself an important corrective to prevailing attitudes, he is ultimately interested in making a stronger claim, which is most clearly articulated in his closing comment: “In the long term, virtual worlds may have most of what is good about the nonvirtual world. Given all the ways in which virtual worlds may surpass the nonvirtual world, life in virtual worlds will often be the right life to choose.”
In a certain mood, I’m tempted to think that everything of consequence now and for the foreseeable future hinges on whether one does in fact embrace this vision of virtual paradise or else rejects it—forcefully, viscerally, instinctually. If even a moment’s hesitation enters into the picture, it seems to me that things have already gone astray. But right now I’m inclined to think through these claims with a measure of detachment.
Okay, so let’s talk a bit about this. I’m going to suggest that we take Chalmer’s argument as a bit of unwitting science fiction. Here’s what I mean by this. I’m not a great reader of science fiction, but it seems to me that works of science fiction set in the future are, more often than not, thinly veiled commentaries on the present state of affairs. By extrapolating and amplifying certain technological and societal trends into the future, the science fiction writer invites us to consider the trajectories upon which we are presently situated. Perhaps we can think of it as a literary form of the reductio ad absurdum. Now, in a sense, Chalmers is doing something quite similar, although I’m pretty sure that’s not what he intends. In other words, I’m suggesting that we take Chalmers’s dubious claims about the future of VR as an unintentional critique of contemporary society.2 We should take his argument, then, not quite at face value, but rather as a symptom of present disorders that we ought to diagnose. Now allow me to proceed in a rather roundabout way.
When my child wakes up from a bad dream in the middle of the night, I may say something like, “It’s okay. It was just a dream. It wasn’t real.” Obviously, when I tell my daughter that her dream wasn’t “real,” I don’t mean to deny either that she had the dream or that she felt genuine fear during the dream and upon waking. I do mean to suggest that the relation of the dream to her waking experience is such that fear is no longer warranted. The dream is “genuine reality” but it does not follow that we should treat it as the same kind of experience as our waking life.
Interestingly, and suggestively with virtual reality in mind, I think most of us can attest to the fact that a dream can sometimes linger in our imagination, for good or for ill. It may haunt us with its sweetness or with its strangeness. We may wake relieved or disappointed, and through the day we remember it with longing that wrecks our heart or an uneasiness that disquiets our mind. So, while a dream is a different sort of reality from that which I experience outside of the dream state, it can nonetheless permeate the waking world. Yet while the dream was real and might weave its way through waking experience, we would, upon waking, be justified in saying either that we were glad or saddened that it was not real. The two realities may intermingle, but they are each of a different order. And, critically, we recognize that when one dreams of some pleasant experience, the dream remains bittersweet if it is not more fully realized in our waking life, or what we would colloquially call “real life.”
This seems to me like a somewhat useful analogy with which to think about virtual reality. You can tell me otherwise, of course. Doubtless, it has its limits. In a dream we are not always conscious of the fact that we are dreaming. Indeed, the power of the dream lies in its ordinarily immersive quality, and, while virtual reality is often touted as an immersive media experience, it remains still, as far as I can tell, a comparatively inelegant, awkward, and sometimes disorienting experience. Additionally, of course, you potentially encounter other people in virtual worlds, although their presence is highly mediated. Also, as it stands, VR yields an experience that fails to engage the human sensorium in full, and, critically, the dream arises out of our own psyche in its interactions with the world and not from a tech company’s proprietary software. But, like a dream again, the experience must always end.
It seems to me that Chalmers would’ve been on better ground had he been content with his claim that “there’s no good reason to think that life in VR will be meaningless or valueless.” That strikes me as a modest and defensible claim. But then again, I’m not sure there would be many who would take exception to it. Most human activities can be assigned some degree of meaningfulness and even value. Indeed, you don’t have to assign any particular mystical quality to dreams to likewise conclude that they can be meaningful and valuable.
But, as we’ve noted, Chalmers is interested in making a more sweeping and controversial claim. The article opens by acknowledging that “it is hard to imagine humans spending their lives in virtual reality when the experience amounts to waving your arms about in the middle of the lounge with a device the size of a house brick strapped to your face.”
Of course, this is just a set up. We already know from the title that the point of the article is to tell us that a philosopher thinks otherwise. Thus we immediately go on to read,
But this is where humanity is heading, says the philosopher David Chalmers, who argues for embracing the fate. Advances in technology will deliver virtual worlds that rival and then surpass the physical realm. And with limitless, convincing experiences on tap, the material world may lose its allure, he says.
These are extravagant claims, even though they are seemingly made with increasing regularity. I’ve noted on at least two occasions Marc Andreessen’s comments about how digital realms will be a boon to those who fail to experience “reality privilege,” or who most of us would say suffer from inequality and injustice. But Chalmers has to posit, indeed presume these future advances in VR quality in order to make his argument compelling. So we go on to read that “Chalmers sees technology reaching the point where virtual and physical are sensorily the same and people live good lives in VR” and also that “Chalmers suspects we will ditch the clunky headsets for brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, that allow us to experience virtual worlds with our full suite of senses.”
Interestingly, this reduces sensation to a purely mental event independent of the senses themselves and the world to which they correspond. I’ll come back to this, but for the moment we should note that whatever vision of the good life Chalmers has in mind, it has no necessary relation to the world outside our heads and thus no place for goods that posit a relation between the self and the world such as, for example, the pursuit of truth or understanding or the political life in service of the common good. The good life is envisioned merely as artificially triggered neuronal activity.
Chalmers’s argument, then, is anchored to his expectation of dramatic technological advances. In order to argue that “given all the ways in which virtual worlds may surpass the nonvirtual world, life in virtual worlds will often be the right life to choose,” he must presume that the technology will yield a subjective experience that is basically indistinguishable from the experience of the non-virtual world. And here it is worth remembering that thinking critically about technology is, in part, a matter of navigating between credulously accepting techno-hype on the one hand, and, on the other, failing to apprehend the real possibility of novel developments. Those with a greater measure of expertise in the relevant fields can correct me, but it is not at all obvious to me that the technologies Chalmers anticipates will necessarily materialize.
But even if we grant, for arguments sake, that the experience of virtual reality will be indistinguishable from the experience of non-virtual reality and that it may even be somehow richer and more pleasant, as with certain dreams, it will still be the case that the experience will cease. The VR equipment will come off, you will disconnect from the virtual world and come back to the non-virtual world. Unless, of course, you posit an even more disturbing Matrix-like scenario in which human beings can choose to remain hooked up to virtual worlds indefinitely with their biological needs somehow serviced artificially. And this I would offer as the reductio ad absurdum of Chalmers’ argument. I don’t see what grounds he would have to object to such a development given his premises.
To be sure, Chalmers acknowledges that “in the short term we’re pretty clearly going to be based in physical reality and I certainly wouldn’t recommend abandoning it.” And as the article adds, Chalmers acknowledges the possibility that “virtual living could eventually raise new health issues.” “As fulfilling as virtual worlds may become,” the author notes, “people will need real food, drink and exercise, and perhaps even the odd glimpse of daylight, to keep their bodies from withering away.” It’s worth noting how the body again appears to be little more than an inconvenient afterthought.
But since we’re imagining great technological leaps anyway, I would still want to know what would be the principled, rather than instrumental, argument against someone choosing, should the technology allow it, to remain in the virtual world continuously.
Chalmers’ also seems to accept that it would be a problem if the allure of virtual worlds led us to abandon the planet.3 Yet his response hardly inspires confidence: “Physical reality is really important. We’ve got to keep a grounding in it and treat it well.” It recalls Jeff Bezoz, in a recent conversation about his plans to build space colonies, insisting of the earth, rather unconvincingly to my ears, “This place is special. You can’t ruin it.” Somehow one gets the impression that in neither case is the heart really in it. And the pairing reminds us again that the race to take flight from the earth as the material habitat of the human being now takes at least two forms: a literal flight from the planet and a virtual flight into digital realms.
I realize, of course, that I am mostly preaching to the choir as they used to say. My guess is that many of you who regularly read this newsletter are not likely to be the sort whose idea of the good life entails spending the majority of your life in virtual reality. And, as I’ve already suggested, I’m skeptical that VR will improve to the degree that Chalmers imagines, although I’m not willing to gamble on such guesses. So why spill all these words, then? I suppose it is because I want to read Chalmers against the grain, which is to say as the unwitting emissary of a fantastical cautionary tale, which invites us not to fear some uncertain future but to reflect more critically on existing trends and patterns.
For example, I wonder for how many of us the experience of the world is already so attenuated or impoverished that we might be tempted to believe that a virtual simulation could prove richer and more enticing? And how many of us already live as if this were in fact the case? How much of my time do I already devote to digitally mediated images and experiences? How often am I lured away from the world before my eyes by the one present through the screen?
The claim that, even now, virtual realities can outstrip my experience of the world is increasingly plausible when I have lost the capacity to wonder at and delight in the gratuity and beauty of the world. And there may be many reasons why such capacities may have diminished, ranging from the ever-more complete enclosure of our experience within a frame of human artifice to the loss of the arts of perception and the power of social structures that eliminate the gift of leisure in principle and in practice for so many. In other words, I mean for us to consider how we might have already begun to sever our relation to our common world long before the virtual worlds Chalmers envisioned are, if ever, realized.
Might we not also construe the vision of a virtual paradise as a temptation? The realm of virtual reality Chalmers imagines is a world in which we are granted, as he puts it, super human powers and in which we can all have our own mansion. But its chief appeal I suspect is that one expends no particular effort and risks nothing of consequence. The VR paradise we are offered is sanitary, safe, and comfortable. We are able to set aside the lived body along with its frailties and vulnerabilities. It is, one presumes, a customizable and programmable realm in which we can exercise maximal control over our avatars and their environments, within the parameters established by the proprietors of the virtual realm, of course. We will not need to care for the sick or tend to decrepit infrastructure or acknowledge the poor or concern ourselves with failing ecosystems. It amounts to the temptation to surrender and accept defeat, to forsake the struggle, refuse responsibility, and escape into a realm of virtual hedonism. I do not say that this is what virtual reality must be, only that this is how its potential is often framed, and not only by Chalmers. But, again, this is a temptation many of us confront already, except that we encounter it countless nondescript moments when a path of convenience and ease and comfort presents itself to us when we might also choose to set aside our ease for the sake of some other, higher good.
In the mid-twentieth century, Hannah Arendt was invited to comment on whether “man’s conquest of space increased or diminished his stature?” A very mid-20th century type of question, in more than one way. I encourage you to read the whole thing. Toward the end of her reflections, she makes the following observation:
Every progress in science in the last decades, from the moment it was absorbed into technology and thus introduced into the factual world where we live our everyday lives, has brought with it a veritable avalanche of fabulous instruments and ever more ingenious machinery. All of this makes it more unlikely every day that man will encounter anything in the world around him that is not man-made and hence is not, in the last analysis, he himself in a different disguise. The astronaut, shot into outer space and imprisoned in his instrument-ridden capsule where each actual physical encounter with his surroundings would spell immediate death, might well be taken as the symbolic incarnation of Heisenberg’s man — the man who will be the less likely ever to meet anything but himself and man-made things the more ardently he wishes to eliminate all anthropocentric considerations from his encounter with the non-human world around him.
The analogy is not perfect, but I read this while thinking about Chalmers’s case for the embrace of a life led mostly in virtual reality. By contrast, so much of Arendt’s work came down to the cultivation of a proper amor mundi, a proper love of this world. But, as I recently heard it put, we cannot love what we do not know. And we will not care for what we do not love. In Chalmers’s vision, we would, as Arendt feared, be trapped in a situation wherein we would encounter nothing but ourselves and those things some of us have made. And it would be altogether likely that we would do so while swaths of our common world increasingly became inhospitable to human life. If so, the burden will fall, as it always does, on those who will not have the luxury of retreating into virtual paradises. Who knows, though, if they will not be the better for it in the long run. But I don’t care to make a trial of it.
The thing about Borg Complex claims, which I’ve always granted, is that sometimes they prove right. But, yet another non sequitur, this does not mean that they should not be resisted where wisdom or prudence demand it. I’ve been reading Tolkien again of late, and I was struck by this line: “There is naught that you can do, other than to resist, with hope or without it.”
For the record, I stand prepared to revisit and correct my claims about Chalmers’s arguments should his book length treatment of these themes reveal that I am misreading him.
“These are worlds in which people can enjoy superhuman powers, possess other bodies, experience new sensations and explore environments with different laws of physics. With almost unlimited space, everyone can have a virtual mansion, or even a virtual planet. And if the physical world becomes dangerously degraded – by environmental collapse, nuclear war or an interminable pandemic – VR could offer a safe haven, he says.” I’m bewildered by the fact that Chalmers appears to assume that in the event of such worldwide cataclysms the technical infrastructure necessary to operate the virtual worlds he imagines would remain operational. Although, in fairness, perhaps he imagines this will be the case only for a very privileged few.