VR: what are the risks of total escapism?

The announcement this week that erotic video site ‘Pornhub’ are creating dedicated pages for Virtual Reality (VR), caused me pause for thought. The march towards fully immersive digital experiences that rival the real-world seems unstoppable. The pace has been startling. The promise of VR is many decades old but within the last couple of years we’ve gone from grapevine rumours to four or five competing consumer VR products; Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation Morpheus and Samsung Gear to name but a few.

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For me, The Matrix popularised the idea and the philosophical questions related to VR. The older readers among you will probably have other, seminal examples of immersive worlds, but needless to say, it’s not a new concept. Only now it’s becoming a reality.

VR is a gateway to giving human beings anything that we want, whenever we want it. Literally anything you can imagine can be coded and rendered into a 3D environment to be experienced. If the history of new media is anything to go by, we are about to see the best and worst of humanity. In the coming years you should expect to be inspired by the displays of creativity and charity, and horrified at the depravity. VR’s older cousin social media, is used to save lives, and is used as a mouthpiece for preachers of hate.

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The question in my mind is: is giving human-beings any experience they want, a good thing? In the modern world our hedonistic desires are being met more quickly. Things happen faster and our attention spans are getting shorter. Companies rush to pander to our tastes and trends, turning us into spoiled brats, often at the expense of the planet. There’s no way of predicting how VR will alter our perceptions and behaviour. What’s certain is that it will; this is a seriously disruptive technology.

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Commentators in marketing refer to the “experience economy” to describe how the younger generations value experiences over material possessions. But this doesn’t account for their digital possessions. I’m always amused and baffled by people who seem to miss an experience because they’re too busy recording it. It’s almost as though approval from our peers, and capturing the moment digitally is more important than the experience itself. Your smartphone is now your second brain; it stores your knowledge and memories and is better at it.

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If the value of real-world experiences is already partly a digital one, how will VR, a wholly digital experience, translate into the real-world? As an example, will a young person having virtual sex for the first time be perceived as having lost their virginity? Or does the very fact that it’s in VR mean that it “doesn’t count”? With our digital and real-world profiles becoming inextricably linked, can we make these distinctions anymore?

I’ve been pondering on the many reasons why VR might be so attractive to people. The term “moths to a flame” comes to mind. It’s summed up by my own experience visiting the Vatican museum in Rome last year. Walking in a convoy of thousands of people, holding their tablets and phones to the ceiling, I realised I wasn’t enjoying the experience. Worse, I wasn’t able to pause and appreciate what I was looking at. This was an experience that would be better in VR.

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We have a serious global challenge which is population growth. Predictions are that there will be another 1.5 billion of us in the next 15 years. If my experience of a VR beach in Rio is one where I’m one of 100 rather than one of 10,000, and I don’t have to fly 5,000 miles, does this add up to be better than the real-world? VR offers us an escape to peace, but maybe what we want, isn’t what we need. If we can escape from harsh realities like over-population, declining natural resources and scarcity of good experiences, does it make it easier to ignore the problem?

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