Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Virtual Reality

When I was a kid, I read a science fiction story that especially horrified me - Spectator Sport, by John D. MacDonald.

The protagonist was an inventor who had transported himself 400 years into the future. He found a society not hard to imagine today. Virtual reality (though not called that by MacDonald, since the term hadn’t been invented yet) was the main entertainment medium. The greatest reward for a lifetime of work was permanent installation into a virtual world of your choosing.

What made the story so horrifying was that permanent installation involved being lobotomized, having your hands and feet skinned so your nerve endings could feed directly into sensation simulators, and then having your head placed inches away from a 3D viewing screen after technicians had removed your eyelids and plugged various doodads into your temples. Our time traveler, having been judged insane by local authorities due to his repeated claims of having traveled from the past, is lobotomized. A high-ranking official, though, finds proof that he was probably telling the truth about being from the past, so to make up for the unneeded lobotomy, he arranges the great gift of a permanent installation for our hero. When last we encounter our flayed, hooked-up and eyelid-less friend, he is imagining himself riding the range on his way to rescue a girl from having her ranch stolen by unscrupulous black-hatted bad guys.

The way I’ve heard some people rhapsodize about recent advances in virtual reality, it’s not too big a jump to imagine them thinking that final scenario might be fun. I’m a tad more reticent.

It’s not that I’m opposed to escapism. I enjoy movies and television; I read fiction; and a few times during the 70s and 80s I certainly managed to escape reality by other means. And virtual reality has some amazing things to offer. For instance, someone could attend a virtual university. Stanford is making steps in that direction. People can immerse themselves in situations frightening to them and perhaps overcome their fears. There are even wondrous medical uses, such as helping stroke victims to recover more quickly or in the training of future surgeons. The possibility exists for people with traumatic injuries, or victims of crippling disease, to live more fully rewarding lives via such technology.

What worries me is that some people, even with the limited options for escape we now possess, have already become so disconnected from reality that they’ve harmed themselves. We’ve all seen video of people walking into poles or casually traipsing off the edge of subway platforms while texting or checking their smart phones. On the political front, I fear that real-world voting won’t matter much for someone who can live in a universe where he’s the emperor and every desire is virtually granted. If you can immerse yourself in such an alternate reality, the things actual politicians say and do might hardly matter to you.

I’m not a total paranoid. I expect most people will use enhancements in virtual reality in a relatively safe manner and I don’t expect we’ll all be lobotomized and have our eyelids removed any time soon. But it might be worth keeping close tabs om Mark Zuckerberg. I’m just saying.

Soon, with more better stuff.