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.



7 comments:

Craig said...

I'm a bit hard-pressed to say exactly why, but those black boxes strapped over people's eyes just seem really creepy to me. . .

I recently read Brave New World again, and this whole thing is more than a little reminiscent. . .

I'm also reminded of Pascal - "If our condition were truly happy, we wouldn't need to be distracted from it. . ."

(not necessarily your) Uncle Skip, said...

It is just a tad disturbing when some can hardly wait for a family meal to be over so tbey can get back to Warcraft

The Broad said...

When I see people with the visors over their head and wandering around like zombies, I suspect that my reaction would be to feel nauseous in a carsick sort of way! While I don't have a problem with gaming and such-like, there is a real problem with a certain grandson of mine whose whole personality changes when he is playing -- and not in a nice way. If he plays longer than about 45 minutes his face gets very red and he is physically sick. These devices are definitely prone to being addictive. What is even more disturbing to me is that we hear parents complaining about their children always playing games but they do nothing to limit their time on them and never seem to confiscate the damn things...

messymimi said...

Now that you mention it, i remember that sci-fi story. It is scary to think of people simply wandering off into a world of their own choosing, ignoring reality.

joeh said...

You could play softball forever...even run to first base.

Suldog said...

Craig - What just occurs to me (yes, just now) is scary. Could the viewer malfunction in such a way as to harm your eyes? Brrrrrrr.

Skip - There have been truly horrific tales about Warcraft players - a teen who committed suicide because he had played 36 hours straight and somehow come to believe he could enter that reality by offing himself (parents suing game maker, with suicide note as evidence, I believe) and the legit case of a mother who left her 3-year-old to dehydrate to death as she played continually; sentenced to 25 years, as I recall.

Broad - One of my true pet peeves is kids who don't put away the damn phone at family functions and most especially at dinner.

Mimi - It truly would NOT amaze me to find that some folks might think the chilling final scenario in that science fiction story would suit them just fine.

Joe - Well, yes, there is that. Right now - it being winter and still at least a month away from any games being played around here - I am still kidding myself that I could get into my 35 or 40 year old shape and make a comeback. Don't harsh my buzz.

Barbara said...

That is truly a horrifying story. I feel the same way!