Will presence make life better or just be an opiate for the masses?

[As the title suggests, this story from Wired considers one of the key ‘big picture’ ethical issues raised by telepresence. It arguably has applied to most previous technologies but the potential of today’s and especially future technology brings it new salience. –Matthew]

Art suggesting limited VR headset view of nature

VR Will Make Life Better—Or Just Be an Opiate for the Masses

Wagner James Au Culture, author of The Making of Second Life (HarperCollins) and writer for the blog New World Notes
February 25, 2016

Virtual reality will dramatically transform movies and gaming, but some see an even loftier goal for the burgeoning technology: Providing the world’s poor and underprivileged with a better life. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus Rift, and his chief technology officer, John Carmack, even speak of a “moral imperative” to bring virtual reality to the masses.

“Everyone wants to have a happy life,” as Luckey likes to say, “but it’s going to be impossible to give everyone everything they want.” But VR can provide billions of people with virtual versions of everything the wealthy take for granted: touring the Louvre, sailing the sun-dappled coast of California, or simply sitting in a meadow beneath a clear blue sky free of smog and pollution. “Virtual reality can make it so anyone, anywhere can have these experiences,” Luckey says.

Carmack, a pioneer in 3-D graphics, has championed this mission for some two decades, but only recently has the underlying technology reached a price point where VR headsets can cost as little as a cheap smartphone. And that, he says, makes it possible for virtual reality to improve the real lives of people worldwide, even the less fortunate.

“These are devices that you could imagine almost everyone in the world owning,” Carmack says. “This means that some fraction of the desirable experiences of the wealthy can be synthesized and replicated for a much broader range of people.”

The Experience Machine

This assumes, of course, that people are willing to strap into VR devices and not perceive any meaningful difference between what’s real and what only seems to be. Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick explored this very question more than 30 years ago in an influential thought experiment. “Suppose,” he wrote in 1974, “there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neurophysicists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Would you plug in?”

It seemed obvious to Nozick, who died in 2002, that people would not. “We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience, by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it,” he wrote. But some of the world’s most powerful companies—Facebook, Sony, and Google among them—are investing billions to mass-produce what are effectively experience machines, utterly convinced that we’re all eager to plug in.

Luckey, for one, “absolutely” would plug in. “If you asked anyone in the virtual reality industry, they would say the same,” he says.

The Pull of the Virtual

There’s compelling evidence to suggest Luckey is not alone. I recently lived for some months in the teeming, smog-shrouded city of Beijing and vividly remember noticing how many people were engrossed in 3-D fantasy games, playing them in cavernous Internet gaming cafés or on smartphones in suffocating subways and congested malls. Such games are tremendously popular in China, where hundreds of millions while away their waking hours fixated on the virtual worlds like Fantasy Westward Journey or World of Warcraft. This seems to undermine Nozick’s answer to the experience machine challenge, while reinforcing what many in the VR industry fiercely believe. “There is no difference between a life lived in virtual reality versus ‘real reality,’” says Philip Rosedale.

Rosedale was the co-creator of the popular online world Second Life, and he’s currently building High Fidelity. Both attempt to create something like the Metaverse from Neal Stephenson’s seminal novel Snowcrash—a vast, virtual world accessed by millions of people through VR headsets. (Luckey has announced his own long-term goal of building a metaverse.)

There’s an eerie parallel to these Silicon Valley projects and the sci-fi novels that inspired them. Stephenson’s Metaverse thrives as the real world descends into misery—the US undone by crime and chaos, most of Asia ravaged by economic collapse. In Ready Player One, the 2011 bestseller that Steven Spielberg is adapting for film, the poor live in stacked trailer homes and spend most of their squalid lives logged into a metaverse called Oasis. Even as entrepreneurs like Rosedale and Luckey build actual metaverses of their own, the real world also faces a future shaped by economic uncertainty and global climate change. “Doesn’t it seem like a good thing that people have a place to escape to?” says Michael Abrash, the chief scientist at Oculus. But some find that idea reprehensible—and worse.

“There’s something hideously limited about an imagination that sees VR as a tool for placating the world’s poor,” says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. “This feels like a Western fantasy, a dream that a new technology will solve a problem, one those trying to solve it don’t really understand.”

Zuckerman, for his part, does understand the problem. He’s spent many years in Ghana and Kenya, spending much of that time running the high-tech NGO Geekcorps, and rejects the notion that VR will be a meaningful panacea. “The idea that we can make gross economic inequalities less relevant by giving Africans virtual bread and circuses is diabolical and delusional.”

Jaron Lanier, an interdisciplinary scientist at Microsoft Research who’s widely credited with popularizing the term “virtual reality” a generation ago, ascribes Luckey’s vision of the planet’s poor uplifted by VR to youthful naiveté. “I’m going to make a guess that once he’s a little older and has been around other parts of the world, he’s going to have a different opinion than that,” he says. Lanier adds that he isn’t singling out Luckey, who’s only 23; indeed, he hears even more extreme talk from colleagues in Silicon Valley, who envision a time in which the rich become immortal while “everyone else will get a simulated reality”—an idea he finds “evil” and worries “might lead to a violent reaction.”

“I’d prefer to see a world where everyone is a first-class citizen and we don’t have people living in the Matrix,” he says.

Still, such skepticism is relatively rare in the tech world, where you’re more likely to find far more people who share Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that VR “will become a part of daily life for billions of people.” If he is right, the implications could be profound. No one knows how our social fabric will change once billions begin to use VR on a regular basis.

A Second Second Life?

I have some trepidations based on my experience as the “embedded journalist” in Second Life. Although I found the online world to be among the Internet’s most remarkable works of collaborative creation, I had a nagging sense that many users were neglecting their offline lives and relationships to be there. The company’s own data revealed the majority of its most active users spend an average of 6-plus hours daily within Second Life. Another study suggested people derived more happiness within that world than from the real one.

If an outdated and cumbersome virtual world like Second Life can exert so profound an effect, what will happen when people plug into a fully immersive virtual reality? It isn’t too difficult to imagine a scenario in which our problems are allowed to fester, simply because any democratic will to address them is undercut by a populace that would rather escape to the virtual world than deal with the real one. The idea brings to mind a point Luckey made to me when he said, “Once you’ve perfected VR, you can imagine a world where you don’t need to perfect anything else.”

Carmack downplays my concern. “Social impact hand waving/wringing about VR was gone over quite a bit 20 years ago,” he says. Such arguments, he says, create a false distinction between what’s real, and what’s virtual.

“If someone wanted nothing more in life than to read books, providing them with a massive library is not doing them a disservice, even if that means that they are less likely to be involved in other activities,” he says. “If people are having a virtually happy life, they are having a happy life. Period.”


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