Virtual reality vs. real reality

During the past generation or two, we Americans have gotten more interested in virtual reality than in real reality.  At the same time virtual reality has gotten better and better, and real reality has gotten worse and worse.

College teacher friends of mine complain about how their students shut out the world as they immerse themselves in their text messaging and social networking.  But is the world they shut out all that great?  They may have understandable reasons for trying to shut out the reality of a bad economy and crushing student loan debt.

Players of World of Warcraft can, if they pay attention and apply themselves, are certain to acquire points, powers, status and treasure.  This isn’t necessarily so of players in the world of reality.

Science fiction is a bellwether in this, as in other things.  The original Star Trek TV series may have been escapist, but it was an escape into strange new worlds, into encounter with new life and new civilizations, of boldly going where no one had gone before.  In The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, some of the most interesting episodes take place in the artificial worlds of the Holodeck and Holosuite, where the characters explore realities they created for themselves.

The word “cyberspace” was coined by the SF writer William Gibson.  I heard a talk once, in which he said he observed people so mentally immersed in their TV and computer screens that their minds were disconnected from where they were.  This inspired him to write  Neuromancer, a novel in which the characters’ minds could literally enter the information networks.

He intended Neuromancer, published in 1984,  as a kind of satire, but some engineers and computer scientists saw it as a vision, which, in a way, they have made into a reality.

The Russian-American doomsayer, Dimitry Orlov, described the result on his web log.

What these new gadgets offer is, simply put, escapism.  In a world of dwindling resources, where each person’s share of the physical realm decreases over time, it is no wonder that physical reality fails to satisfy.  But thanks to the new, intimate, glowing handheld mobile computing devices, the unsatisfactory real world can be blotted out, and replaced with a cleansed, bouncy, shiny version of society in which little avatars utter terse little messages.  In the cyber-realm there are no sweaty bodies, no cacophony of voices to suffer through—just a smooth, polished, expertly branded user experience.

While riding the subway through the Boston rush hour, I have been able to observe just how well these personal electronic mental life support units work in shielding people from the sight of their fellow-passengers, who are becoming a rougher and rougher-looking crew, with more and more people in obvious distress.  By focusing all of their attentions on the tiny screen, they are also spared the sight of our well-worn and crumbling urban infrastructure.  It is as if the physical world doesn’t really exist for them, or at least doesn’t matter.

via Dead Souls.

 To a certain type of postmodernist philosopher, there is nothing wrong with this, because there is no reality other than our own perceptions.  It make not be a coincidence that the rise of a philosophy that defines reality as subjective perception coincides with the rise of technology to shut out objective reality.

The problem with this, to paraphrase the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, is that although it is possible to ignore reality, it is not possible ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

Or, as Dimitry Orlov put it:

If we ignore the physical realm, the physical economy (the one that actually keeps people fed and sheltered and moves them about the landscape) shrinks and decays.  The inevitable result is that more and more of these cyber-campers and their gadgets will drop off the network, shrivel, and die with nary a tweet to signal their demise.

via Dead Souls.

[Added 8/30/11]

Here are some words of wisdom from a blogger named Frost on the Freedom Twenty-Five web log.

If I could give one piece of advice to the men and women of the world, it would be this: Stop wasting your time on stupid bullshit.  Eliminate the unimportant from your life, and fill the time and energy it took up with something better.

The most common form that unimportant bullshit takes is that of electronic stimuli designed to trick your brain into thinking you’re doing something adaptive.  Playing Halo makes your hindbrain think you’re a brave hero, defeating enemy tribes and protecting/impressing your women.  Watching Friends makes it think you’re hanging out with a bunch of attractive, witty friends.  Jerking off to porn makes it think you’re banging hot sluts.

If you let these kinds of artificial stimuli take over your life, you become a prisoner to Virtual Reality.  Maybe that’s OK to you.  If not, get ready to test your willpower in the coming years, because the VR stimuli is only going to get better.  If you want to live a complete and fulfilling real life, you have to be strong enough to resist the temptations of fake accomplishment that trigger your brain’s neurochemical reward circuits all the same. … …

There are two ways to address the problem of how to stop wasting your life on virtual reality, and how to replace those hours with life.

The first is to look at VR as a symptom of boredom. Eliminate the boredom, and the VR will no longer have a role to fill.  If you’re mostly satisfied with your life, I recommend this approach.  So for example, I have a 5hr/week video game habit.  That’s fine for now, because I really enjoy indulging, but I also know that at some point in the near future, it would be nice to have such a full and exciting life, that I don’t even want to play the game.  I don’t want to have five spare hours in a week.  I’m going to work to fill my days with so much joy and excitement, that there’s no room left for video games.  Or, perhaps, I eventually realize that I just love a given game or TV show so much, that I would pass up on an afternoon of hang-gliding over rainforests and threesomes with supermodels for it.

The other way is to look at VR as a ball of recently-trimmed pubic hair clogging up the drain of your life.  Remove the VR, and you force real life to intrude.  If you work a second full-time job in the World of Warcraft, this approach is probably best for you.  Quit cold turkey, and give yourself the challenge of having to fill up those once-wasted hours.  You can sit and stare at a wall, or you can hit the gym, call a friend, read a book, skip through a meadow or whatever.

Of course, there’s also the surprise third option – live a life of VR, and accept it.  Get your sense-of-accomplishment chemicals from imaginary quests, get your damn-son-I-get-laid-like-tile chemicals from Red Tube, and get your social interaction from 4chan.  Maybe you laugh now, but millions of men have already chosen this path, and the ability of technology to flood our brain’s reward centers will only improve with time.

via Resist Virtual Reality Addiction.


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