The attractions of virtual reality

Science fiction writers have long imagined a world in which a virtual reality existed side-by-side with physical reality, and had just as much significance.  In the later Star Trek series, the crew’s fascination with the Holodeck and Holosuite created real problems.  But in Vernor Vinge’s True Names (1981) posited a virtual world in which people could interact in a more meaningful way than in the physical world.   Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992) and Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game (2009) depict near-future worlds in which virtual reality enriches physical reality, and people move back and forth between the two.

The problem is to draw the line between virtual reality enriching your life and virtual reality taking over your life.  A young blogger called “Frost” puts the issue thus.

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.  … …

Setting limits on your virtual life will keep it from taking over your real life, he says; if you can’t set limits, you have to kick the habit entirely.

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.

Then there is a 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.

When you stop and think about it, our whole social world is a virtual reality.  Middle-class people in the advanced industrial countries are free from the constraints of physical reality in a way that was only possible to a handful of aristocrats and emperors in previous centures.  We are less concerned about physical survival or physical pleasure than we are about winning prizes.

If Mahatma Gandhi or one of my Neolithic ancestors saw a teenager playing Grand Theft Auto, a speculator trading commodities on the Chicago Board of Trade, or me writing a post on my web log, it would seem the same to them—somebody doing abstract things with a keyboard and screen.

I think that there are (at least) four important distinctions to consider in deciding how far to go into the virtual world.

You need to consider –

  • Wanting things vs. needing things.
  • Creative fantasy vs. morbid fantasy.
  • Pleasure vs. addiction.
  • Devotion vs. compulsion.

Smoking provides a good example of the distinction between desire and need.  Some people smoke tobacco because they enjoy it; many more smoke because they feel a craving they can’t control.  The distinction is that you try to get what you want because it will make you happy, and you try to get what you need because not having it will make you unhappy.   But people who lack something they desire are not necessarily unhappy, and people who obtain something they need are not necessarily happy.

C.S. Lewis made the distinction in (I think) An Experiment in Criticism between creative fantasy and morbid fantasy.  Morbid fantasy is mere wish-fulfillment.  Pornography is not the only thing that feeds morbid fantasy.  Creative fantasy calls upon the fantasist to exercise powers of imagination and creativity.  It is the impulse to invent and embellish things that never existed.  Challenging computer games, such as World of Warcraft or Civilization, are more than wish-fulfillment.  They challenge the player’s intellectual and creative powers, although within the limits of the game designer’s rules.

I do not participate in the gaming world, not because I scorn it but because other interests take up my limited time, energy and brainpower.  Arguably playing a game in which you have to use your ingenuity to score points is a less passive pastime than me sitting on my sofa reading a book.

Pure addictiveness cancels out pleasure.  The demon in The Screwtape Letters says the ultimate success in damnation is to trap a person into compulsively doing something without enjoying it.   When I think about this, I recall how I used to come home tired from work, turn on the TV set, flip through the channels without finding anything I wanted to watch, but then still in a half-stupor flipping through the channels instead of going to bed.  Later I felt the same kind of compulsiveness in going through my blog menu.  This is different from looking forward to watching a favorite TV program or reading a favorite blogger because it is interesting and pleasurable.

I think very few people are capable of living lives of Buddhist detachment.  I think it is a good thing, not a bad thing, to have something in your life which you love and to which you can devote yourself, and it is possible to find such things on the Internet.  It is a problem when you reach the point where you no longer love the object of your devotion, but in fact find yourself unable to tear yourself away from it.  I realize this is not a good answer.

Click on Resist Virtual Reality Addiction for “Frost’s” full post on his Freedom Twenty Five web log.

Click on How to Read for more from “Frost.”

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for thoughts of entrepreneur-essayist Paul Graham.

Click on Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” for a book review by Jason W. Ellis of the Science Fiction Research Association.

Click on Neal Stephenson – Snow Crash for a book review on the complete review web site.

Click on Walter Jon Williams’ This Is Not a Game for a book review by Jo Walton on the Tor publishing web site.

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