The Promise of Virtual Reality
by Gareth Sénèque
“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”
– William Gibson, Neuromancer
Two levels of promise, a reality abstracted from itself, a place occupied by the new children of the future. This is the VR we will soon have. Think black goggles strapped to the faces of a billion users, the stuff of modern legend and twentieth-century cyberpunk, coming to an Oculus Rift near you.
We’re living in a curious time, that just-before moment where the incredible outline of a genuinely new thing appears on our collective horizon but refuses to reveal itself completely, dock and take passengers. It may be that we’re a few months or even a year away from the first consumer iteration of Oculus’ headset, but there is no gun-jumping going on here. This tech is a big deal, and those who’ve used it Understand. Each visitor to whom I attach my Rift DevKit 1 has a pornographically good time. During the virtual rollercoaster demo, a friend managed to actually headbutt the keyboard when trying to duck under an oncoming obstacle.
Why am I writing this? Why should you keep reading? What is there that’s new to be said? My central contention is this: the Rift, and more generally VR has the potential to change everything, but nothing will change unless we change. The standard critique offers us little more than a convenient distraction – we will not be changed by VR, nor will we lose ourselves in it. Rather, if we fall prey to our own inattention we will play the same games, in the same way, writ large on the invisible walls of cyberspace.
So, VR is an opportunity not an agent of change itself. This opportunity will have two main variables: the information that creates and is created by VR, and the law by which we order it.
Facebook buying Oculus is ominous not because we will have virtual walls and virtual Instagram and virtual Farmville, but rather because we will have a platform in which the tendencies already present in each of us can all be expressed in new ways that will briefly capture the novelty of fresh sensation. These tendencies existed before Facebook and in the first few years after 2004 we fumbled around trying to make sense of how to act out in this new place. Smash-cut and it’s 2014 and Facebook is a 2D mirror of reality – ads, babies, boobs, blokes and personality disorders aired like the dirty laundry of Selfhood. And now we have one platform evolving both adjacent to and out of another: VR.
There is of course nothing revelatory in the observation that we make our mediums rather than the other way around. After all, a platform is an inert thing – Facebook’s servers run cycles with or without us, but we provide the input. A medium may be a filter but is certainly not an abstract device capable of transmutation.
I return then to my opening sentence, that VR will be a reality abstracted from itself. If a new medium is an expression of our existing reality passed through a filter, then a medium that attempts to simulate reality – if it succeeds – will do just that, to one order of abstraction. Person –> Oculus –> VRPerson. What differs with VR is the method by which we order and control that reality.
If you’ll permit me a moment of ghetto metaphysics, right now it is God/Grand_Cosmonaut –> Reality. Soon it will be God/Grand_Cosmonaut –> Reality –> Us –> VReality. All this talk of ‘designing experiences’ is literally true — we will define the material constraints of our new space. We can program new laws of physics, transcend mortality, accelerate the perception of time, compress and transform information into giant towers of data that mean so much more than text on a screen.
So what does ‘we must change’ mean? Some vague attempt at altruistic prophecy? No, having the ability to recode what it means to be alive in a space is the opportunity for direct intervention. Dreams of equality? Dream no more! Alternative systems of regulation and governance flat as the pages they were printed on? Run them, run them through the simulation and let them iterate, be iterated. The results may offer hope or terror, but it sure beats waiting for History and the mechanism of attrition that currently leaves billions undereducated, hungry and bored.
It is difficult to talk about ‘information’ and ‘data’ as separate things. These words have a fixed meaning in our language, sure, but are also subject to a kind of definitional flux that is itself a symptom of the rate of technological change. Of course, information is data. Break it down a bit further – metadata, JPEGs, biometric information, a painting – these things share a common DNA. They are all expressive abstractions, human output, and are distinguished by different kinds of intentionality (I took this photo, this data was picked up by a sensor, my hand held a paintbrush that moved causelessly, work of a Divine mind) and the medium by which they are transmitted.
Using ‘information’ more narrowly for now, how do we parse all the new essays and novels and bits and pieces of art and technical descriptions of new systems that rise and fall with late capitalism’s ebb and flow? In VR, we recode the method of its representation. No longer will we be restricted to vast databases and keyword indices and attempts at GUIficicaton (though of course these things will exist), but rather throw a layer of visual abstraction on them, map the webs of connection and help us to see, help us to feel. Haptic feedback? Something beyond that being assembled in a lab in California? I want to touch my data. The term ‘digital manipulation’ will no longer mean photoshopping some citizen’s eyes but instead refer to the nimble-fingered precession of a cluster of information tethered to concepts as they’re defined in our language and in the relationships they’ve formed out there in the wilderness of culture.
VR will also give us a new kind of information. Currently, some distance exists between our thoughts and our data. ‘Some’, sure, but the initial transmission of this data is mediated by a keyboard/mouse and many layers of varyingly-intuitive UI. This mediation impacts data quality and distorts whatever truths data science might hope to derive about Citizen X. Shorten that distance, remove the layer of mediation, capture everything, and you potentially have the beating of a human head and heart as an interchangeable master and servant of immense new Amazonian-sized decision trees of data. This is the logical end-point of every bit of Fitbit-related optimism currently struggling for relevance beyond the initial thrill of purchase..
Much has been written about privacy (and its decline) elsewhere, and my aim isn’t to rally for/against (or even attempt a stable definition of the word), but instead to suggest that soon we’ll have a missing piece of the puzzle that may help us understand the apparent contradiction between caring about privacy and sharing large amounts of personal information.
We have perhaps lived through two parts of a dialectical process. That is to say, privacy by caveman default and social media’s release of pent-up tension (together with our friends in intelligence agencies everywhere smiling and prying). Many have romanticised the former, and assessed uncomprehendingly the latter: “Why do we choose to share to much, to give these companies our data, it wasn’t always this way and we were fine.”
It seems that VR will give us the third and final part of this process. In short, all the data we’ve ever given over will be middlewared into VR and you’ll be walking around observing in sheer wonder at all these new things to play with and some sort of textured wireframe mock-person will slide up next to you and ask “DID YOU KNOW THERE ARE SINGLE GIRLS IN YOUR AREA LOOKING FOR BUTTSEKS?” or, perhaps more seriously, “Are you feeling okay? I’m sorry that you’re missing your boyfriend, I know he’s far away and that you haven’t spoken in ages, but you don’t have to feel like this. I’m from Pfizer, and I have a proposal for you”.
Wait – let me attempt to turn the volume up on this idea: you follow what passes for a link or exit and find yourself in a bright room feeling borderline euthanised but utterly content. This room has been coded to exploit ‘presence’ – the sense of being somewhere else that the guys at Oculus are working to deliver. Some hitherto irrelevant quirk of the optic nerve is stimulated just right and now you’ve already bought that which is being sold. Having tasted the carrot before being beckoned to chase it, you may gladly hand over your hard earned and only realise later that something untoward has happened. Or worse, you never realise.
In the first example I suspect that the advertisee will feel the cold terror of a violated boundary. Intrusion will be felt and not just the warning of another article decrying the loss of privacy in the information age. Presence not with legs but teeth, teeth that may turn apathy into anger. Of course, when something like the second example happens…
I’m sure this has all occurred to someone at Oculus, that someone is working on these problems. Maybe this is the inevitable tension between an open/closed platform, between a garden with walls and a jungle. VR just happens to make the stakes rather high.
Old information, new information, data. These things will define two eras of VR, distinguished how they’re used to design the experience. The first will be a VR informed by the data which makes it in from what we’ve (and They’ve) collected already. The second era will be a VR defined by the data of its participants – every movement and choice and exhibited preference and the collective interpretation of these (and more) variables fed into near-future algorithms.
Information/data, control – these are just two important parts of a much bigger picture. Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus has been explicit about the intentional creation of a billion-user Metaverse. Of course, however, the Metaverse will be but one component of VR. It will be a sanctioned playground within the Matrix. There will be other places too, for where else might the stereotypical Russian carders and armed ideologues play? You’ll take a wrong turn, open your eyes– gaunt supermodels tending fields of data in the dark, their sweaty human avatars gurning quietly in a worn office chair, flock of Gibson’s nihilistic technofetishists in an abandoned school with blown out windows and power provided by a glittering tokamak stolen from the ITER. And not twelve zeros and three ones away, a nearby sidereel reality, some young French girl will come online and know herself for the first time.
By opening with that quote of Gibson’s I’m not merely lifting one of sci-fi’s greatest lines for the sake of a nod toward the prophecy of art. The thing on the horizon is coming into port and the sky above us is yet to resolve into order. As long as we look up and see white noise, we have the chance to be architects and not automata.
So, the Nietszchian abyss we’ve been gazing into for one-hundred-and-twenty-eight Godless years is in fact a small screen three centimetres from our eyes. It is everything..anything we want it to be. Let’s build something different, be different in what we build. For ourselves and everyone to come.