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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Virtual Reality

Regular readers of these posts will be familiar with my position on social media. What might have been a tool for improving communication and understanding has instead been weaponized (now there’s a term I never thought I would use) as an instrument of manipulation and divisive discourse. I do not blame the technology—it isn’t the first nor will it be the last we have found a way to pervert, but I am deeply concerned about the degree to which the technology, and by that I mean the Internet, has facilitated a retreat from reality.

The advent of what I would describe as an oxymoron, ‘Virtual Reality’ , portends a deeper flight from genuine human interaction to unreality; made up worlds operating by mores and rules that are expressly designed to avoid all the things we humans find difficult and problematic. We are already creatures of fantasy, personas reflecting our hidden inner demons, fetishes, fears and projections, with the ability to voice and express all of the repressed anger, lusts and dark fantasies that we would rarely if ever demonstrate in public in real world encounters. In the seeming safety of virtual reality there is little penalty for allowing our demons full reign.

Perhaps you think me naïve or a latter-day luddite. I assure you I have no quarrel with the idea of using the augmentation available to improve our lives. For instance, I whole- heartedly support the use of this technology to help surgeons visualize a difficult operation and rehearse procedures to perfect their skills. I can imagine dozens of similar applications for work and play that might be enhanced by the ability to visualize and mimic difficult, dangerous or unusual experiences in a safe and controlled manner. We already know that the technology won’t be confined to just positive applications.

But that isn’t what concerns me so—that damage is done already, and we cannot put the cat back in Shrodinger’s box so to speak. It is our increasing flight from the very real challenges we face today. Social media is a misnomer, we are less and less social every day—more isolated, more clannish and withdrawn from gritty reality. I get it—we want to escape from vexing problems and scalding headlines that screech with violence, oppression, contention and plague. But there is no relief from the issues that face us—certainly none we will find in a virtual world.

We can live our lives or pretend to live them—but we cannot have it both ways. If we disengage and increasingly remain in a virtualized reality—in a mindset of fantasy and masquerade, the world will go on without us and all of our problems will follow us there. When we emerge they will be worse than ever for our abandonment of effort to remediate what we have broken, and our deeper polarization. If we fail to seize the advantages that we might obtain from harnessing virtualization, artificial intelligence and other emerging tools we may risk the loss of technologies that could help us find ways to model viable solutions to our ills without costly risks to life, our planet, and our economy. But we do so at our peril, if we do not agree on the rules of engagement in advance. We are balanced on the knife's edge of emerging technological breakthrough or further catastrophe. Will we use it for good or ill?

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