Most VR Is Total Bullshit

How tech companies turned an instrument of human potential into one of exploitation

A visitor plays with a virtual reality VR set at Sony’s PlayStation brand booth during the Ani-Com & Games event in Hong Kong. Photo: SOPA Images/Getty Images

“This is going to change everything,” Timothy Leary told me as he took off his bulky headset and pulled an electronic glove from his right hand. It was the early 1990s, at a rave club in San Francisco. The famed psychologist and popularizer of psychedelic drugs had ventured into virtual reality for the first time, and he was reeling. At last, a technology capable of taking humanity to the next stage of consciousness and communication.

In those early days, virtual reality was respected. Feared, even. Full immersion was a portal to the great unknown — a reality that could become indistinguishable from real life, and maybe swallow you up. Experiencing virtual reality (VR) was to going online like what LSD was to smoking marijuana: the full on, total experience of digital autonomy. Liftoff. But VR in those days wasn’t about immersion so much as expression. We imagined creating simulations of our dreams for others to experience; expressing ourselves to our friends with no words at all; or constructing worlds with completely different rules through which we could model new social norms.

If the current iteration of virtual and augmented reality really does take off this time, I fear it will be as an entertainment, yet another diversion from the supposedly untenable reality of being human. The technology companies leading the charge seem eager to leave that dangerous, creative potential of VR behind, making it less about what people might do with such powerful tools, and more about what they — and other corporate brands — can do to us or sell us, once we’ve jacked in to a reality they control. Less like the fulfillment of the internet’s great democratic promise, and more like the final stage of television.

We are using the ultimate reality-programming device to program ourselves.

Make no mistake, there really was a time when the context around virtual reality was countercultural and psychedelic. The only place you could really find out about it was in alternative culture magazines (yes, print magazines) like Mondo 2000 — voice of the “cyberdelic” renaissance. And this same divide between the technology’s creative and commercial potentials was already at play.

In the Bay Area, there were two main personalities behind VR. Jaron Lanier was considered the more corporate player (in spite of the dreadlocks), simply because he could talk about developing VR for applied purposes like architecture. And then there was Eric Gullichsen, a psychedelic explorer and good friend of Leary’s who hung out at the “Mondo House” (the Victorian mansion in Berkeley where Mondo 2000’s editors lived and cavorted with their subjects) and made his own version of VR called Sense8.

Sure, Jaron’s VR workstations could render faster and at greater resolution, but there was something special about Eric’s rig. It was crude, sometimes duct-taped together, and consisted mostly of simple goggles and a billiard ball to navigate. It was small and cheap enough that he could bring it over to the Mondo House and everyone there (sometimes including me) could try it out, moving around and creating things. Visually, his virtual world was about as complicated as Asteroids, but you were really there. It felt like an opening to something truly infinite.

VR, in those early days, seemed like the gateway drug for a whole new way of engaging with life. It would be a technology for enacting what science fiction author William Gibson called “the consensual hallucination” — a shared space conjured up by the thoughts of everyone within it. We called it “virtual reality” because we truly saw it as a test run for virtual reality.

We cyberpunks actually believed — and maybe we all still should — that this ability to collectively dream things into existence could be learned and practiced in real life.

Like other early digital technologies, VR suggested that we could build a world where pretty much anything one imagined could be realized. As I chronicled in my book about that period, Silicon Valley firms had trouble finding employees who could handle the implications of programming new worlds. They began to seek out users of psychedelics, warning employees about upcoming drug tests, and giving them more latitude in dress and hours than corporations were accustomed to granting staffers back then. They needed the “heads,” as they were called, because aside from children, who were also open-minded enough to be great computer hackers, these were the only people comfortable with hallucinating things into reality. And I don’t mean this metaphorically. We cyberpunks actually believed — and maybe we all still should — that this ability to collectively dream things into existence could be learned and practiced in real life.

So when Leary slipped on the VR goggles at that rave in San Francisco, it felt as if two worlds were coming together, perfectly and inevitably. Meanwhile, a crowd had gathered around several large monitors to see what the counterculture legend would do in there. A showman, he was up to the challenge. We saw him move through the virtual spaces, engage with a torus (think of a geometric donut), and shatter a few walls. Leary would “ooh” and the crowd would “aahh” as if watching over his shoulder. He was playing the roles of both explorer and carnival barker — Christopher Columbus meets P.T. Barnum.

When the show was over, though, he got serious. “I was wrong about space migration,” he told me, referring to his book Exo-Psychology. “Humanity is not going to migrate into outer space. We’re going in there. That’s what’s next. It’s digital acid.”

Terence McKenna, the ethnobotanist and entheogen trailblazer, was similarly intrigued. He used to tell me that virtual technologies would someday soon allow humanity to rebirth itself into a new reality, “to get to the place where information can detach itself from the material matrix,” as he told me in a 1991 interview, “and then look back on a cast-off mode of being as it rises into a higher dimension.” He believed that, thanks to VR, we would eventually be able to migrate out of bodily and temporal existence, becoming something like the “machine elves” people sometimes see on a DMT trip, at once inhabiting the environment and creating it. He spoke about how squid communicate by dancing and spraying ink. “In virtual reality, Douglas, you will literally be able to see what I mean.”

“Humanity is not going to migrate into outer space,” Timothy Leary declared after trying VR. “We’re going in there. That’s what’s next. It’s digital acid.”

Of course, the regular world still didn’t even know cyberspace was a thing. This was back in the days when even the notion of ubiquitous personal computers seemed far-fetched. I took it as my personal responsibility to explain virtual reality to the world, and to make sure they understood it would soon change everything. I even made it onto Larry King Live. I felt like a herald of the inevitable cyberfuture.

Alas, we in the cyberdelic fringe were too confident that our understanding of the net and virtual reality would become universal. As Leary used to say about an acid trip, one’s “set and setting” — by which he meant one’s mindset and context — determined the journey. By the early 1990s, Wired magazine came along and gave the new technology a completely different set and setting — reframing the digital revolution as a market phenomenon. VR headsets were among the most popular “gadgets” featured in the front of the book. Once the right one caught on, the editors were convinced, VR would replace TV and the telephone as America’s primary communication and entertainment interface. Far from threatening the foundations of capitalism, digital and immersive technologies would be the catalyst for a “long boom” of infinite, exponential growth.

No wonder, 25 years later, we are all in the midst of a bad trip characterized less by imagination and creativity than surveillance, control, and extractive corporate capitalism.

The VR revival seems fixated on augmented reality, where instead of going into a whole new world, we see imagery superimposed over this one. It is a marketer’s dream technology: novel enough to be interesting, grounded enough to prevent true exploration, and perfectly suited to the task of labeling every object in the world with a price tag.

The current VR hype doesn’t offer us access to new worlds so much as new ways to package consumer entertainment. It’s Facebook’s Oculus Rift, gaming, movies, Bible stories, and of course porn. Most VR today is little more than 360-degree video, a slightly more immersive version of business as usual. This non-interactive entertainment is to real interactive VR what Game of Thrones is to Dungeons and Dragons or Windows is to the command line. The fact that the technology has become easier to navigate and more lavishly rendered is hardly a consolation prize. It’s a prison.

It’s a paralyzing, sensory overload reminiscent of the Gruen transfer people experience when entering a shopping mall. The high ceilings and confusing architecture make customers forget their original intentions, and become more susceptible to impulse purchases or overt manipulation.

That’s why when I listen to developers talking about even their most ethical, well-intended applications of immersive VR, I often come away troubled. They say things like “this Syria immersion will make people feel more compassion for victims of war.” Or, “this climate simulation will force people to respond to the global crisis.” The users are the objects being acted upon. The VR is just a platform for propaganda. Once you’re employing technology to get people to do something, you’re back in television land.

Enthusiasts love to cite studies indicating that VR can help make people more empathetic than older media. The idea here is that putting on goggles and seeing the world through the eyes of, say, a homeless person will inspire more action than simply seeing the suffering person in a photo or on TV. It matters more if it feels like the bad stuff is happening to us. If true, that’s a sad commentary on our ability to empathize with someone else’s hardships. Besides, the same sorts of empathy claims were made about TV in the 1950s, and remained true only as long as TV was a novelty medium.

People raised with these virtual worlds at their disposal will come to prefer them to reality, anyway, just as they are coming to prefer porn to the messiness of sex.

VR does appear to have value in medical or therapeutic contexts. I’m glad we have virtual experiences that can help retrain an obese person to eat less. Gulf War veterans suffering from PTSD have benefited from VR that recreates the conditions of their trauma. But we mustn’t fool ourselves into believing that these applications are delivering the Promethean power of digital fire to the masses. They turn their users into the passive recipients of content, rather than the active constructors of a reality.

And so the race is on to build a VR landscape of, say, the Serengeti, where the animals and savanna look as authentic as they do in Disney’s new CGI version of The Lion King. Never mind the climate crisis threatening the real savannah. People raised with these virtual worlds at their disposal will come to prefer them to reality, anyway, just as they are coming to prefer porn to the messiness of sex. And as members of the Frankfurt School tried to warn us, once a culture prefers the simulacrum to the world, fascism can’t be far behind.

No, the true promise of VR, or any new medium, rests in its ability to help us ask new questions — to challenge realities rather than reinforce them. Some decidedly less celebrated VR practitioners are still pushing in this direction. Not surprisingly, the experiences they’re offering don’t require a whole lot of technology. Amelia Winger-Bearskin and Sarah Rothberg, for example, built a simple piece for the Oculus Rift called Your Hands Are Your Feet that makes your hands look and act like your feet. That may not sound like much — not compared with 360-degree renderings of entire landscapes — but it’s a deep, “proprioceptive” challenge that changes the way you think about your body.

Similarly, Genderswap by The Machine to Be Another, challenges your experience of gender. You sit, clothed or naked, in VR gear, connected to someone of a different gender. So when you look down at, or touch, your body, you see the other person’s being touched instead.

Some developers are even working to realize Terence McKenna’s vision of total, squid-worthy communication in VR. The Meu messenger platform by Radix Motion, lets people depict their emotions through body movements that translate into explosive imagery, haptics, vibrations, or sound.

Even a VR application as simple as Google’s Tilt Brush (basically, MacPaint in VR) lets users create virtual worlds around themselves. This is a more fundamentally advanced experience of technology than wandering around in the latest hi-res 3D futuristic dystopia.

By focusing on immersive simulation over active creation, most virtual reality technologies undermine the innate human abilities that they could be fostering. “It is worth pointing out that we have been making virtual realities for a very, very long time,” Terence McKenna reminded us at the dawn of VR. “When you sit the children down around the fire and begin to tell the old, old stories and pictures rise out of the flames — that is virtual reality.”

We must use technology to stoke those collaboratively creative flames, instead of extinguishing them.

Author of Team Human, Present Shock, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, Program or Be Programmed, and host of the Team Human podcast http://teamhuman.fm

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