Photo: PexelsM-Theory: Pondering the actual reality of a virtual world Melanie Baker May 25, 2017 Columns, Featured, M-Theory Did you know there’s a permanent virtual reality demo setup at the Kitchener Public Library? Any time the library is open you can book a half-hour slot. I take my nieces to play with it regularly. Highly recommended. We’ve explored Earth and the oceans, massacred airborne fruit with swords, and currently they’re bizarrely obsessed with playing a convenience store clerk in a job simulator game. For decades, sci-fi has given us a glimpse of what virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) could be used for and how they might enhance (or control) our lives. There’s that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise and others are bombarded with personalized advertising and messaging once sensors identify them. Or, y’know, the entire premise behind The Matrix. I don’t know if VR is to a point yet where it can convincingly replace our mainstream reality as far as our brains are concerned. Mostly I just get nauseated. Research on therapeutic benefits of VR is promising, however, in treating physical and psychological issues ranging from PTSD to opioid addiction and chronic pain. It’s a new frontier: medicine that focuses on non-invasively manipulating the brain instead of immediately turning to drugs or surgery. After all, procedures like the transorbital lobotomy were still in use within the last half-century. I’ve also written before about a future without work, which has already become reality in a number of industries. The media tells us that white-collar office work is likely next. That’s a lot of people. Assuming some sort of universal basic income or other way of meeting people’s needs is adopted to prevent mass starvation, revolt, etc., what are people going to do once their basic needs are met, but when they’re no longer needed to work? As a species, humans don’t really do very well when they don’t have anything to do; especially something that gives them purpose. We’re not going to need Depression-era-esque works projects, and the world population keeps growing. That’s more unnecessary bodies and minds to deal with, not fewer. According to professor and author Yuval Noah Harari, that’s just where VR comes in. In that article in The Guardian, he proposes using video games and virtual reality as the new opiate of the masses. It makes some sense. Millions of people already dedicate a lot of time to recreational (or, for a few, occupational) video game playing. Whether you’re into shooting enemies or solving puzzles, there are games for you. Through much of history we have had leisure classes. But they’ve tended to be the few: the wealthy, powerful and elite, not the masses. What we have seen, though, is that society among such groups – and, frankly, any group that exists in isolation over time – gets, well… weird. They become highly structured, ritualized and exaggerated. They tend to be oppressive and restrictive to favour and maintain the power of a minority. Would a VR solution for the idle masses avoid this fate simply because it would be for the majority? Or would we just repeat history on the grandest-ever scale? One wonders as well: Would this work long-term? Sure, there have been occasional news stories since the turn of the millennium about people who’ve become addicted to World of Warcraft or who have died after marathon sessions of StarCraft. But presumably the idea here isn’t genocide by distraction. Most of us, even those who really love gaming, don’t do it all the time. And some of us have never really gotten into gaming at all, whether it’s immersive stories or a time waster on our phones. One would also think there are a lot of ethical questions that would need to be addressed. How do we keep immersed people healthy? The human body does need a certain amount of food, sleep and exercise. Like The Matrix, would we just be hooked up to wires and tubes all the time, with computers regulating our nutrition, elimination, sleep, entertainment and everything else? Or would we force people out of their virtual world and psychological cocoon several times a day to make them eat, go for a walk and get some fresh air? Makes you wonder, if someone spends most of his or her time happily immersed, would such a thing, considered mom wisdom for centuries, actually become an act of cruelty? Thinking more positively, what benefits or evolution could widespread VR use bring? How far could we advance storytelling? What depths or heights of immersion could we achieve? We can already trick the brain and our senses to some degree, and augmentation is still pretty primitive (Smell-o-vision, vibrating theatre seats…) Would those who can craft such mind-blowing experiences become the demigods of the virtual class? Would we shift from deifying and obsessing over celebrities, musicians and athletes to lauding the most skillful weavers of tales and immersive experiences? Interestingly, though, I can only think of sci-fi that delves into genetic modification that fixes or improves physical or intellectual traits. I wonder how we’d go about programming people for creativity and imagination. Think of how many people it takes to make a movie. Now imagine all those skills in a single mind. What about those who don’t get to live in a VR world? Perhaps eventually we can all go live there and let machines run the physical world 100 per cent. But for some time, at least, some people will need to continue to work, to run things. Who decides? Will they become a separate or underclass, the fullest realization of working class? If that went on long enough, would humanity eventually evolve into two separate species? Those who still need their physical bodies and standard senses to do the work, and those who (for now) still technically exist in physical form, but whose entire existence and reality are virtual? Red pill or blue pill? I’ll let you decide. M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached @melle or firstname.lastname@example.org.