Virtual Reality vs. the Apocalypse


Seattle skyline from 45th Street overpass, August 4, 12:15 pm

Wildfires in British Columbia have blanketed Seattle in a haze the color of nicotine on the hottest week of the year. The irony being that it would be a lot hotter if this persistent cloud of particulates weren’t hovering over Puget Sound. It’s Seafair weekend, which means our annual visit from the Blue Angels, those fighter jets that scrape the atmosphere, terrifying animals and triggering PTSD in survivors of war zones. The national news is in full clown mode, sowing xenophobia, rolling back enironmental policy, getting a little too casual for comfort with the idea of deploying nukes. As someone who has imagined apocalyptic scenarios before, this convergence of troubling signs has me wondering if virtual reality has arrived to save the world.

The New York Times recently ran an installment in their series of stories about a group of scientists, stationed on a remote base in Hawaii, who are studying how to live in isolation on Mars. This episode explores how these researchers are using VR to combat the cabin fever.

I wonder if framing VR as an entertainment medium or new investment sector sells this technology short. It’s when we consider VR’s profound therapeutic and empathetic properties, and understand these properties as intrinsic to VR as an art form as well as a therapy, that things get interesting.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about storytelling, a term that gets thrown around a lot when talking about virtual reality’s potential. On a purely practical level, what is it that stories actually do? What are they really for? I happen to think that stories are a practical way to train ourselves to solve problems.

Leaving aside the experimental modes of storytelling that are exceptions that prove the rule, every story is a set of problems. I often think of stories as the bomb disposal facilities of society. Within a story, we can explore all sorts of transgressive behavior without actually hurting anybody. We can engage in violence, imagine sexual experiences we wouldn’t ever have in real life, and pursue altered states of consciousness (of which reading itself is one). The storyteller’s medium is the reader’s imagination, our psychological training ground for confronting the challenges of our lives.

I wonder if the structure of virtual reality, its capacity to engage feelings of presence and empathy, has arrived as a solution to one of the greatest problems of our era, the dissassociation of our human community. We have never felt as alienated from one another, with common ground being eroded from under our feet by competing versions of reality. Just as it was demonstrated in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, hot days tend to make us crazier, and every summer feels a little nuttier than the last. Just as we’re anxious for a reprieve from the physical heat, so too do we yearn for a reprieve from the heat of human discourse.

I have faith that we’re going to engineer our way out of the climate crisis, but not before we endure a wave of suffering the likes of which human civilization has never seen. We have the intellectual capacity to figure our way out of this labyrinth, the collective neocortex of the human race having brought us to a point where we can teach machines themselves to think. Our collective rationality is in a battle with the collective midbrain and limbic systems, our earlier, more foundational emotional and fight or flight centers that warn us to fear one another.

And in the midst of this crisis, along comes a medium that invites us to experience the pain of the other, to interact as avatars disassociated from our tribal, physiology-based identities. And to do this while closing ourselves off, locking ourselves away in base stations on remote volcanoes, retreating back into our caves.

When I read news of the ups and downs of the VR market and whether or not some new company is going to get another round of funding, I get the feeling that a far more profound process is at play, beyond the fickle play-by-play of capitalism, more on the level of the agricultural or industrial revolutions. The problems that are coming toward us are gigantic. It remains to be seen whether the solutions to these problems will be up to the task. I have an inkling that some of the solutions will emerge in immersion.

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