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Is Virtual Reality a Threat to Society?

by Beth Divine 10 Oct 2018

You would think that by now – some thirty years after its first inception and incarnation – that virtual reality would be on its way to becoming old hat, accepted and acknowledged as an interesting way to interact, game, and watch movies. But it is not.

This might be because after the earliest prototypes, that required huge amounts of space for the whole-body harness, and that required the user to put on a full, heavy suit, virtual reality was packed away for a while. While there were undoubtedly people working on the concept on and off during that time, it is only relatively recently that virtual reality was able to be miniaturised enough that it became a feasible medium for viewing. In fact, it is possibly because of that long period of dormancy that there are still fears and worries about virtual reality technology.

But the concept of virtual reality was left floating in cyber space where it triggered the imagination of sci-fi writers and producers. As writers do, they imagine the best case scenarios and the worst case scenario, with the latter often being the most fruitful as regards drama. Good drama relies on conflict, and there is little conflict in a world where everything works well and there are no concerns…

So, we have had twenty-five to thirty years of concerns over how people might get lost inside cyber space, starving to death in real life, voluntarily chained to their computer, while in the virtual world they feast, and dance, and socialise with dashing, good-looking people who offer nothing in the way of threat or menace, unlike strangers in the real world. Other concerns revolve around the notion of people being to upload themselves to the internet, where they will never age and never die. They will also never feel pain again, these fictions posit, and nor will they feel love. This means – almost inevitably in these stories – that the disembodied consciousnesses (reduced, in many cases, to little more than a software glitch or computer virus) are free to travel along electrical lines, activating telephones, appearing on televisions and hacking major corporations and financial institutions, wreaking havoc and destruction for no discernible reason.

These fears are returning, as seen in a couple of recent productions: Netflix’s ‘Kiss Me First’ features teens slumped unmovingly in front of their computer screens, while they cavort joyously in an imaginary world with others just like them. It seems strange that Netflix, normally quick to embrace any positive new technologies that come along, has put virtual reality under the microscope in such a negative way – perhaps the writer and director haven’t experienced modern VR for themselves, and are still operating under those old and mostly disproven fears from the late 80s and 90s?