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Dystopia, Brought to You By...

In our “VR-first future,” the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

*** SPOILER ALERT: This article contains plot information related to the book “Ready Player One.” If you have not read the book and do not wish your experience spoiled, please return to this link when you're ready (Player One). ***

My friend Alvin Wang Graylin, China Regional President of HTC Vive, recently authored a thoughtful op-ed piece entitled, "Real world lessons for the VR-First future: An industry insider’s analysis of 'Ready Player One,'" the English version of which is published on technode.

As Alvin observes, Ernest Cline's best-selling book, “Ready Player One,” is an insightful fictional take on our virtual reality future, and recommended reading for pretty much everyone, irrespective of your current interest (or lack thereof) in VR. “Ready Player One” imaginatively portrays the transformative possibilities of virtual reality across every aspect of our lives. The book also vividly illustrates the dystopian consequences that may arise from the neglect of actual reality in the embrace of virtual reality. At its core, “Ready Player One” is a cautionary tale of the consequences of immersive escapism in the face of increasing ecological crisis, economic disparity and socio-political disintegration.

I've given Alvin plenty of well-intentioned ribbing regarding HTC's ongoing use of “Ready Player One’s” sandblasted mobile home stacks as a backdrop for their presentations on the "VR-first future." Mobile home stacks are, to put it mildly, a bad ad: suitable for the poster image of VR contrarian / convert(?) Steven Spielberg's forthcoming “Ready Player One” film adaptation, but questionable as consumer enticement for a VR hardware manufacturer. Imagine a surfboard company advertising with a JAWS poster. ;-)

If, as maintained in the technode op-ed piece, "’Ready Player One’ will do for VR what Avatar did for 3D in general awareness," the question naturally follows: "Does this awareness make the general public more or less favorably inclined towards VR?" In other words, is this "VR-first future" a future you want to live in? The hero of “Ready Player One” provides a succinct answer: "For me, growing up as a human being on the planet Earth in the twenty-first century was a real kick in the teeth." His explanation doesn't get any more complimentary from there.

The global energy crisis, wars, social calamities and ecological disasters which characterize daily life in “Ready Player One” aren't caused by VR technology, but they are facilitated and exacerbated by it. Not only does technological saturation deplete the world's resources, but VR escapism provides an easy alternative to real-world problem-solving: a new "opiate of the masses."

I came away from “Ready Player One” with three thoughts…

  1. Social-economic disparities will not only persist, but will proliferate in a VR-fueled future.
  2. VR technology will be the ultimate "opiate of the masses," and serve as a perpetual surveillance state.
  3. Experiences free of technological mediation and artifice will become rarer, more valuable and more desirable.

In order to expound upon those further, I've taken the liberty of referencing Alvin's "16 Key Takeaways from ‘Ready Player One’" - which are thoughtful and thorough - as a framework for my own observations on our "VR-first future." In short, while I share Alvin's optimism on the pure potential of VR technology, I'm less optimistic about the actual application of the technology when human nature is accounted for. Without further ado, let's dig in.

"We will be more dependent on VR devices than we are our phones today"

I agree. AR/VR/MR glasses - in their mature technical and ergonomic form - will eventually relegate all phones, tablets, desktop PCs, TVs and movie screens to the trash heap of history. Something to plan for if you're in the consumer electronics business, and hope to stay in business.

"VR may play a bigger role in our future lives than AR"

I hope not, as this suggests we'll spend more time with actual reality tuned out. I agree with Alvin that augmented reality and virtual reality technologies will gradually converge into flexible mixed reality devices. But I hope that engagement with earth's environment is meaningful enough that we do not abandon it to hunker down in the equivalent of veal fattening pens with our HMDs permanently dialed to "virtual". While “Ready Player One” indeed cites VR applications almost exclusively, this is frankly due to the fact that in the book's "VR-first future," reality bites. For a balanced future, I believe we should aspire to augmented reality, grounded in our continued stewardship of the earth.

"Network speeds and cloud computing capacity will be the key utility of the future"

For a handful of gamer camels, perhaps. ;-) For the rest of us, running water and electricity will always be our key utilities. You can survive without water longer than you can survive without air, you can survive without food longer than you can survive without water, and you can survive without the internet longer than pretty much everything else. Until you've successfully managed to upload your consciousness into the cloud and abandon your meat body, this will always be true.

"Everyone will be a gamer"

Yes, and everyone will be gamed. "Gamification" is a form of motivation when self-imposed, and a form of control when imposed by others (your school, your employer). For a satirically sobering look at how you'll be kept scrambling for rewards like a pet hamster, take a look at Hyper Reality by Keiichi Matsuda. The rules of the game won't be tipped in your favor.

"Virtual schools will democratize high-quality education to the world"

While I agree that high-quality education can be made universally accessible by VR technology, the reality is that it won't be. High-quality education can be made universally accessible today by internet technology, but it hasn't been - so why would we think that a more complex, more expensive technology will have a greater probability of democratizing education? High-quality services and opportunities have always come at a premium. Yes, the general population has more information at its disposal than at any other time in history (much of it of dubious veracity and value), but attending Harvard or Stanford in person is still a higher value proposition than accessing a few courses online. Post-graduate career success is often as much (or more) about who you meet than what you learn, and it remains to be seen if the anonymous teddy bear avatar "sitting next to you" in VR Economics 101 will have your back down the road.

"Remote work via VR will become the norm"

People previously said this about the internet. While remote work increased, it never became the norm for the simple reason that face time still has high business value (and also because most employers want to see your butt in their company-provided chair). Given that VR technology is already being used to provide remote workers with the simulation of a shared space, it's conceivable that VR-enabled remote work will become the norm. If so, we'll likely experience the "gig economy" on steroids: everyone will be a virtual itinerant. (In “Ready Player One,” the protagonist's mother had two full-time VR jobs: telemarketer and prostitute. Something to look forward to.)

"VR can erase race and gender inequality"

This is a warm, fuzzy idea that unfortunately won't happen. Blame human nature. "Tolerance" in “Ready Player One” comes in the form of an avatar-enabled "don't ask, don't tell" environment in which characters sequester their true sexes, races and physical appearances for fear of being judged. Prejudices and inequalities are still in full force. In any prospective personal or professional situation, you do your best to figure out whom you're dealing with. It's hard to imagine this instinct changing in our "VR-first future." We may even see new biases emerge against certain castes of avatars, IP addresses, etc. What we can hope for is that VR's potential as an "empathy machine" can facilitate a more enlightened understanding and appreciation of our differences, and serve as a light rather than a cloak.

"Gathering experiences and access will be more important than gathering wealth"

I agree that gathering experiences and access is conceptually more important than gathering wealth (I've lived my own life by this principle), but money (in whatever form of "currency") is conversely required to gather experiences and access. This is true in “Ready Player One’s” future (where premium virtual items and services all come at a premium price) as it is today. For proof positive, look no further than the experience of a no-cost Google Cardboard viewer versus that of a premium-priced HTC Vive headset. VR experiences, unless produced by altruistic non-profit AIs, will need to be monetized to compensate the creators for their time and effort. Premium VR experiences will always come at a premium price. In our "VR-first future," the only thing more costly than premium VR experiences may be rare, real-world experiences such as walking through an actual forest (assuming any remain).

"Virtual currency will become more relevant to our lives than traditional currency"

Given that I'm one of the few people in China still paying for things with paper money instead of with my phone, I must agree.

"A huge economy is coming for virtual goods and services"

Indeed - one poised to indulge our best and worst impulses, monetized to separate the virtual "haves" from the "have-nots," while encouraging the latter to aspire to the former in a familiar consumerist spiral. Related to my point about the value of real experiences, real goods and services will likewise become more rare and more valuable: status symbols for the privileged few.

"Home food delivery may become the most common way to eat"

I agree. Home delivery will also accelerate the environmental degradation of the earth due to over-packaged meals, groceries and goods. I already see this problem percolating here in China, the home-delivery capital of the world. Most daily conveniences are withdrawals from our children's environmental "bank accounts."

"VR platforms should put in safeguards for managing physical health into future systems"

I wholeheartedly agree. This won't be a simple matter of aerobic motion and resistance exercises, but also proper sunlight exposure for sufficient production of Vitamin D (or a pill if we can't be bothered with the sun anymore). Of course, consumers will probably expect (or hack) an override. It's worth noting that the pasty, pudgy protagonist on the “Ready Player One” book cover is more deconditioned than his "boy band-ish" incarnation in the Ready Player One movie poster. The film version of Wade is already an avatar of sorts.

"VR can make physical distance irrelevant in our daily lives"

Tech-mediated social interactions are employed for one of three reasons: 1) To bridge an unavoidable distance when the participants prefer to be together physically but can't; 2) To protect personal time / space when one or more of the participants prefers to keep the other(s) at a distance; 3) To make "friends" with people we have never met (and probably never will). With respect to reason #1, I believe that people in a relationship will usually choose to be together in person when given the chance. The granularity and fidelity of a VR interaction will never compare to the real thing. (As it currently stands, ads showing separated couples enjoying VR breakfasts "together" are disingenuous, given the absence of HMDs obscuring the dewy-eyed lovers' faces.) Regarding reason #2, VR may indeed provide a higher degree of artificial "closeness," satisfying the participants' desire to communicate within an unspoken comfort zone. Reason #3 opens a Pandora's Box of anonymity and deception: a mash-up of avatar-obscured people and bots. Does it matter if you don't know the true occupation, age, race or sex of your online "friend?” Does it matter if you don't know whether your online "friend" is a person or a machine? What will constitute a "relationship" in our "VR-first future?" People who attempt to "build deep friendships based on the substance of others’ souls and digital records of their lives" in anonymous VR relationships may court a fundamental existential crisis. At some point, I think you'll want to know who (or what) you're really communicating with. The only thing worse than being shocked by the revelation might be in never knowing.

"Privacy and data security will be critical to enable an acceptable VR-First future"

Yes, and there are some thorny problems. One is that no government wants privacy and data security for their citizens. Our leaders want to know who we are, where we are, what we're doing, with whom, and why. Another problem is that there are inevitably those who hold the "keys to the kingdom." Can they be trusted? Do we even know who "they" are? Are we more comfortable with humans or bots? The "security measures" implemented by governments and corporations will always come with the means to keep tabs on you, while providing the illusion of empowerment and anonymity (in “Ready Player One,” Parzival's true identity as Wade is quickly discovered when he becomes a problem for the powers-that-be). The "VR-first future" will be a perpetual surveillance state, right down to the twitches of your eyeballs.

"VR can reduce our ecological footprint to enable a more sustainable environment"

This notion is predicated upon the assumption that the additional environmental stress generated by the production and powering of our future VR tech will be offset by a reduction in the environmental stress generated by housing and travel needs as we voluntarily (or resignedly) sequester ourselves in tiny physical spaces. If living spaces shrink, what will be the difference between citizens in their VR-wired apartments and prisoners in their VR-wired cells? (Perhaps prisoners will be given high-latency headsets.) How will civic planning evolve? Will physical public places disappear? What will happen to the "unused" space? Who will own it and for what purpose? Will there be more grass or more concrete? What will be the fate of national parks and nature reserves? Will our neglected physical world sink into the turgid ecological and social morass of “Ready Player One” while we are preoccupied with the experience points of our avatars?

"Even in a virtual world of abundance, humans still have a need for a greater purpose"

It's questionable how "abundant" the virtual world will really be. The Chinese have a saying: 望梅止渴 (wàngméizhǐkě), "Looking at plums to quench thirst" (meaning to comfort oneself with illusions), and my two-year-old knows the difference between pretend cake and real cake. But for the sake of argument, let's assume that everyone will have virtual access to anything they could ever want. The result (then as now) will probably be disappointment and disillusionment, followed by depression. Deep down, most people indeed have a need for greater purpose beyond self-gratification.

In “Ready Player One,” our hero Wade opines: "To be honest, the future doesn’t look too bright. You were born at a pretty crappy time in history. And it looks like things are only gonna get worse from here on out. Human civilization is in decline. Some people even say it’s collapsing." But things are generally never as utopian or dystopian as we might imagine. As Alvin summarizes in his op-ed piece, the future is truly in our hands. But it's also true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The "VR-first future" is too important to be left to tech-obsessed engineers and gamers who are often either deaf to or disinterested in the larger societal implications of VR technology. In order for our virtual future to be a good one, people who currently have no interest in VR (but have an interest in our grandchildren and their grandchildren) must mindfully engage.

In the 1960's, computer graphics pioneer Ivan Sutherland demonstrated a massive "head-mounted" (suspended) VR display called the "Sword of Damocles," named after the story of King Damocles, who had a sword hanging over his head by the hair of a horse's tail. Sutherland's tongue-in-cheek adoption of the moniker can be construed not only as a reference to the weight of the hanging device, but also a reminder that with great power comes great responsibility. If there is just one lesson from “Ready Player One” for our "VR-first future," it is that.

Kevin Geiger's picture

Kevin is the author of AWN's Reality Bites blog, his musings on the art, technology and business of immersive media (AR, VR, MR) and AI. You can find Kevin's website at www.kevingeiger.com and he can be reached at holler@kevingeiger.com.

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