Recently i watched Terry Gilliam’s latest movie – The Zero Theorem – something i’ve been waiting for with baited breath for quite some time. Apart from a somewhat lacklustre ending, (well i thought so, anyway), i thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was very much worth the wait – if there’s one thing Gilliam does well, it’s the whole lost soul wallowing in the confusion of a disturbing dystopia angle, and he very much delivered on that count.
You’re not going to get any spoilers, but i will let slip that the film involves a fascinating approach to solving complex problems through virtual modelling, as well as dabbling with full immersion virtual reality, and it’s this latter concept that – surprisingly perhaps – gives me a growing sense of unease, the more that i dwell on it.
Whether full VR ever makes it mainstream into our everyday lives is a difficult prediction to call – part of me thinks it’s inevitable, and will probably come to the fore via commercial applications that eventually worm their way into day-to-day activities; whilst another part of me feels that the complexities, challenges and downright awkwardness of immersive virtual reality make its potential mass market appeal a lot more limited than we might anticipate.
Maybe i’m being a little conservative in my forecast – others, far more knowledgeable than myself, and without the technological advantages that are becoming more familiar to us on a daily basis, have been far more positive in their appraisal of the potential of VR. So, perhaps my reticence lies with the technology itself – with so much emphasis on hardware like the Oculus Rift, or the focus on augmented reality, the field seems to have become far more narrowed than was being considered in less enlightened times. Snow crash had it’s optical interface; Otherland, direct neural implants, and Ready Player One, its haptic suits, (coming to think of it, gathering dust somewhere in 945 Battery Street, is the original Linden Lab haptic Rig too!) We could probably include The Matrix too, although i can’t really see analogue telephones and spikes into the back of the brain catching on any time soon! One of the major attractions of virtual reality worlds, planets and metaverses was the sheer variety of possible ways to engage with them… and nobody really knew what method, if any, was likely to ever become reality.
And that’s one of the things i liked about The Zero Theorem: without spoiling anything, there’s a range of different methods employed within it – some of which could well have been inspired by those i’ve mentioned – to access and manipulate the virtual environment. However, like much of what has been written, conceived and imagined about the future of the metaverse, there’s a dark side to it; and that, i suppose, is where my reservations really come into their own.
You may think it over-dramatic to be considering the ‘dark side’ of virtual reality, and if you’re thinking along the lines of some maleavolent, evil force stalking the multiverse, or even some all-powerful, secretive coalition of government and business: intent on bending the users of virtual worlds to their own subversive demands, then you’re probably right; but it’s not that angle that concerns me. What does worry me is how reliant and dependant upon – and possibly even subservient to – virtuality we might become, if technology was ever to progress to its logical conclusion.
To me, the prospect of being connected to the all-powerful .net in some manner through my virtual self, 24/7/365 is somewhat terrifying. A scenario in which i’m woken by my virtual alarm, to log into my virtual office, meet with virtual colleagues and clients, and then – when the day is done – spending the evening building, socialising, shopping and relaxing… all within the confines of some aspect of that same virtual environment is incredibly claustrophobic and worrisome, particularly since i can already do much of that right now, using everyday technology – i need never leave my house, or even my bed, to shop, socialise, work and be entertained. When virtual living, in one form or another, becomes more accessible and natural than real life, there’s something terribly wrong.
Of course, it’s never that simple – in fact, it gets worse: imagine a world where your household appliances are controlled by an inworld HUD – the kettle boils when you’re thirsty, the heating comes on when you’re cold and the only interruption is when the man delivering the pizza you ordered and paid for inworld turns up with your meal.
Thanks to your neural connector, advertisements – tailored to your thought processes – are fed to you relentlessly… the refrigerator takes over the grocery ordering when stocks run low and virtual vacations are suggested by holiday bots, based on your browsing habits, thought processes and past purchase history… “If you like Venice; you may enjoy Bruges!”
Horrifying though it appears, based on what we already know and have grown accustomed to, that scenario is far more likely than any dark force trying to control our minds through the virtual digisphere.
Most of us, i daresay, would love to see the virtual and real worlds more integrated, more connected and seamlessly woven together – for many of us, that would be heaven indeed – but i have a bad, bad feeling, that if current trends are any indication of what might be to come, it could indeed be hell!
I don’t care if it hurts
I want to have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul
Karen Souza – Creep