How the "virtually" in "Virtual Reality" gives away the game

December 15, 2021

So David Chalmers, who’s always struck me as more clever than thoughtful, is about to come out with a new book arguing for the advantages of virtual reality.  There’s an interview with him that gets at some dimensions of his thought.


This moment in the interview passed by without much reflection; Chalmers says:

“I would also point out there’s a whole lot of people out there who are going to be able to find new kinds of meaning from virtual worlds who may well be restricted in various ways from their access to the physical world. Whether it’s disabled people or people in oppressed societies.”

The idea that virtual reality would be good because it would be a way for people in “oppressed societies” to escape is right out of a vulgar Marxist reading of religion.  (I’m not sure what I think about his appeal to “disabled” people, except that disability seems here very much a matter of degree not of kind.)  In a way, VR is offered here as an alternative to political struggle.  It gets at the idea that creating this would could be fundamentally an escape.  It reminds me of Arendt at the beginning of The Human Condition and her thoughts about the response, among many people, to Sputnik—at last, we can flee this world.  She wondered: why do we want to do that?


Here there’s an even more direct response.  In his wonderful if very quirky book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier, who is someone who is not without thoughtfulness on this, says the following:

“When my friends and I built the first virtual reality machines, the whole point was to make this world more creative, expressive, empathic, and interesting. It was not to escape it.” (p. 33)

This is what concerns me: a world in which we lose reality, and lose even the ability, not just theoretically but also sensorially, to lose reality.  But then again, I don’t think we will lose this sensorial reality before we convince ourselves that we can lose it.  Our intellects will be corrupted before our nerve endings will be.


Alternatively another genre helps us here--oddly, modern poetry, which is not normally where one looks for theoretical grappling with reality.  But occasionally peaks of luminosity appear above the surface, like Pacific islands that are merely the tips of giant underwater volcanoes.  So let me leave it here, in its gnomic obscurity, for those, as it were, who have ears to hear, or who will grow them eventually.  In "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror," one of the greatest long poems of the twentieth century, John Ashbery talks about “the ‘it was all a dream’ / Syndrome, though the ‘all’ tells tersely / Enough how it wasn't."   Here's the larger context, underscoring the necessity and difficulty of reality:

Therefore I beseech you, withdraw that hand,
Offer it no longer as shield or greeting,
The shield of a greeting, Francesco:
There is room for one bullet in the chamber:
Our looking through the wrong end
Of the telescope as you fall back at a speed
Faster than that of light to flatten ultimately
Among the features of the room, an invitation
Never mailed, the “it was all a dream”
Syndrome, though the “all” tells tersely
Enough how it wasn’t. Its existence
Was real, though troubled, and the ache
Of this waking dream can never drown out
The diagram still sketched on the wind,
Chosen, meant for me and materialized
In the disguising radiance of my room.


Be well, everyone, and accept that the several radiances of our world, however disguised they may be, however troubled, are--to be terse--real.  


Live in the world.  Each of those four words is vitally important, in that last sentence.