So far, so good. The problem with these books really appears toward the end of the works. There the authors somehow feel compelled to extensively predict how some particular aspect of digital technology will inevitably transform various aspects of our lives in drastic ways, some of which may enhance our lives and some of which may simply make things more complex, or more artificial, or more alienated than they already are. In most instances,
one is left thinking that writing the book got the authors so enmeshed in their own material that they literally ventured over the edge and into some great unknown by the end of the work. Maybe all these authors/editors need to do is just lop off the last 40 pages.
To show the typical trajectory of such books, let’s take a look at Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution by Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, and Jim Blascovish, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UC Santa Barbara.
First there’s the revolutionary thesis:
“We sit on the cusp of a new world fraught with astonishing possibility, potential, and peril as people shift from
face-to-face to virtual interaction. If by 'virtual' one means 'online,' then nearly a third of the world’s population is doing so already.”
Then they announce the intent of the book:
“In this book, we provide an account of how virtual reality is changing human nature, societies, and cultures as we know them. Our goal is to familiarize readers with the pros and cons of the brave new world in which we live. We explore notions of consciousness, perception, neuroscience, media technology, social interaction, and culture writ large, as they pertain to virtual reality—and vice versa.”
Blascovich and Bailenson are genuinely excited because they see a new frontier of opportunity for the behavioral sciences based on all the data that is becoming available through online social interactions. While the environment may be virtual, the behavior of the individuals is “real.” And virtual interactions can change individual behavior in the real world as well as people’s sense of themselves. Virtual experiences change how people make important decisions and how they react viscerally to real-life situations. Examples of studies and analyses of various data sets take up the majority of the volume and are meant to convince the reader that there is indeed a revolution underway.
Some of their narratives and analyses are quite interesting and could have some meaningful implications for understanding how and why humans behave in the ways that they do and how therapists can use virtual reality
software of various sorts, including explicitly targeted exercises and games, to help people change negative behavior patterns or improve their abilities or performance in some areas.
It’s in the final portion of the book, however, that the real problem arises. And it occurs in an area where so many technology writers get into hot water: Predicting the future. The authors paint a series of semi-plausible scenarios for various activities from market research to legal trial evidence to surgical training as well as physical therapy, airplane-pilot training, even virtual vacations. Some of these things are well on the way to becoming part of our lives (although I myself will probably resist virtual tourism to my dying day).
Then Bailenson and Blascovich take another small leap into the more distant future that really puts them over the edge. First they discuss the “promise” of avatars, which they say will become “perceptually indistinguishable” from their real counterparts. People will be able to automatically interact with their avatars without the need for hardware or even voice commands so that they may be unaware that they are actually incorporating an avatar into their body. It will be an experience akin to wearing contact lenses. The authors also posit that avatars will “walk among us” so that we might not even realize that the figure approaching us is actually an avatar. This kind of speculation seems to seduce the authors into a discussion of how avatars will change close relationships (which inevitably in such works always seems to devolve into a discussion of virtual sex).
Equally predictable and mundane are the applications of virtual reality to the domains of religion and education. A couple of examples are enough to illustrate how silly the claims about future can get:
On religion, the authors write that having a virtual reality experience of Moses parting of the Red Sea, including the ability to smell the flopping fishes would deepen our understanding of the miracle. Frankly I prefer the Charlton Heston version myself. (And in any event, the land is dry when the Israelites walk through the path, according to the Bible.)
On education, things are even worse when you consider that one of the authors is a psychologist: The authors envision a “virtual tutoring system that will combine virtual reality, nanotech, and artificial intelligence"
capabilities and provide the most complete educational experience anyone could hope for. The salient feature of this transition from “physical to digital” learning environments seems to be the elimination of the notably dull textbook with options such as movies and virtual reality programs. This means the children wouldn’t have to read anything at all—a great improvement, as any psychologist will tell you, for the development of the brain and for the
learning process itself.
With improvements such as these one can only hope that the virtual revolution is just that—virtual, that is, not for real.