Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Reality is a mess.
To make this claim is to do little more than confirm the subtext of most newspaper headlines whether they speak of ongoing injustices, student debt, economic instability, violence, environmental degradation, or some other woebegone tale of the present age. An oft repeated refrain in this context features a sort of dismayed befuddlement that this is still the state of the world – a frustration that after decades of the aforementioned litany of societal failures we continue on the same course. Many people today find their lives touched by technological accoutrements that speak of an idyllic sci-fi future, even as the world beyond the smart phone screen continues dolefully echoing the past.
Reality is a mess, attempts to fix it are challenging, exhausting, and often prove unsuccessful, it is far easier to just look for an escape. And the evangels of technology are always happy to provide, for a price. Granted, much of what is on offer are tools to help tweak the world so as to make it slightly more tolerable: apps that summon a variety of temporary assistants, devices that promise the banishment of boredom, a never ending river of streaming content, and so forth. Yet at the corners of our vision, reality is still there, threatening to encroach at any moment. When we immerse ourselves in technology we still remain immersed in the real world, but luckily for those seeking escape, it is about to become even easier to shut your eyes to the world and reopen them within the realm of the machine.
After being purchased by Facebook, the virtual reality company Oculus has unveiled the devices with which consumers will be able to dive into the virtual sea. Featuring a headset that covers the eyes and ears, along with a variety of handsets, and a camera that tracks body movement in conjunction with the other devices, Oculus Rift promises to be the passport for entry into a different world. Rift is an additive technology, one that does not function independently but which requires a rather robust computer to support it. It is true that Rift’s starter price – around $1,500 for the Rift devices and a suitably powerful computer – may convince many that the device is not for them. After all, Rift seems to be largely targeted towards an audience of gamers, and the hardcore amongst that set are no strangers to periodically spending large sums for new games and machines. However, to approach Rift solely in terms of a new game platform is to miss the point. Rift is not about (well, not only about) ushering in a new era of video gaming, it is about trying to change the way people (and not just gamers) interact with computers.
For Facebook, Oculus was never really about video games. It is worth remembering some choice words from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg when he announced the acquisition of Oculus (the “we” in the following quotation refers to Facebook and Oculus):
“we want to contribute to a more open, connected world; and we both see virtual reality as the next step.”
Rift may make its initial inroads by appealing to the gaming community, but it seems abundantly clear that Facebook’s hope is that Rift will eventually appeal to a much wider community – namely, everybody. One can, and should, ignore the standard Facebook propaganda pablum about “a more open, connected world,” but the belief that “virtual reality” is “the next step” remains significant. We may not be at the point just yet, but it does not seem to be an unfair stretch to hypothesize that someday (someday soon) you will be able to seamlessly use all of Facebook’s platforms (from Instagram to WhatsApp to Messenger to the social network itself) while sitting with the Rift headset covering your eyes.
While Facebook’s frenemies Apple and Google are busy seeing what ideas will stick in the world of wearable technology, self-driving cars, and the Internet of Things – Facebook is instead placing its bets on people staying plugged in at home. One can imagine Oculus Rift giving rise to the perfect modern hermit who can explore a limitless world so long as they stay tethered to their computer. A host of apps already make it easy to have groceries delivered, laundry picked up, and so forth but Rift wonderfully completes the world of the technological shut-in by allowing them the illusion that they are actually out exploring. What the headset provides is the complete opposite of the reality revealing sunglasses from the film They Live, instead of making the world as it truly is horribly evident, Rift simply provides another layer of illusion. Rift displaces the messy outside world with a virtual one, echoing Erich Fromm’s observation:
“The destruction of the world is the last, almost desperate attempt to save myself from being crushed by it.” (Fromm, 154)
To escape from the crushing reality of the world one must be willingly crushed and contorted to fit within the strictures of the virtual realm. Eyes blinkered behind a headset, ears stuffed with headphones, hands obeying the rules for handset manipulation, body watched by the unblinking eye of a camera – to participate in “a more open” world a person must first submit to significantly closing themselves off from the world. Virtual reality provides a sphere in which an individual can dance, explore, and kill their way across vast unreal realms, but at best this is simply a mime routine of freedom. Thus Rift functions perfectly in Facebook’s universe, as the social network has risen to prominence by providing people with a simulacrum of friendship and social connection defined by hitting the “like” button whilst being assaulted by advertisements. Writing regarding the rise of television Günther Anders warned:
“When the world comes to us, instead of our going to it, we are no longer ‘in the world,’ but only listless, passive consumers of the world.” (Anders, 20)
And though this comment was written regarding television, it points to the particular danger of virtual reality – especially as it becomes embraced as “the next step.” For what is virtual reality but the world that is brought to us? The world that is designed for us? The world in which everything seen, everything heard, everywhere explored, is carefully constructed? A person outfitted with the full set of Oculus doodads may feel as though they are the empowered explorer of a technological frontier but in the end they simply remain “passive consumers of the world” that has been made for them by Facebook. It may well be that this virtual world is a more pleasant one to walk about in: a world of “like” buttons and adventures where the tribulations, terrors, and tragedies of the real world are banished from view, a world in which the individual has the power to crush the world instead of being crushed by it. But despite the colorful images swimming about on the Oculus Rift headset, a person exploring virtual reality is simply sitting in a room making silly gestures as they bat away phantoms. Oculus Rift provides the promise of freedom so long as you are willing to don its manacles, see and hear exactly what it wants, and move in the way that it demands.
Oculus Rift will cover your eyes, ears and occupy your hands – but reality will still be a mess. And you will still be able to smell it.
Anders, Günther. “The World as Phantom and as Matrix.” Dissent v. 3, no. 1 (Winter 1956), 14-24.
Fromm, Eric. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge Classics: London, 2001.