I’m Afraid of Virtual Reality
Ready Player Done
If you jump into your bed
Quickly cover up your head
Don’t you lock the doors
You know that sweet Santa Clause is on the way
Oh well I wish it could be Christmas everyday
When the kids start singing and the band begins to play
Oh I wish it could be Christmas everyday
Let the bells ring out for Christmas
These are haunting lyrics. A song of nightmares. I shudder at the melody. It’s 1970s British glam holiday pop fills me with associative memories of horror, taking me back to the grimace I held as I watched hell unfold to the cheery tune: louder and louder growing in suffocating intensity. [Spoilers for Black Mirror: White Christmas ahead]. I dug my nails into my palms and groaned for Joe to stop as he repeatedly smashed the radio against the ground in one part contemptuous rage, another part anarchist defeat. Sometimes in agony you just say to hell with it all and let’s see how hard we can hurt. His penitent effort to have violence eradicate a past violence for what this diabolical song came to represent was all for naught. “You’re just making it worse,” I softly grieved. And then I sighed in depression as the police officers on the outside dialed Joe’s cookie up to eternity and decided why not leave the bad dream running for Christmas, apparently an extra special day for justice to be served infinitely beyond its limits.
It all happened during a very special holiday episode of Charlie Brooker’s techno-drama series, Black Mirror. If you’ve seen it, you know the one I’m talking about. It’s thought-provoking and it’s beautifully written and it’s awful. It’s a story that expands your imagination in a way you didn’t want it extended. And speaking for myself, it was perhaps the final straw to complete my conversion from that of a hopeful futurist to an anxious scaremongering cynic who wishes for the ‘good ole days’ where one of the only downsides to the new digital landscape is that you might get a seizure from a Japanese cartoon.
Those were simpler times.
When I went to Disney World back in the ’90s, the only place I wanted to be was Tomorrowland. Holograms, robots, and flying cars always attracted me in a way history never could. Maybe it was the alluring possibility of one day wielding a light saber or riding a hoverboard or teleporting across the galaxy. Or maybe it was the dream of providing pictures of my elegantly crafted dinner alongside a witty comment sitting above the endless stream of other happy life accomplishments for all my mild acquaintances that I’ll call “friends” to covet on all of our rectangular screens that we sometimes also talk into. For a narcissistic millennial tween, the possibilities seemed endless.
On our visit to the mega-corporate fantasy land founded largely on attractive female protagonist underdogs (and for a market of millions of little girls who’ll never look like Snow White, a lucrative strategy), our family visited a virtual reality attraction in my favorite future-themed sub-land. We wore giant head gear on our faces, stood in a designated circle on an open floor plan, and held a piece of cheap plastic that would proxy as our weapon, which like everything else was connected by a plethora of wires that spidered up into the ceiling. I’m guessing the experience was pretty cool for the time but, unfortunately, I’ll never know. The Disney slaves didn’t fasten the virtual screen over my tiny head tight enough so it sagged and for the entirety of the 7 minute quest I was shooting lasers at blurry aliens and probably inadvertently killing my mom instead.
Oh but after it was over I was proclaiming how totally awesome our video game adventure was and smiling ear to ear because, ‘Hey I just went full-on VR baby.’ I so wanted the experience to be good because it was more about the biased idealism of my participation in an exciting future that could only get better with time and let non-virtual reality be damned if the actual funimation was, in all probability, hokey and contrived. Maybe someday, I thought, we’ll be able to enter worlds where not only will we be seeing blurry aliens but we’ll feel their blurry throats in our cold, frenzied fingers and smell their last breaths of putrid stink as we exercise the American fantasy of lethal violence against an evil foreigner.
The dream of virtual reality is to take human sensation to its limits, right? To transport our consciousness into worlds not subject to the confining material straightjacket of the physical? In the realm of the virtual, imagine how far our minds can take us.
Black Mirror, more or less, imagined these depths. Only now 20+ years later I’m almost paralyzed by the fear of what virtual worlds will mean for the human race, to the point where I often force myself to avoid any and all thoughts of this inevitability. Then once I’ve mastered the ascetic deprivation of my own imagination, I thank God that, hopefully, its realization to the degree that it becomes truly horrifying will not happen in my lifetime (again, hopefully). And, yes, it’s true, if you’ve seen the episode I’m referencing, the virtual world of the aforementioned ‘cookie’ is actually a containment for an artificial intelligence replicant of a real breathing person and, therefore, it is not a true depiction of virtual reality. But there’s nothing to suggest the narrative couldn’t have gone in a more tangibly inhumane direction for the sake of Joe’s plight.
And for those who haven’t seen the stand-alone film, as already stated the ‘cookie’ is a virtual space created solely for a person’s AI clone. The purpose of this technology is several fold. If you’d like a smart house where the central operating system knows everything about you and can adjust every network connected device to exactly your preferences just as you think of them, this can be done with a ‘cookie.’ Your AI clone is in the house, literally enslaved to your own demands whether you’re aware of it or not. Black Mirror showcases how the installer of the cookie may nonchalantly torture your virtual self to the point where she’d rather commit herself to this new life of servitude than undergo months of virtual solitary confinement in the timespan of a few earth seconds.
A cookie can also be used to extract a confession when it’s not even you doing the confessing. Here we see a certain presumption that the AI clone is also your identical consciousness. It remembers your life, thinks like you, acts like you, and as far as we know, feels like you. Right?
In the case of Joe, a tragic figure who in a crime of passion murders his adulterous ex-wife’s lover and abandon’s the man’s daughter to her own demise, his cookie confesses of the crime for him. And once the information is extracted, what is left of artificial Joe is of little importance. He is left alone in the room of his nightmarish worst memory to be sustained in agony for 1000 years per every earth minute and left overnight, which in his world might as well be eternity.
To date this may have been the most disturbing work of fiction I’ve ever encountered. For some reason, I couldn’t take solace in the fact that the suffering Joe isn’t a real person and, therefore, shouldn’t actually feel the pain we are witnessing. An emotional part of my psyche dismissed the logical hurdles embedded in this philosophy of mind conundrum and the passing thought dragged my mind deeper into the quicksand: what if Joe is in there? What if this is a real person and what if he can feel everything?
Now I don’t want to begin speculating on the limitations of artificial intelligence because that’s not the intent of this article. My sickness in watching Joe’s copy enter hell has little to do with AI and everything to do with virtual reality. After all, the Jon Hamm character who appears to be a specialist in cookie entrapment seems to have entered the world not as a clone, but as his actual self. So even the narrative of this Black Mirror episode isn’t shying away from this inevitable avenue.
Consider the startling truth that once we can transport our consciousnesses into Matrix-like worlds, the programmers will become literal gods over humanity. We’re not talking about programming for goggles with screens or plastic wands or power gloves. Some day we’ll be “jacking in” to worlds the coding nerds possess fully at the tips of their greasy fingers.
Please, consider fully the drama of this realization. One day we will trust handing over our complete consciousness, our memories, identities and all our sensations, everything that makes up our very selves, to other people.
And why wouldn’t we? This has been the hallmark of civilization’s response to technological progress. Bridges and airplanes and roller coasters and online banking are all commodities of which we partake in everyday with the full unbridled trust in the other people who have built them. Hell, even the gods at Facebook could potentially destroy our lives given how much of our identity we hand over with the naive faith that our data is in good hands. Eventually, though, shouldn’t one ask where is the line?
Perhaps here I should confess why I am so terrified of the virtual reality sunrise looming beneath the horizon. To be blunt, the reason is because those other people I so paranoidly hesitate to trust . . . are me.
There’s a popular account of how GK Chesterton, the prolific Catholic philosopher and English journalist of early 20th century London, was once asked by a local newspaper to respond with an editorial on the question: “What’s Wrong with the World?” As the story goes, Chesterton, in his typical sardonic wit, finished the response in record time and published what may be the world’s shortest article with an unexpected brevity for such a demanding question. His readers eagerly opened their newspapers to find, depending on who you are, either two very satisfying or very unsatisfying simple words:
G. K. Chesterton.”
I like to think Chesterton struggled with Christian hopefulness as I do because he was also a brutally honest introspectioner. Indeed, I know the darkness of my heart. I’ve experienced the depths of evil my imagination can descend to. Whether in contemplating what would be the most disturbing, perverted suffering another human being could experience or being enveloped in the most intense hedonistic fantasy for myself, the travels my own mind have embarked on are paths I never wanted mapped.
So the phobia is simple really: If I, an exemplar of the clean-cut upstanding straight, white male citizen of “the greatest country in the world,” can even imagine these horrors of torture or pornographic dungeons, then what labyrinths could other people program into the curious landscape of virtual reality’s seductive purgatories? They are me and I am them. And here I am writing about the darkness I know is in me. The only barrier preventing sending people into the madhouse is technology and the intent to transfer from what is in the mind to the keyboard. That’s only but a thin veil.
Actually, it’s worse than that. With the advent of artificially intelligent algorithms you only need a seed of a desire from the human mind. The algorithms will water the seed and cultivate an expansive garden of guilty pleasures for which to inflict suffering on our enemies or seduction to ourselves. Want to live in a porn show but rather than outline every detail of the program be surprised by unforeseen sensual novelties? All that would be needed is a quick psych evaluation, insert a few parameters, and then let the computer build the world and your sexual partners for you. As algorithms learn and react to human behavior more and more, what could stop them from, on a primal level, understanding your base urges better than you’re even aware of them yourself? You could have the fantasy you didn’t even know you wanted. And with powerful enough processors, the endlessly varied permutations relative to all these escapes of which you didn’t yet know existed in your sinful left-shoulder’s demon will be, under our simple-minded sexometers, virtually infinite.
Ay, there’s the rub. If one could live in a pleasure machine generating sensations no other human has ever experienced, why would one leave said pleasure machine? Or even scarier, what if in a tone of liberal defiance we begin asking ourselves, as I once recalled the politically active biologist Bret Weinstein posing in a public panel, “What’s wrong with the pleasure machine?”
(To be fair Weinstein’s tone was of a more philosophical nature than of progressive liberty).
What’s wrong with the pleasure machine, you ask? Actually, considering the statistics of online pornography consumption, maybe we’ve already asked and answered that question.
If we can keep the dopamine pumping then the market for virtual reality addiction may supersede anything we’ve ever seen before. Virtual world building corporations will dominate the market like 1960s tobacco companies (in 1964 roughly 42% of Americans smoked) and boom forward as everyone realizes how boring and depressing the real world is. Under the agenda of that religion known as individualistic liberalism our collective voices will rebut in unison against the attempts of governmental regulation with, “Hey, I’m not hurting anyone. If I want to spend my time titillating myself in Wonderland then who are you to tell me what I can or cannot do with my body. There’s no secondhand smoke in virtual reality.”
It only gets more complicated from here. What if I want to live out murder fantasies where I get to slit the throat of the treasonous best friend who slept with the whore ex-wife who somehow still got custody of the kids? And then after the adrenaline subsides I get to do it again, only this time by drowning them both in the bathtub where the whole affair began. Will VR violence simulators be legal? Will there be psychological evidence that partaking in these amped up Call of Duty murder machines makes one susceptible to acting out the simulation in real life? What kind of lobbying will be done to make sure legislation favors greater VR product and revenue rather than societal moral dignity?
A lot of people will get plenty rich off preying on the masses’ fascination with their own personally tailored escapes from this miserable rock. Although the paradox of this is, if living in a VR world can satisfy your every urge ad infinitum, why would even the corporate hogs necessarily pursue the ultimately unfulfilling power structure game of the real world? After all, if that’s what you really want, you can have it all but even better in VR and it will feel just as real (maybe even more so) as it would in the real flesh. I imagine the motivation for power and pleasure would eventually devolve into the challenge of sustaining our physical bodies long enough so that we never have to leave our special playstation cribs. I can envision the plot of the Matrix becoming a reality only we’re the ones who have suspended ourselves in a bulbous pod filled with intravenous nutrient tubes and an anti-bedsores gelatinous soup.
It would appear the potential of Virtual Reality might resemble in the imagination what many in the mainstream might codify as Heaven. Or a form of Heaven. Anything you could ever want with no consequences and you wouldn’t be able to distinguish the virtual world from the real. Why would anyone want to see through their perishable flesh and bones again? Heaven, in all its sensory stimulation and freedom from pain, awaits in VR.
Although, then one must clarify, if we’re trying to mimic Heaven, which Heaven are we talking about? Christian Heaven? Hindu Heaven? Muslim Heaven? If Heaven is real and we go there after we die, what exactly is this place? A locale where all our earthly desires get fulfilled? If that’s all Heaven is, well, what if it doesn’t exist? What if after this . . . there’s nothing? Why then, wouldn’t it only be prudent to design and enter as much of this wish fulfillment as possible before we evaporate into dust? In Black Mirror, the cookie had the capacity to altar its subject’s perception of time to what appeared to be a nearly inexhaustible limit. In the cookie, one minute of earth time could equate to 1000 years of virtual time. If this is possible, then could we really go to Heaven?
Of course, here I must aggressively input my own theological critique. As I see it, this would not be ‘the Heaven’ my Christian religion hopes for. And given my commitment to the tradition of Classical Christian Theism, it would be a heaven incompatible with the person of God. Rather, what this would really be is nothing more than the greatest acid trip ever shamanized. Near eternity is a long time, but it’s still not eternity. And as for what Heaven really is, it certainly can’t be a fulfillment of wishes subjectively desired by a finite dirt-dwelling humanoid. Not to keep this excursus dragging, but my personal speculation of what Heaven will be is not an orientation of the material world towards the self, but the self oriented toward the world of the Divine. The desire of man converges with the desire of God and in this convergence is infinite love and, therefore, infinite bliss.
Okay, now that this article’s prerequisite sermon has been accounted for, we need to examine the recently mentioned idea of virtual time, which is quite relevant to our completed excursus. Fret not, I mention the supernatural aspect of Heaven and its incompatibility with near-eternity VR for an important reason, which will hopefully be expounded upon soon. The nature of VR time, to my eye, might be the most frightening prospect implicit in the technology’s possible aptitudes. It’s also something I had never considered until Black Mirror. Could it really be possible to alter our consciousness’s perception of time within a virtual world? Could we experience 1000 years of lifetime in a machine in mere seconds of aging on the outside?
I’m sure neuroscience would have much to say about this. It seems most computational neuroscientists, using admittedly simplistic math, have estimated the human brain is most likely capable of storing anywhere between 10 and 100 terabytes of memory. Given that no one in human history has ever lived beyond approximately 120 years, we have no idea what kind of state one’s brain would be in or what kind of memory they would retain subsequent a life of double or triple or ten times the longest lifespan ever lived. Not to mention in VR the probable expectation of subsistence would be to suspend one’s self at an ideal youth. So in the virtual world your consciousness would exist at a static age of 25 years old, as we’d all like to remain, for centuries while your actual brain undergoes a negligible few minutes of genuine aging. Again, no consciousness in human history has ever experienced this. What would this mean for a person? Is it even possible? And would they come out of the VR world quite insane?
Moreover, since this heaven is entirely subject to our own creation, and thus subject to finite minds, or at the very least finite computational programs, surely at some point the brain would respond to the millennium after millennium of pleasure with boredom. Do we really know if one were to have unceasing mind-blowing sex with their most desirable partners for thousands of years that they would not become bored with the constant hedonistic satisfaction? I’m skeptical that humans are reducible to such amoeba-like prodding. As if our recumbent predisposition to conscious hungering can be simplistically satiated by basic fulfillment of material desires.
This is my point about the problem of creating VR Heaven. It is a heaven we finite, fallible beings have imagined for ourselves. There seems to be quite a giant assumption here that never-ending bliss can be created by ourselves for ourselves through the removal of physical and emotional pain and amended in the wishes granted by an algorithmic genie. If personal experience has taught us anything, we are certainly more complicated than the animals of the four F’s. We can live without fighting for our own power, we take honor in the sacrifice rather than the flee, sometimes we fast for piety instead of feeding, and . . . well, you get the point. In all of this there is a giving up of desire and an acceptance of pain.
Even if you could create a mock human lifetime in the VR world where you lived a normal, fulfilling life, had a great job, got married to a wonderful spouse, had loving kids, but in all of this there was only happiness and never any pain — can we assume as the humans we currently are that we would be satisfied by such a life? That we wouldn’t eventually recant against the misgiven aversion to our own personal Truman Show? To consider it all something too artificial? By virtue of my own admittance to malicious self-love and self-hate, I’m highly skeptical that Heaven’s creation left to the misguided mind of man could ever be truly realized. I wonder if it will dawn on the Pleasantville code creators that, maybe as humans without any assistance from God, and due to both our sin and our goodness against a corrupt, unforgiving world, we need pain to live.
Principally speaking, isn’t it possible that a human life devoid of suffering or conflict — because it is human — might be too boring to handle?
The dreadfulness of this is, say a man does eventually get bored of living out his porn fantasy for hundreds of years in VR and decides he wants to give real, vulnerable love with an actual human woman a chance. The challenge presented at this point is the viability of returning to reality. Scientifically, we’ve seen the adverse affects of porn addiction on the sex life of many men (and women). Studies have also shown that internet porn, in its method of hitting the reward center of the brain repeatedly, tricking the brain into releasing more and more dopamine, has the same affect as dangerous narcotics (even online usage such as Instagram validation creates the same effect). And then you’ve also got DeltaFosB as part of the chemical cocktail party, releasing to create new neuronal pathways that your consciousness will only be capable of treading in the deeply harrowed trails of the virtual woods. In my estimation, VR porn addiction would be like internet porn addiction dialed up to 11. The neuronal pathways created to continuously be aroused by greater and greater fetishes in VR would leave a man so sexually stunted that in the real world he couldn’t possibly enjoy sex with a real human woman ever again. The contradictorily satisfying and ultimately unsatisfying virtual sex would beckon him back with an itch that’ll make a heroine fix look like a Huxtable addict’s craving to re-watch the Cosby Show post-2015: thereby insipidly faded in comparison.
Worst of all, as already hinted at, what are we to make of the psyche of a person who has spent thousands of years in virtual time? If the brain can only handle so many terabytes of memory, would the exponential rate of memory displacement processing against the brain as per the machine’s demands eradicate everything this person once was in a matter of seconds? What would become of their identity? Could you even remember who you are after so much time in the dream world? Waking back up to the real would be so jarring that you may not be able to handle breathing in authentic oxygen. In an effort to jam as many pop culture references into this article as possible, have we learned nothing from the plight of Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in Inception?
Now, of course, I must spend at least some time, although intentionally very little, on VR’s usage for those who we hate. What about VR for criminals? What about underground torture VR? If some one violently raped your 10 year old daughter and left her for dead in the woods, what sort of world would you put that man into against his will? How much unspeakable suffering would be enough to compensate for the unspeakable crime that was committed against you and your family? Degenerate programmers will certainly have a field day recreating the Saw movies in simulations. And it will become a challenge to one-up the other in what level of perverse, debasing torture we can subject another human being to.
Under virtual reality, there would be no escape from the intense, disgusting affliction. You can’t pass out, you can’t avoid the maximal level of sensory pain, your consciousness will be bombarded by your worst fears and perhaps what is unimaginably even worse than that for who knows how long and to what extent in a virtual time and space subject to the demonic algorithms. It will in all likelihood grow to become something worse than any hell of any religious tradition. Eat your heart out Dante.
I shudder at even tacitly imagining the sickening fun people will code into these simulated landscapes of sadistic havens for pure, unadulterated evil. If you’ve never believed in hell then I guess all I can say is, just be patient.
Ultimately, I hope the ability to transport our total consciousnesses into simulations proves unfeasible. But if it is possible, the depth of torture and pornography consumption will sink humanity to a low it has never wallowed in before. I never thought I’d find myself in this place, curmudgeonly thrusting my cane at the next generation of digital children and lambasting them for their smartphone-driven sex, drugs, and rock & roll. It’s mostly surprising because I realize I’m bargaining for a future with less video games, something I’ve always held near and dear to my heart.
But now, as I think through the consequences of our current trajectory, I find myself fantasizing about militarizing a rag tag version of Project Mayhem to cultishly deploy against the skyscrapers of Silicon Valley. I say blow all the microchips to hell and start afresh. I say stop dreaming about all the Swedish furniture you’ll have in your simulated apartment. I say you are not your virtual f*****g khakis. So bring on a post-90s Tyler Durden and all his preaching against virtual consumerism. Let’s end this before humanity dumps their brains into vats they’ll never swim out of.
I am Jack’s nervous amygdala.