Where are you? Are you at work, at home, sitting behind your desk or on the sofa, maybe you are even in the bathroom. You may be stuck in public transport, on another endless train or bus ride home, trying to pass the time. I wonder, do you have a view where you are? If you don’t, just look around you. If you do, I am inviting you to look outside. Don’t just superficially scan, please; take a good, long, close look at everything you see. Nature. Animals. Cars. Bikes. People passing by. Busy city streets. Abandoned country roads. Sun, rain or storm. Advertising, construction sites, planes. Most everyone you see – are they moving fast? Are their smartphones or headsets visible, are they engaged in some sort of conversation or pasttime that is removed from the scene you see, busy and living somewhere inside their virtual realities? Now. Tell me. Everything you see has formed a certain picture in your mind of this being the NOW, the HERE. What you see is what IS, what you see is REAL. Is it? How can you be sure? Are you absolutely one hundred percent proofworthy certain that what you perceive as reality is actually REAL? Actually happening? Actually true?
No. You honestly cannot be sure because a) you have no way to prove it and b) you are at a loss when it comes to the definition of reality. Today I would like to talk to you about empiric reality, virtual reality, the benefits and the dangers, alien isolation in virtual reality.
How Do You Know What Is Real?
Well, you don’t. At least not in a scientific sense. You could step outside and feel the rain to prove that it is real – but who is to say that the feeling of water on your skin – water that s e e m s to come out of the clouds somewhere in the sky – that thats REAL? How do you know that there isn’t some giant machines giving you the i l l u s i o n of clouds and rain?
You believe that what you see is real because you don’t know any different. And in order to verify that what you perceive as real actually IS real? You use your senses. The closest we as humans come to “knowing” that something is REAL is by PROVING we can see, hear, taste, smell or feel it.
Here is one of my favorite Harry Potter quotes to show how complex this really is:
Harry Potter: Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?
Professor Albus Dumbledore: Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?
If you start thinking about what may or may not be real and how you can really know for sure it may make your mind spin and it can potentially really scare you. If you don’t know anymore whats real – how will you know anything anymore? Don’t complicate matters, please. Everyday you give meanings and definitions to everything around you. Simply put, that is YOUR reality at this very moment. It may not be anyone else’s reality but yours – but it doesn’t have to be as long as the grids of your reality and the “communal reality” overlap to a point where one doesn’t exclude the other. Your reality is fluid, it changes as you learn different things daily, as you expand your awareness. Reality isn’t the IMAGE of a solid rock – it is what the solid rock is made of. What you PERCEIVE to be be real at this very moment outside of your window is as REAL as it will ever be; but as the day passes on, your UNDERSTANDING of what you see changes. Exchange the rock example for a piece of clay. You may MOLD it into different shapes – but the substance of the clay never changes.
Reality we experience is in direct relation to what we fathom things mean at any given time. There is reassurance in that statement, but also potential confusion and danger. Look at today’s world where REALITY and VIRTUAL REALITY overlap more and more, where one and the other even become synonymous at times. Does the above definition then mean that if you experience everything that happens in VR as real – that it actually IS real? No wonder the human mind can get confused!
The question of what is real and what isn’t is really as old as time. Many of you may have heard of the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant. He made a clear distinction between TWO forms of reality that I believe can be translated into today’s dinstinction between REALITY and VR REALITY. He claimed this:
There are two philosophical possibilities:
- I perceive Reality exactly as it is. If I believe this, then what I perceive is real. I perceive Reality as-it-is-in-itself. (REALITY)
- I perceive Reality in a way that is dependent on my cognitive apparatus – i.e. on my ability to think, to create concepts from my perceptions. If I believe this, then there is every reason to believe that what I perceive is totally other than Reality as-it-is-in-itself. (VIRTUAL REALITY)
He made a clear distinction between Noumena (things as they are) and Phenomena (things as we perceive them.).
We have all used the word “phenomenon” – haven’t we?! There you go 🙂 Not so difficult to understand, is it?
Virtual Reality – Blessing Or Curse?
What do I mean when I refer to Virtual Reality? I like to look at it as two separate definitions. The first one is the classical definition of VR:
The computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors.
We are all familiar with that definition and most of us have experienced it to some extent, be that in a 3D or 4D cinema, an IMAX, in a VR game hall or at home with our VR goggles on. The second definition of VR as I perceive it is more fluid:
Virtual Reality is everything we experience inside the world wide web or in other words: all online experiences are your Virtual Reality as opposed to your Physical Reality. An example? You meet a few friends for a drink at a local pub – physical reality. You chat with a group of Facebook friends online and have a beer standing beside your computer screen – virtual reality.
I personally believe that there are benefits and also a lot of potential danger involved in both definitions of VR.
Look around you. There is an enourmous financial investment into VR development happening from all the mayor global players and companies – Sony, Samsung, Mark Zuckerberg, Google – just to name a few of them. There is no doubt that those global players think that VR is worth investing in since it will have an important, set place and impact in all of our immediate futures – and may have even taken root already today. How many of you regularly engage in VR? Or in other words, how many of you ESCAPE to a VR reality on a regular basis?
Virtual reality is tremendously attractive. It gives all of us the opportunity to live and think outside our small world boxes. Say you are a regular middle-class American with a suburban home and a minivan and a once a year family vacation to Yosemite or Yellow Stone. You could never afford seeing Europe, the world. Now? You just put on your VR goggles and off you go. You can visit any city you like, walk around – virtually – the streets of London, Rome, Paris, Hong Kong and Sidney in an hour’s time. You can travel, look at art in the museums of the world, visit concerts, experience the thrill of dangerous sports, parachute or base jump or even fly into space. There is literally NO LIMIT. It can all happen, you can experience it all AS IF IT WERE REAL. And as time goes on, the VR contraptions will only get better, bigger, more realistic. Who wouldn’t want a taste of that? The question is: how much of a taste? How often would you want to escape your boring, stressful, regular life being the average Joe to slip into a completely different world that so far has been absolutely out of reach? It isn’t difficult to see how VR could become an addiction, is it? It isn’t difficult to see how one might get so “addicted” to escaping to those worlds, to basically living another life, that they would forfeit any and all time in their REAL lives. People have different personality structures; some of us would be more prone to fall into that trap than others. Again, it isn’t really rocket science to see how this can very quickly and effectively lead to alienation from your social net and eventually to isolation. Average Joe spends all of his free time sitting in his garage with his VR goggles on while life HAPPENS ALL AROUND WITHOUT HIM. And here is the pitfall, you guys. No matter how attractive VR might be – it IS NOT REAL. The emotions you may experience from it are real, and your cognitive aparatus (remember Kant?) makes you BELIEVE that what you see is real – but it isn’t. The problem is that it gives such a damn good “copy” of any real experience that it is hard to distinguish and it will become harder yet when virtual reality technology finds ways not just to cheat your sense of sight and hearing, but all other senses as well. When you are able to SMELL, FEEL AND TASTE virtual reality – and that WILL happen, people – then how the hell are you to know that it isn’t real?!
Welcome. You have now entered the MATRIX….
A realistic, somewhat scary outlook on the future is this: virtual reality will in the near future be totally realistic and compelling and we will spend most of our time in virtual environments. We will all become virtual humans. I will admit – escape into other worlds isn’t an unknown phenomenon to mankind. TV, internet, books, smartphones – we all do it. But as VR technology continues to blossom, the worlds that they generate will become increasingly realistic, creating a greater potential for overuse. This technological paradigm shift brings a level of immersion unlike any that has come before it. Virtual doomsday?
I have so far only talked about the negative sides of VR. But is there also any “good” that can potentially come of it? I believe so. If “used” and not overused, VR can open new worlds to each and everyone of us; we can understand it as an evolutionary step even. We all get to experience things that we would otherwise never have the chance to. It can help cure depression or anxiety disorders. It can even be used in the “treatment” of sexual predators or other criminals. At an extreme – wouldn’t you rather a pedophile or a rapist or a murderer engaged in their crimes VIRTUALLY than in reality? I know, people. I, too, cringe at that thought and yet I can’t help but see the use of it, too.
I would like to take the most objective look at VR that I possibly can. Like I mentioned, VR to me also means any form of engaging in your online world – social media. When all is said and done I have to say that I am still – and probably will always be – an advocate for REAL instead of VIRTUALLY REAL. I do believe that that is a very personal choice, though.
I don’t see why both worlds shouldn’t be combined to reach a well balanced level and I seriously think that they can. I love how we can connect with people all over the world, expand our horizons, gain knowledge through social media. I hate, however, how we all can get lost in it, literally lose time in it, and how we have started to misinterpret the term “friendship” for something that happens online with a “thumbs up”.
And yet. Condemning “VR” and social media is a tough one and I can’t do it. What I can do, though, is put out a warning.
Please, people, don’t forget whats real. Don’t forget the comfort of a real hug, of seeing people face to face; the joy in laughing with a group of friends rather than the bunch of you typing: ROF LMAO LOL in a common chat window. Don’t forget that while you spend time with your virtual friends you cannot spend time with your real-life ones.
Where are you now? Still at home, behind your desk, on that train? I am asking you to join me in a little “exercise”. The next chance that you get – please step outside. No matter where you are – in a city, a suburb, the country – just step outside. Walk. Look. Try to be consciously aware of your surroundings and of reality. Breathe the air and taste it – in a city that may be gasoline and fumes or spices from restaurants you pass; in the country that may be freshly mowed grass or horses or even cow shit ;-). Touch a leaf, feel the sun or the rain on your skin, take off your shoes to walk on the grass or sand or even asphalt barefoot. Touch someone you care for. Feel the texture and warmth of their skin, their hair. Feel the safe comfort of being inside their embrace. Feel the heartbeat of an animal or another human being. That, my friends, is LIFE. That is REAL. And when you think about the hours you spend online or with VR I want you to ask yourself if you are really willing to give all of that up for a VIRTUAL REALITY where at the end of the day you may end up in complete isolation?
I would love to hear from you. I would love to find out how you balance your online/VR life with your real one and if you have followed my exercise – how did it make you feel? Looking forward to your answers!
Until then, thanks for reading, as always