Your Facsimile World

Image courtesy of Wikiart, copyright Enrico Donati, sculpture “Evil Eye” 1946

There’s nothing wrong with experiencing facsimile. But facsimile is not a substitute for experience.

The forthcoming edition of Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press, 2017) prophesies a “World Without Why“; but that is not the end of it: We are entering a “facsimile world” with the introduction of smartphone virtual reality.

In introducing a smartphone with a built-in virtual reality camera, Tech Worm  states:

You’ll probably never go to Mars, swim with dolphins, run an Olympic 100 meters, or sing onstage with the Rolling Stones. But if you own a Virtual Reality headset, you can do all the above things without leaving your sofa.

As the author of  the first edition of Interpersonal Divide (Oxford Univ. Press, 2005),  I have been tracking the facsimile world for more than a decade. For instance, I wrote several pieces  about avatars in Second Life, one of the first virtual reality worlds on the web. Many colleges were conducting classes on the platform, and that worried me. My focus was not on new experiences, such as the vicarious feeling of flying from one location to the next, but on deviant behaviors that students could encounter landing on an unknown site and encountering strangers there.

In this piece, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, I wrote:

We have enough trouble dealing with violence, assault, and sexual harassment in the real world, but few of us — even campus lawyers — know how the law applies in virtual realms vended by companies whose service terms often conflict with due process in academe.

In a follow-up article, again in the Chronicle, I recommended all virtual reality games create terms of service to mitigate the incidence of avatar harassment, assault, racism, homophobia and other inappropriate content.

In another article titled “Avatar Rape,” published in Inside Higher Ed, I argued that avatar harassment and sexual assault remain controversial issues because educational institutions hosting virtual worlds are not accustomed to dealing with — or even discussing — digital forms of these distressing behaviors.

Now, with a VR headset and a smartphone, the future of graphic encounters–including all forms of illicit behaviors–will change, along with our psyches.

Users will move from vicarious characters manipulated by keyboard and mouse to facsimile ones that have the feel, if not the substance, of real life.

Case in point: Tech Radar reports that the free site “Pornhub” is creating a new category for every conceivable form of sexual behavior. According to the post, “Pornhub has such faith in VR that in addition to launching the new category, the site is also giving away 10,000 headsets to get early adopters on board. ”

The addictive quality of smartphone VR has yet to be measured. But society may be moving from digital marijuana to heroin in record time.

My concerns transcend sex and violence. With a VR headset, you can dream of all the things you had hoped to experience in your bucket list. Swim with dolphins. Climb a mountain. Visit the Sistine Chapel, Mount Olympus, Yellowstone National Park … and never actually do anything. And these are only tourist-type facsimiles. You can imagine the range of personal experience–the good, bad and ugly–in which consumers are going to indulge.

This is not to say that facsimile cannot enlighten us. A colleague of mine who teaches virtual reality at Iowa State University notes that a person might take up the cause of a social issue, such as civil rights, by experiencing what it is like to part of a protest. All that is true, of course.

But the reality, or virtual reality, I should say, can just as easily seduce us from the difficult work of actual achievement and participation. The machine is the grand enabler. Gratification theory will have to be rewritten.

Finally, all of this is not new. Technology has always provided facsimile. Consider this analogy from the literary era of the 1970s when photocopying machines replaced mimeographs. (Here’s a link for those who never heard of mimeographs.) Teachers, in particular, felt that they had read an article simply because they had photocopied it.

Now, with VR technology, people will have felt that they have lived a life simply because they donned a headset.

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