40 Years of VR in Popular Culture -- Why Are None Utopian?
To mark 10 years of Second Life, iO9's Charlie Jane Anders has an epic history of virtual reality in pop culture from the last 40 years, starting with a 70's TV mini-series by German film great Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who knew?), and more or less ending with 2010's Tron remake. One notable point: Just about every single one of these visions of virtual reality is pretty horrible in some way. Either it's covering up some dark aspects of human nature (which is why murders and such keep breaking out there), or it's draining us of our humanity in some devious way. (And in The Matrix, VR is used to literally drain humans.) But none of these visions of VR basically say: "Virtual reality is a great place worth living in as much as possible, because it makes the human race better to be there." I'd say the one possible exception is the holodeck of the Star Trek franchise, which presents VR in a fairly neutral light -- it's often a useful tool and a fun, occasional hobby (even though, again, things go wildly wrong there all the time) -- but even then, it's not a utopia, and the rest of the show implies the real world is still far more preferable.
So, why so much negativity about virtual reality? Probably for the same reason philosopher Robert Nozick's "experience machine" thought experiment is so compelling
Nozick asks us to imagine a machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences we could want. Psychologists have figured out a way to stimulate a person's brain to induce pleasurable experiences that the subject could not distinguish from those he would have apart from the machine. He then asks, if given the choice, would we prefer the machine to real life?
But that could just be a bias of our present day. Because like I wrote last year, substantial percentages of people are starting to choose virtual experiences over the real
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