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40 Years of VR in Popular Culture -- Why Are None Utopian?

History of Virtual Worlds Popular Culture

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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Maria Korolov

I'm currently reading Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined" (http://www.amazon.com/The-Better-Angels-Our-Nature/dp/1455883115) and he addresses this question (kind of) in a number of ways.

First, due to the fact that we remember things very selectively, we think that society is getting more and more violent, and wars are getting more violent, and our entertainments are getting more violent, whereas actually the opposite is the case. So when we look ahead to the future, we assume that it's going to be worse than today.

A lot of Sci Fi is dystopian. Humanity is controlled by robots, or evil corporations, or despots, or zeealots, or overrun by plagues, or mutants, or aliens, or catastrophes of various kinds. Science fiction writers often predict a return to feudalism, or tribes, or slavery, or empires.

Then you combine this tendency with the fear of the new and the unknown. New technologies always inspire thoughts of worst-case-scenarios.

So you combine the two and you get the Matrix, and Surrogates, and various similar views of the future.

The only counter-example I've been able to think of is the one you've mentioned - Star Trek. Not only is it a (relatively) positive view of the future, but a (relatively) positive view of technology, as well.

Now, maybe these dire predictions serve a purpose, as a warning of what to avoid.

But I also think they do us a disservice, in that we wind up not adequately prepared for the future that does happen.

I personally believe that virtual reality will be very transformative, in a positive way, and will quickly change society and business in dramatic ways -- more than the Web already did. But few of us are preparing for this, preparing our business for this, or preparing our kids.

Adeon Writer

Perfect worlds that really are perfect don't make good plots. :P

It's much harder to write an engaging story when nothing bad happens.

Well, that's my take at least.

Amanda Dallin

Adeon beat me too it. A good story needs some kind of conflict. Many if not most people fear change and the "dangers of technology" is a way to use that fear to provide conflict in a story.

Star Trek TNG did deal with a character becoming addicted to virtual reality. I think the character was named Barclay played by Dwight Shultz.

Galatea

Not impossible, but yes, certainly harder. We tend to want epic scale in our sci-fi stories, and we want conflict in a good story for the hero to overcome. In a utopian world, the conflict has to be personal, because the world at large is fine, and personal conflicts don't tend to have epic scale. To have epic scale conflicts, you need a screwed up world so the hero can fix it (or at least struggle against it).

Although not a VR story, Larry Niven once wrote a story set far in the future after the "Teela gene" has become widespread in humanity and nothing bad happens to anyone. It's mostly an exercise is showing how absurd it is to try to write a good story in such a universe...

Arcadia Codesmith

Avatar is a counter-example, sort of. True, the world of the Na'vi is physical rather than virtual, but Sully and his compatriots interact with it as if it were a virtual environment.

And in a broader sense, we've got numerous examples of characters who cross over into a magical realm and either stay there or leave only with great reluctance because it's, you know, magic. Dorothy eventually moved to Oz permanently.

We may have our moments of technophobia, but we also want to transcend our mundane existance. I expect as the technology matures, we'll all have our personal balance to maintain. And I expect our fiction will evolve beyond all-or-nothing scenarios.

Iggy

SF has been dark a long time. Tales of VR aren't going to be an exception to the rule.

Been re-reading classics lately: Wells' The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. They are bleak tales about the futility of human aspirations and hold up really well today as novels.

Real science looks ahead, technologists apply it for companies and governments, and we never quite know where the ride will take us.

Compare the 1939 "World of Tomorrow" World's Fair vision of 1960 to what we actually got. The Fair's planners and exhibitors envisioned gleaming skyscraper cities and garden suburbs, full of lantern-jawed Don Drapers in their teardrop-cars, going to and fro at 100 mph on perfect highways. While a few of us today get to live something like that beautiful dream, many others dwell in a pot-holed, polluted, and ramshackle landscape of strip-suburbia and cul-de-sac "neighborhoods."

In short, they made a glorious feature film in 1939 about the future, and we ended up with the Betty Boop cartoon.

I'm a pessimist, if you cannot tell. I think VR will be liberating for a few of us, might make a lot of bucks for others, but many will end up VR potatoes with their rigs on whenever possible.

Alazarin Mobius

I have to agree with Adeon and Amanda. A good story needs some sort of conflict / dynamic and one of the easiest way of doing that is to create a dark / negative backdrop for your protagonist(s) to overcome in one way or another. From that POV a lot of VR and SciFi can be seen as a journey out of darkness towards the light of an imagined utopia or other sort of destination that is usually portrayed as an improvement upon the starting point.

The problem with utopias is that there isn't much of a story: Everything was groovy-doovy and they all lived happily ever after. Try stretching that to 300 pages!

joker

too funny.... NO valuable "utopian fiction" is "Utopian" That's their whole reason for being.

They warn... not promise.

promises are made by cults... or haven't you been really following Linden and its followers for a decade.

Maria Korolov

Oh, come on. There are plenty of genres that have conflict and plots that don't automatically do all the way to dystopias.

And they sell very well.

There's nothing that says that anything set in the future has to be "hard sci fi." Why can't it be a cosy mystery, a romance, a quest novel, a novel about self-discovery, a comedy of manners?

Plus, who says the only choices are utopias or dystopias? Why can't the future be a lot like the present -- better than the past, but not as good as we would have hoped, with fewer old problems, but with some new problems that seem intractable but turn out to be manageable?

Kerryth Tarantal

Lois McMaster Bujold writes excellent non-dystopian science fiction. Come to think of it, her books cover "all of the above" in Maria Korolov's comment above, with which I heartily agree.

Shockwave Yareach

Name me three awesome dystopian novels. Easy, right?

Now name me one utopian novel. You probably can't. And it's not that they don't exist. It's just that almost nobody sells such a thing.

Why not? Because perfect societies where nothing is wrong and all is perfect makes for a boring story.

elizabeth (16)

T’was a dark and stormy night. Which kinda made me a bit grumpy bc it woke me up. So I just pull the blankets up over my head and try get in some more zzzzs. But I not able to go back to sleep. So I start thinking about what I will have for breakfast. I think I will have a soft-boil egg. Maybe two. And soldiers. I like soldiers. Like in uniforms. But I can’t eat them. Like they won’t let me. So I will just have toast ones. With marmite on. Well half marmite and just butter on the other half. Just butter is good. I like just butter. And runny yolk. Yeah! I like runny yolk as well

Chit still can’t sleep. Dang dark and stormy night. I might as well get up. Nah! I better not. I don’t wants to disturb the crazy axe murderer in the kitchen. Oh wait that’s me lol. I best stay in bed or this story is gunna get pretty predictable. Like totally

jejejjejeeje (:

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