We’re interested in new technology, of course, but as a declaration of life’s pursuits, new technologies by themselves are a bit of a yawn. Nonetheless, hundreds of millions of other people these days say they’re also interested in technology, and not just for the most immediate reasons of being able to send texts or photographs or play games. Networked digital technology — because that’s really what we’re talking about as opposed to more efficient wrench and socket sets—promises a constant transformation of ordinary experiences into some vaguely halcyon potential. Our tech, we believe, will set us free.
Here’s the rub: with every opportunity it facilitates, an endless pursuit of edgy tech stuff reinforces a Faustian bargain. With every click after swipe after bluetooth connection we are forgetting the most basic parts of being human. Think I’m wrong? Visit any public park, museum, sporting event, concert, or subway stop, and you’ll see countless people completely absorbed by a three inch sheet of glass twelve inches from their nose.
This is a tough, tricky, sometimes hypocritical consideration, with sneaky dualities threatening to upend vital concepts before the main point can gain adequate altitude and distribute itself in the atmosphere of ideas. Let’s consider one of the earliest parts of shared human experience, something that practically predates even the most rudimentary technologies. Let’s briefly consider the transformative power of stories.
Stories are the backbone of human society. They undergird invention. They are the ties that bind us to each other through drought and famine and sickness and war. They are the bonds that keep us warm and close and compel us to do things for someone outside of our immediate reach. Stories define intention and describe desire. They recall events and they speculate about what may be coming. They explore ethical perspectives, and they present emotional thought experiments. Stories may not be realistic, but in their telling they are always descriptive of the present reality of the teller and the listener. That’s why, no matter how fantastical the details of a story may be, they have the potential to be as real as anything else in our lives.
Virtual reality risks forgetting this. Wrapped in thick cloaks of technological costume, VR presents itself as a modern storytelling mode—a technological leap!—but when we peel off the layers of frippery at the foot of the stage, we sometimes find there is no actor wrapped in the folds. VR is a storytelling format that risks disappearing under its own masks.
Bait…and switch! Here’s the unexpected declaration: virtual reality, along with it’s augmented sibling, has profound storytelling potentials. It’s not the technology in and of itself that’s the problem, just like it’s not the smart phones that are responsible for so many people forgetting about the real world surrounding them. VR is the New World for smart, creative people, and the growth curve has barely left the foothills. There’s lots to discover and lots to explore, and there’s also the lure of deep veins of gold. But just like seafaring nations arriving in North America in the 15th century, long established cultures face profound risks if new occupiers rush in to the space without care and attention to what’s come before.
Reality—the real, actual world in which we live—is not only a place to eat pizza and brush our teeth and change baby diapers. Reality is the place where our senses send information to our evolved processing centers (that’s brain, in other words) in order for us to create logical narratives and explanations. That’s cognition and it’s the root of storytelling. It’s a synthesis of emotional feelings and intellectualizations and sensory inputs, and it conveys a verisimilitude about a world that’s familiar to others. That’s why paintings and movies and books and even the non-literal aspects of music have such profound power. We feel them, we understand them, we connect them to real life experiences. Most importantly, we connect them because we experience them in the context of our real-world lives.
The risk for VR is that it will lose its contextual connections to the real world. We want our tech to set us free—we want to fly through space or pretend we’re dolphins in tropical waters—but pure experience is not the same as narrative consideration. As people spend increasingly more time in virtual space, we risk less shared cultural resonance. As stories lose their tethers to real life, they lose their power. We are stimulated, sure, but moved? That jury is still out.
It’s arguable that its our collective ability to be deeply affected by stories has had the most influential impacts on humanity’s long trajectory. The worry is that VR may supplant stories with pure sensation, and as it becomes a dominant media modality, it may erode what culture has wrought, even as the lure of something that simply must be experienced comes wrapped up in a shiny new box. Anybody remember the great ennui forestalled with ever diminishing returns by the “feelies” in Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World?
I believe there are great, even thrilling and vital new worlds to discover in virtual space. In fact, the 1AU team is already deeply involved in developing new, high-concept projects. (Just ask us!) But in an effort to develop a VR (or AR) experience that rocks the house, it’s essential that narrative and story always direct the action, lest purely flashy but irrelevant sensations overwhelms the reason for spending time someplace that only pretends to be real.