March 3, 2012

Virtual reality for escapism or empathizing?

Individuals choose whether or not to adopt a certain technology, and how to use it if they do. I'll never get a smartphone, and even my cell phone I use way more for talking than texting.

The distribution of people along some psychological trait can change within several generations. So even if the same technology were introduced into the different time periods, its adoption and use would differ as well, perhaps dramatically.

In recent decades, we've shifted more in the autistic direction, so that we find people lining up outside Apple stores long in advance of the launch for the newest iPod, iPhone, Macbook, or whatever. Back in the good old days nobody was disturbed enough to do that for the original Walkman or its successors, VCRs, the '80s Macintosh computers, and so on.

Most views of virtual reality agree that it if it were available, it would be used for individual escapist purposes. That's what just about everyone does with the internet and video games, for example. It would be even easier to pretend to be interacting with others in virtual reality, so presumably if it existed right now, what residue of social cohesion that there is would dissolve.

But in 1983, the makers of the movie Brainstorm toyed with the idea of virtual reality that would allow the user to directly experience another person's thoughts, feelings, and memories, i.e. to maximally empathize with them. These qualities would be recorded by the same device, just as a VCR can both record and play back video.

It's not a very good movie, although some of the special effects look great. Happily, they don't try to explain the scientific backstory of how the device works -- only that it somehow records all of those qualities from one person's brain, and can transmit those into the brain of another. The movie focuses instead on what the implications would be.

One man involved on the project uses it to experience sex with a babe, where the guy who recorded it has no uniquely identifying features -- he's just there while the woman rides him. So, the user doesn't empathize with a particular person, just some generic dude who serves as his escapist conduit. That's what it would turn into if adopted today.

But the lead character uses it to experience the death of a close colleague who recorded her brain as she passed away. He re-lives the personal memories that flashed before her eyes, looks down on her body as her soul floated upward, and beholds a sublime sight of angels heading toward a great cosmic light source. Earlier he had used it to see how his estranged wife felt about him, and to give her a recording of his own warm memories about the two of them, so that she could re-live their better times.

He uses the device to empathize with specific other people, not the unidentifiable and interchangeable recorders of a porn episode or a rollercoaster ride experience.

Again it's probably not worth seeing unless you can find it cheap. It struck me more for its historical value, namely that movie-makers once thought of how virtual reality might be used to help us empathize more directly, rather than retreat even further from social interactions.

1 comment:

  1. Your description of Brainstorm reminded me of a game that was released a little while back called To The Moon(

    I think that game makers (the smaller teams, not mainstream developers) are slowly realizing the need to combat what you're talking about-how video games are just empty, antisocial escapism that detract from real life. There has been some talk of using games to educate, and to present alternate viewpoints, but pretty much all of the games that have tried to do this have been pretty bad.


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