When future shock is the norm

One evening, a very long time ago, Chuang Tzu laid his head down to sleep. Asleep, he dreamt he was a butterfly. He flittered from flower to flower, felt the gentle breeze carry him, free to enjoy the warm spring sun on his wings. He was quite sure he was a butterfly. Until he awoke. Then all certainty left him and he asked himself, am I a man who dreamt he was a butterfly or am I a butterfly now dreaming he is a man.

If he wasn’t sure about the nature of his existence then, what might Chuang Tzu make of the life we live now? Our lives are lived increasingly virtually. Work meetings have gone from sitting in rooms with real people to watching videos. Paying has gone from handing over little metallic objects to tapping our phones. Entertainment has gone from making an event of going to the cinema to streaming more than a lifetime’s worth of TV to our laptops. And the virtualisation of our reality is a one way street. Our real lives will never be this real again.

Virtual Reality is next.

Putting on that virtual reality headset will bring about a huge shift in the very nature of our relationship with technology. No longer will we regard it simply as a tool that we pick up and manipulate through our hands, just as humans have since we picked up sticks and shaped stones into axe heads. No longer will we interface with our technology through our hands. This is a threshold. This changes everything. With VR, the interface blurs out of existence. We are immersed in the technology. We become part of it.

How then might we understand our new full, convincing, immersive virtual world.

Virtual reality has to be inherently skeuomorphic. We only understand the virtual world because it looks similar and feels familiar to the real world. Up is still up, some things appear nearer than others, so the relationships we understand from our physical reality still stand. But a purely virtual world the law of gravity isn’t a physical law programmed into the nature of the universe, it’s a choice programmed into the code of the virtual experience, which means it can be changed. Does up still mean the same thing to us when we can immediately fly to where up used to be?

Virtual reality has to have object relationships. The philosopher Philip Brey argues that anything that is socially constructed, things such as financial assets, property, legal obligations, credentials and social status, can be reconstructed virtually. So we can expect these non-physical things to have an existence in our virtual worlds and to continue to mean only what they mean in our minds. Money is only valuable if we say it is and marriages only mean something if we want them to. But in a virtual world rules and relationships can be changed. They start as transplants from the physical world as we know it, but they can become whatever the virtual rule makers choose. Virtual money could be decoupled from real world currency and earned through attention rather than effort or skill. Marriages could be between human and avatar, or between a group to create shared resources. Do rules mean the same when those we have made up can be remade for a virtual world?

It’s this flexibility and changeability of how our virtual worlds are constructed that will define how we come to understand them. Everything can be any way someone wants it to be, and can be changed as often as they choose. If things feel like they’ve changed quickly in the recent past of our physical world, we’re in for a shock for how quickly they will change in our virtual worlds in the future.

The question for virtual reality isn’t about telling the difference between the virtual and the real, it’s about how it will create an order of magnitude more change than we’ve experienced so far. Chuang Tzu won’t have time to ask whether he was dreaming or not, he’ll be too busy dealing with the pace of change.

In a virtual reality, future shock becomes the norm.