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The Future of Reality

It is widely understood, thanks to Stephen Colbert and others, that we are living in a “post-truth” world. What is...

9 Minutes Read

It is widely understood, thanks to Stephen Colbert and others, that we are living in a “post-truth” world. What is less well understood though is that the demise of truth is but the opening chapter of a broader story – the death of reality.

We stand today on the cusp of a “post-reality” world.

Notions of objectivity, fact, and consensual, Platonic, actuality - which have withered in the face of multi-generational waves of individualism, relativism, and the primacy of opinion - are set to be further molded, like a sheet of titanium at the hands of Frank Gehry, by a new generation of technology which will alter reality in even more profound ways.

I speak of course of virtual reality

Before we focus on the future though, we should recognize that these prior, multi-generational waves have been catalyzed and super-sized by previous generations of tech;

  • The Lumiere Brother’s technology created the modern concept of “celebrity” – Florence Lawrence, Al Jolson, Charlie Chaplin …
  • John Logie Baird’s technology shrank the silver screen and scaled “celebrity” by bringing “personalities” into our living rooms – Johnny Carson, Walter Cronkite, Julia Child, Robin Day …
  • Tim Berners Lee/Marc Andreessen/Mullenweg & Little’s technology shrank the Gogglebox and scaled the platform (a desktop, a laptop) for anyone to be the celebrity/personality of their own story …
  • Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg/Jack Dorsey’s technology shrank the desktop/laptop and scaled the platform (social media on a smartphone) for everyone to be the hero of their own story - for everyone to be famous to 15 people, as writer David Weinberger puts it.

Layer after layer of technology has facilitated you/me/us to place you/me/us at the center of the/our world. In my/our world “reality” is what I/we think it is. If you disagree, well, that’s simply your reality …

The implications of this are only beginning to be understood;

  • In a political context, tribalism is re-emerging as recommendation engines create echo chambers of partisan realities
  • In a scientific context, evidence based theories (climate change, vaccination, Origin/Creation) are being dismissed with evidence-free beliefs
  • In a legal context, video footage is (paradoxically) diluting the ability to establish the truth of an incident
  • In a philosophical context, the very question “what is a fact” is being litigated by high ranking academics
  • In the broadest, societal context, e pluribus unum is being replaced by e pluribus pluribus.

And now this new class of technology – VR - is gathering momentum, and is set to further untether us from the “real” world.

My colleagues and I have written positively about the future of virtual and augmented reality in recent months https://cogniz.at/2QXkLfh https://cogniz.at/2QRTLOm https://cogniz.at/2IfRwQW https://cogniz.at/2N1kJjF and we continue to be excited about the potential for this new Sixth Dimension. I recently took an amazing VR “flight” over Paris at Flyview Paris which I highly recommend if you find yourself in the City of Lights.

But the negative possibilities of VR are only too apparent. In a rev or two of technological development, VR – allied with emerging possibilities in image fidelity and manipulation, and sensory overlay (auditory and haptic) – will allow us to leave our temporal casings behind …

Ready Player One (interesting book, less interesting movie …) sketched out this moment of metamorphosis through a Saturday night, ticket/popcorn selling, teenage audience sort of way. But impressive as it was (for about 15 minutes) Steven Spielberg’s vision was more focused on being fast and furious rather than slow and contemplative, which though not a great title for a movie, is the approach needed (IMHO) as we approach the further dilution of a reality based paradigm.

Just imagine …

  • Being on stage at Madison Square Gardens, standing stage left behind Bruce Springsteen as he belts out Thunder Road
  • Being on Center Court at Wimbledon, playing a sweet one-handed backhand that leaves Roger Federer gasping as he falls helplessly to his knees
  • Being on the floor of the US Senate, soaking up the back-slapping approval of your fellow Senators as you finish your speech about the need to repeal Roe Versus Wade immediately
  • Being on the set of Wolf, destroying your fellow panelists with the wit and power of your unshackled invective
  • Being in the real Situation Room, standing Zelig-like, as the President orders the bombing to commence …

… and then having to take off the HoloLens Headset, the Uniqlo Surround Suit and leave the VR Box (which stands where you used to have your ping-pong table) to reenter your ordinary house on an ordinary street in the ordinary suburb of an ordinary city in an ordinary country in an ordinary world on an ordinary Tuesday evening.

What a drag

Just as millions of people around the world use alcohol or drugs (sometimes both) to alter reality – in truth to leave reality behind for a while – VR environments will allow us to more fully leave reality behind. And just as thousands of people around the world are unable to control their use of alcohol and drugs - and technology – to the point where they are no longer able to leave their reality behind at all, VR will seduce many people into a permanent reality which is not reality.

Addiction, to the non-addict, is completely incomprehensible. But to the addict addiction is entirely rational. [Read/watch Patrick Melrose for insight into this reality]. As VR environments become more real, as the price points plummet, as elites and deplorables decouple, as the social rot of Middletown, Ohio, Hillbilly Elegy Memoir Family Culture spreads to Middletown, Anywhere, as lives that for many people increasingly become nasty, brutish and long, the seductions of non-reality will be more and more appealing to broader and broader swathes of people around the world.

What happens then, you may, as I do, wonder?

Ready Player One ends with a kiss, as all good Hollywood movies do. Things in our new unreal world may not turn out quite so well. The atomization of society, into multi-realties, in which no one reality has primacy, in which the views of the virtuously oppressed trump the views of those who thought they were the arbiters or fact (history, historically, being written by the winners), opens up a new reality that may come to seem unreal.

DVRs long ago shattered broadcasting. Many lament the passing of time spent at the watercooler where everyone (well 106 million people) had watched – simultaneously – the last episode of M*A*S*H. The aforementioned Patrick Melrose was a hit in the U.S. with an audience of 197,000 viewers; the definition of an age of narrowcasting. The also aforementioned Bruce Springsteen complained in 1992 that there were “57 channels and nothing on”. Now Netflix alone has over 8,000 movies or TV shows on. Throw in Hulu and Apple and Prime etc. etc., and the total amount of entertainment (without considering music, podcasting etc.) available constantly and instantaneously is extraordinary. But watercooler conversations are trickier when the reality of your Sunday evening viewing was Maniac and the reality of mine was A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. [Wasn’t very good. Save yourself 2 hours].

Escape from reality to entertainment, narcotics and hooch has created a depressing reality. We have amused ourselves to the point where politics has become a reality TV game(oh, the irony) with the entirely predictable outcome being the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And we have ended up in a place where while the 24 hours new cycle has proven that TV is indeed the opium of the masses, opium is now really the opium of the masses …

The Cheshire Cat said “I am not crazy, my reality is just different from yours”. How generations of us have laughed at Lewis Carroll’s allegedly/potentially drug induced ravings and seen them as just good fun. In the coming Wonderland of widely used VR the very fabric of the real world may come under further and further strain.

If e pluribus unum does really come to passAmerica will be a very different place from just a few years ago. If these dynamics play out similarly in other parts of the world – as they seem to be doing – Planet Earth will be unrecognizable to those of us who have inhabited a shared reality during our ride on the merry-go-round. If technology – not exclusively, but prominently, VR – further super-sizes a drift away from reality to realities, a reality that none of us will recognize may be made real. Maybe we should stop and remember before it’s too late that reality may be over rated, and it may suck, but reality also bites.


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