Our Reality Crisis

In one week, barring some 2000-style electoral nightmare, we’ll wake up knowing who the next President of the United States will be. A significant portion of the electorate will not accept this reality. Chances are these will be the same people who believe our current president was born in Kenya and is a Muslim.

We live in an age when it’s easier than ever to live in our own reality bubbles based on beliefs that have no basis in fact. An election season in which three presidential debates produced not a single question about climate change–the most pressing issue of our time–is a sign that empiricism and rational thought are losing.

If I were to stick a pin in the moment when America’s sense of reality shifted, it would have to be an October 17, 2004 article in The New York Times Magazine by Ron Suskind called “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W Bush.” In the article, Suskind quotes an unnamed aide (who later was revealed to be Karl Rove). The passage is haunting, and seems to get at the core of what troubles America in 2016. It’s worth quoting in full (emphasis my own):

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

As we know, the moment when one is forced to face facts is called a reckoning. Forestalling a reckoning means clinging to realities created by beliefs that aren’t based on a judicial study of discernible reality. Beliefs like Trump’s assertion that the election of Hillary Clinton will lead to the population of the United States growing by over 650 million immigrants in a single week, a phenomenon that would mean absorbing the entire population of South America and then some. And yet plenty of people go on believing this falsehood.

In the midst of our reality crisis, it would seem that the emergence of a medium that simulates reality to such an uncanny degree would further plunge us down a rabbit hole of science denial and fatuous invention. But I’m starting to wonder if virtual reality could help open our eyes to the challenges facing us in base reality, in two ways–by scaring the hell out of us, and by getting us to better empathize with one another.

I’ve read a few pieces here and there about the power of VR to terrify people, and how this is a bad thing. I disagree completely. I think we create works of art to scare ourselves in order to help us cope with real-life frights. It’s useful to remember that some of the first audiences of Psycho were so shaken that they had trouble sleeping and stopped taking showers. Becoming complacent with the horror narratives of the past means we aren’t equipping ourselves to confront the real-life horrors of the present. We have always needed scary stories to prep us for scary realities. And signs point to some horrible realities coming our way.

Last weekend I was on a panel on VR at RenCon with Eugene Capon and Eric Neuman, and at one point a woman in the audience made a distinction between “empathy” and “sympathy,” saying that empathy is being able to imagine the experience of another person, and sympathy is feeling for that person. Much of the commentary about VR so far has included observations that it can help “build empathy,” a term I find linguistically suspect. I prefer the verb form of “empathy” and would suggest that we start thinking of VR as a tool that helps us empathize.

Immersive technology will change the way we interact with other people in base reality. It might give us tools to make it both easier to confront terrifying challenges like the coming uninhabitability of parts of the earth and the civil unrest that will follow. And it may, ironically, remind us that we do share the same world and aren’t so different from one another.

Media theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman teach us that the very form of a medium conveys meta-information that shapes our perceptions and influences the structures of our societies. For the past decade we’ve been living under the influence of social media, the dominant medium of our time. I have a feeling that in a hundred years this period will be viewed as a weird blip, when people divided themselves into various online tribes and spoke to one another with the vehemence of a driver cursing other drivers in rush hour traffic.

Perform the following thought experiment. Let’s say that tomorrow you woke up to the news that Twitter had gone out of business and was closing immediately. How would that make you feel? Would you feel dismayed that you no longer had a way to communicate with your many thousands of followers? Or would you feel relieved?

When was the last time you read something about Twitter being a beneficial technology? More often, I read stories of Twitter trolling like the abuse heaped on the comedian Leslie Jones, or stories about Donald Trump’s tweeting habits. Twitter is a platform that seems to have been designed to maximize bullying, shaming, and intimidation. I know what it’s like to be mobbed on Twitter, and now measure every word I release into the public, in part, with fear of unleashing an online tweet storm.

Immersive technologies hold out a promise to course correct our society after the Balkanizing forces of social media, by scaring us into better recognizing real threats, and by suggesting that the person standing across the wall from us might be not as different and scary as we were previously led to believe. VR could bring us closer together and equip us to confront what’s truly real.