My friend Cathy O’Neil just sent me an article she wrote for the NY Times reviewing two books by technologists about virtual reality (VR). Part of her take was that neither book talked enough about ways that VR could be abused, and she speculated that worrying about VR was still mostly the provenance of science fiction writers (think Star Trek) rather than technologists.
I’m pretty comfortable around both sci-fi and technology, but you really don’t need to be an expert in either to worry about how VR could upend our lives and civilization. Just some sense of recent history is enough. If you think that massive computational power, the internet, and smartphones might have turned out to be a bit more than we bargained for, maybe it’s time to consider how amazingly well-positioned VR is to amplify some of the most troublesome aspects of the technology revolution:
Personalization. We’ve learned over the last quarter century that we don’t mind being monitored (cookies, GPS, Fitbits), just as long as some benefits (recommendations, special offers, traffic advice, a tailored Facebook feed, the ability to broadcast our 5.4 mile running route to all our friends) come from crunching the resulting data. Never mind who might be storing all that data or what they might be doing with it.
Now think about VR, which massively scales up both the amount of data and the ability to collect it. On one hand, VR is an immersive experience, generated by high dimensional data sets (indeed, one of the uses of VR is as a tool to allow us to navigate data sets that are otherwise too complex to make sense of; see here or here or here). On the other, VR is delivered through a device, which can be used to track eye movements, and VR technology to monitor other biometrics like heart rate, pulse, and electrical activity in the brain is already on the way (see here or here). You’ve probably heard of Google’s A/B tests, which enable web designers to vary individual aspects of a web page and track how people respond. Now imagine such tests in VR space, targeted at each individual user, and able both to vary all kinds of stimuli affecting all the senses, and to measure all kinds of response. In a contest between your family, friends, and VR set over who knows you better, it’s hard to see the humans having a chance.
Addictiveness. By now it’s sort of a cliche to hear a technologist speak thoughtfully about how they won’t let their children near smartphones or Instagram until they’re in high school, or to read articles about internet use sprinkled with multiple mentions of dopamine. Won’t this all seem quaint in a few years, when internet porn gives way to (personalized!) VR sex, and your social network can deliver a full VR simulation of your crush’s reaction to the cute photo you just posted, not just a stylized thumbs-up or heart. Um, yeah, VR is going to make the virtual world way more addictive. “Why go into the outside world at all, it’s such a fright,” as Black Flag sang, to their televisions, and that was at least two whole generations of technology ago!
Marketing. I was born in the Soviet Union, which had no ads, and it always felt strange to me that our entire media landscape (or, today, our entire information landscape) was driven by companies inserting little messages meant to sell you things. For one thing, I was always a bit skeptical that advertising was actually worth it. Well, with VR, there’ll be no question, because we’ll be able to track the outcomes of ads so precisely: eyeballs widen, heart rate rises just a bit, electrical activity heightens in the buying center of the brain (which by this time we will have effectively mapped, using — what else — VR technology). Advertisers will know exactly which ads worked (so the economy will make sense!), and, with predictive analytics and the heavy volumes of data attached to VR, they’ll also know which ads will work, for any given person. And lots of them will, because VR’s ability to virtually sample any product you might imagine might make it the most effective advertising medium ever. If today we think about ads as delivering eyeballs and clicks, in the age of VR, they might be delivering (virtual) wallets directly.
Will users object? One more thing we’ve learned in the internet age is that people don’t seem to mind being targeted with ads across their entire virtual experience. Ad-based media still dominate, while raising revenues via direct subscription works for a few niche publications at best. The internet is funded by advertising. Why wouldn’t VR be?
Though VR seems expensive today — the domain of rich NFL teams needing to train quarterbacks to have split second reactions to thousands of different stimuli, as Cathy writes in her book review — from another point of view, it might actually be quite cheap. In the non-virtual world, you have to be rich to sit in the front row at midfield at the Super Bowl, or swim with tortoises in the Galapagos Islands, or climb Mount Everest. But, mass adoption of VR could be a great leveler in a way, making virtual versions of all of these accessible to the masses. Being marketed to may seem like a small price to pay to have these experiences, especially if the income gap between rich and poor grows as technology makes more and more segments of the economy winner-take-all. Sure, VR might enable advertisers to fully exploit you economically, to optimize and control all of your purchasing power — but so what, we haven’t been troubled yet whenever our technology asks us to give up control to gain comfort.
The scariest thing about VR might be that it could be more of the same, but on steroids. If we’ve shown no societal ability so far to confront technology addiction, data collection and surveillance, or media manipulation, what happens when VR technology renders all of these ten times more powerful? Be afraid, be very afraid.