How tech companies turned an instrument of human potential into one of exploitation
“This is going to change everything” Timothy Leary told me as he took off his bulky headset and pulled an electronic glove from his right hand. It was the early 1990s, at a rave club in San Francisco. The famed psychologist and popularizer of psychedelic drugs had ventured into virtual reality for the first time, and he was reeling. At last, a technology capable of taking humanity to the next stage of consciousness and communication.
In those early days, virtual reality was respected. Feared, even. Full immersion was a portal to the great unknown — a reality that could become indistinguishable from real life, and maybe swallow you up. Experiencing virtual reality (VR) was to going online like what LSD was to smoking marijuana: the full on, total experience of digital autonomy. Liftoff. But VR in those days wasn’t about immersion so much as expression. We imagined creating simulations of our dreams for others to experience; expressing ourselves to our friends with no words at all; or constructing worlds with completely different rules through which we could model new social norms.
If the current iteration of virtual and augmented reality really does take off this time, I fear it will be as an entertainment, yet another diversion from the supposedly untenable reality of being human. The technology companies leading the charge seem eager to leave that dangerous, creative potential of VR behind, making it less about what people might do with such powerful tools, and more about what they — and other corporate brands — can do to us or sell us, once we’ve jacked in to a reality they control. Less like the fulfillment of the internet’s great democratic promise, and more like the final stage of television.
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