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Virtual Reality as an Ethical Playground

Virtual reality
May 26 2017
Michael Taylor

Recently I tried virtual reality for the first time at Teknopolis, a “virtual-reality playground” hosted by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I was, you should know, the epitome of “target audience”: on top of being so technologically competent that my friends joke about my secretly being eighty, and on top of possessing certain prejudicial notions about entertainment technologies by virtue of moving in fiercely bibliophilic circles, I attended the event a few days after watching an episode of Black Mirror about a VR system that causes one’s own mind to generate whatever will terrify him/her most. In this state of mind/being, then, I waited forty minutes to strap a headset to my face and a rumble pack to my back and sit in a suspiciously comfortable-looking chair for, as the woman running this particular demo kept telling us, “between five to eight minutes” - or, as I understood this, between five to eight minutes of reality-as-we-know-it time and between .04 seconds and infinity of VR time.

What ended up happening was: I basically watched a poorly animated movie where I had to turn my head to see the whole screen. Also there was some excuse of a narrative that accompanied the graphic content, like in the film Gravity, only in this particular narrative nobody went into space; instead, a kid went into the woods with his sister and met a huge, orange elephant-dragon that flew him across the sea to an ice kingdom (what happened to the sister was unclear; also, the elephant-dragon’s teeth played musical notes when you looked at them). Afterwards, as I was walking out, a couple in line asked me if it was the worth the wait, and I told them politely that it was, in such a way that they immediately left the line.

My reaction to this experience was manifold. The octogenarian in me had no idea what had just happened, but was vaguely grateful for the rumble pack, which rumbled enough to give a fair backrub; the book enthusiast was smug, since this experience had been, although kind of “cool,” laughably underwhelming; and the Black Mirror fan in me was relieved that our current VR technology was so far behind the horror stuff in the show (and probably always will be, according to one VR creator interviewed here).

Afterwards, though, I started to think more sincerely about the issues and opportunities we’re going to have in the future, as VR technology becomes capable of creating more vivid and engaging experiences. I realize, for the record, that I am not breaking new ground here. Since VR, like death, is an experience we all know is coming but cannot fathom, many people have already generated elaborate imaginings about what our experiences in VR might look like. What’s more, many others have generated imaginings about how our experiences in this world will change when VR becomes, like, woah, the first existential alternative to, like, our reality, man. In particular, people seem fascinated by the idea of an increasingly large disconnect between our bodies and our consciousnesses (see the scene from Inception where people lie dreaming on trestles while IV chords pump life-sustaining nutrients through their veins).

VR, like the afterlife, like so many other mysteries that allow for infinite hope and fear, seems to drive people’s imaginations to extremes: heaven and hell, pure happiness and pure pain, horror and ecstatic pleasure. And of course there is a place for these kinds of imaginative experiments, especially since they can help us to understand not only what we fear and love, but also how our imaginations might represent these things as experiences. But if my experience with the musical-toothed elephant-dragon is any indication, we are a long way off from a world where people might be tempted to switch from our reality to a virtual one in any permanent sense.

What we are not a long way off from, though, is a world where virtual reality can be useful. In particular, VR can be useful in simulating high-stakes situations, thereby providing a kind of (virtual) hands-on training without any of the normal risks. Already VR is being used to simulate, among other things, flights, battlefield encounters, and surgeries. So then, as someone writing an ethics column, I am obviously wondering: can VR be used to simulate tricky ethical situations?

Let’s take, for example, a situation that goes terribly wrong so often it was recently made into a horror movie, albeit (to some degree) a facetious one: white girl brings her black boyfriend to dinner.

Now imagine that, before this boyfriend comes over, the girlfriend asks her parents to perform the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” scenario on their virtual reality devices. The parents agree. They strap on their headsets and meet this virtual boyfriend and commit all the stereotypical micro-aggressions: they go in for a handshake in a style they have never imagined, let alone tried; they call the boyfriend, “Man,” and surprise themselves by employing other slang terms whose meanings they do not know; they talk about Obama in vague constructions that would make equal sense if you replaced “Obama” with “that black man” or even “black people,” etc. etc. The girl, witnessing her parents’ performance, is, well, maybe not exactly shocked. Of course she had suspected, in some way, that her parents might not, er, conduct themselves 100% unembarrassingly in such a situation. But she had never bothered, or perhaps she had never been brave enough, to imagine what it would really look like if her parents had to meet her black boyfriend. Some things, for our sanity’s sake, are better left unimagined, right?

I think it’s tempting, at this point, to tie a nice little bow on this story - that is, to tell about how the parents take a seat on the sofa and the girlfriend illustrates on a wheeled-in blackboard, using football Xs and Os, how her parents have blundered, at which point the parents nod and scribble in their spiral notebooks. Flash forward a few days, and the parents are shaking the boyfriend’s hand in a totally uninteresting and slightly awkward way and inviting him to come in and make himself comfortable and asking him questions about what he’s been up to lately, instead of vigorously parrying imagined accusations by praising the Obama administration and remembering how much they liked Luther Vandross in college. But, alas, probably one trial of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” isn’t going to solve much, if anything, for these parents.

But what if the girlfriend did not ask her parents to perform the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” scenario as a personal favor to her, but as part of a larger study of how white parents might act if their daughter brought a black boyfriend to dinner. Such a study might help to chip away at myths about “the death of racism” that survive, to a large extent, because (unofficial) segregation ensures that many white people will hardly ever find themselves interacting with black people, let alone interacting with black people in ethically fraught situations. In other words: “racism” (by which I do not mean explicit beliefs about superiority and inferiority but quite simply a set of unconscious feelings about people of a certain skin color) often seems dead not because it is, but because our actual reality has been structured in a way that effectively hides it, that minimizes the types of human interactions that might reveal it. Now, imagine if we had a different kind of reality that we could structure to tease out people’s latent fears and biases and ignorance, but without those fears and biases and ignorances exacting any toll on their real-world objects!

What a thing that would be.


MICHAEL TAYLOR is a recent grad with interests in literature, sports, and film. His favorite author is Ernest Hemingway; his favorite sports teams are The Boston Red Sox and Sporting Clube de Portugal; and his favorite shot is the opening one from Touch of Evil, a film which he prefers to Citizen Kane, and not, he hopes, only because one way people like to showcase their refinement of taste is to argue that the work people generally consider to be some master's masterwork is not even the master's best work. For now, Michael is living in Cape Verde and working at writing. He hopes to attend a graduate program in Creative Writing at some point in the future.