Virtual Reality, Virtual Mistress
On escaping the unreal
I met a woman once whose adolescent son played video games all day, and sometimes through the night. He preferred not to go outside, as it made him anxious. Possibly he already had difficulties with anxiety before he got addicted to video games, but it was clear his anxiety worsened after he got into the games.
The son himself didn’t think he had a problem. He admitted that going outside made him anxious, and he could see how spending too much time in virtual reality could make him less tolerant and comfortable with ordinary reality. But much as he could see these things, it wasn’t enough to justify reducing his gaming. He didn’t feel lonely either. His virtual friends in the virtual world were just as real, to him, as physical friends might be to other people.
I don’t know whatever happened to the woman and her son, but I have been thinking about them lately, as my older son, now an adolescent, has also gotten into gaming. He isn’t allowed to play very much (his parents being scrupulously strict about that), but one can still see the effect: the wretched moodiness when his virtual world must be shut down, and his hankering to plunge back in the first moment he gets.
As part of a summer project, we’ve asked him to read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens—a book that runs hundreds of pages—in the hope that spending an hour each day reading Victorian English might offset the mentally dulling and addictive impact of videogaming, and maybe teach him a thing or two about life.
He’s agreed to go along with it, though when I see him on the back porch with that fat, archaic novel in hand, I ask myself, Will any good come of it? Is he even paying attention? Is he bored out of his mind?
Now, I can imagine a professor of literature standing over my shoulder, reminding me that in Victorian times, some would have regarded the novel just as morally dubious as many of us now regard videogaming. The concern, then, was more about women than teenage boys, but the essence of it was the same: a fear that people who read too many novels might not be able to differentiate between fiction and life.
I get the point, in principle. But I’m not convinced. If the immersive power of a novel is like a glass of wine, videogaming is crack cocaine.
The people behind Facebook’s new virtual reality platform, Meta, might accuse me of cherry-picking a negative example of the technology. VR will be used for positive purposes, they promise, like teaching medical students to perform heart surgery on virtual patients. Meanwhile, medical students in Cambridge have become the first in the world to train on holographic patients.
I don’t doubt VR will have educational value. But I’m about as convinced that VR will be used primarily for education as I am of the Internet being for honest, thoughtful discourse. What I foresee is more digital debauchery; more porn, social media, polarizing news, and general Net-farting, only with more vividness and reek than ever before.
Of course some of us will manage to use VR technology with prudence: with self-control, only for specific tasks, only for so long. We’ll be the VR Victorians. The wisest of us will avoid it altogether. For the rest, though, it’ll be oink, oink, snout in the trough, eating up whatever’s served.
A man and his mistress
It would be a mistake to stop here and blame it all on technology or the Machine. Blame is easy, projecting everything out there. There’s another way to look at the problem. Take the man who cheats on his wife.
The man and his mistress meet outside of town, in a remote parking spot in a woodland reserve. He pulls up beside her vehicle and slips through the back door of her SUV, where she is waiting for him, fragranced with Lily of the Valley. They do what they do amid the tinted windows, which steam up over the course of the hour, and then they go home. They meet two, three times a week.
The mistress is a physical person. The SUV and the woodland reserve are physical places and things. What the man and his mistress do together are physical things. But none of what happens is entirely real.
In carrying on with a mistress, the man is operating outside of the reality he shares with his wife and children. The essence of this reality is: I am your father, I am your husband, and that means I’m faithful to the promises I’ve made and would never betray you.
But betrayal is precisely what he does. We might be tempted to say the man is living a lie, but that isn’t going far enough. The man has stepped away from the reality he has vowed to uphold, to create a second reality, a private world-within-a-world, with separate rules and parameters that don’t overlap with the original reality. The man is living in a virtual reality.
In the virtual reality of the affair, the man can be an altogether different person. Perhaps he even discovers a side of himself he can’t express when he’s with his wife. In those moments, he feels more real, more alive, with his mistress than with his wife.
But those moments eventually come to an end, and invariably he is back at home again, bandaging his little boy’s elbow, or helping his daughter with her algebra, or making love to his wife.
Really, it’s a brain-addling situation. When the man is with his mistress, his life with her can seem more real than his wife and family. When the man is with his wife and family, they can seem more real than his mistress. At the worst of times the man cannot tell which reality is virtual and which is not. His value system has become an Escher lithograph, an impossible world in which paradox and contradiction are the only viable options.
If the man has any religious belief, he might be seized with guilt and pray for his soul. He might even become aware that his virtual reality doesn’t only contradict his personal integrity, but God—the transcendent Reality that underpins his own. He’s not only caused harm to his marriage and family relationships. He’s willfully rejected truth in exchange for unreality.
This knowledge scorches his conscience, but it also gives him an advantage. It reminds him there is a distinction between the real and the unreal. It shows him he’s lost. It gives him an idea of how he might find his way again.
Whether he uses this knowledge is another matter. He might question it, even reject it, which would put him in the Escher lithograph, alternating between realities of mistress and wife and not being able to decide which is real and which is virtual—and maybe wondering if both are virtual. Who knows, he might even get to like the labyrinth?
Finding a way out
I’ve no doubt the corporate arm of the Machine would love to see us virtually brain-addled. It’s easier to profit from people who become apathetic about what is real, and whose hunger for the virtual borders on addiction.
It’s also easier to control their thoughts and behavior. I won’t have much to say about that, mostly because Bob Moran says it better:
The problem we’re facing is not a new problem but an ancient one—distinguishing truth from deception and falsity—except that VR multiplies the severity of the problem beyond all previous human comprehension.
Most of us don’t want to be trapped in an Escher-world. If we’re Pilgrims, we want to follow a true walking path on a true landscape, not a trail of illusions.
But illusions can be persuasive and enticing. Even when we know they’re false we may struggle to make them true. A motivated mind will find a way, always, to validate the perceptions of its gullible ego—to insist the poisonous mushroom is edible.
We are creative beings, but not all creativity is helpful. How do we find the true path, the Reality?
Getting a group of Substack readers to agree on “reality” is way above my pay-scale, but I do have one trick, the ju-jitsu mirror, which has the power to reverse Machine unreality and thwart the Machine’s control over our minds. So, hold the magic mirror up to VR, and what does it tell us?
VR offer us limitless virtual worlds to explore.
Therefore, seek limits.
VR offers virtual experiences without the need for commitment.
Therefore, seek permanence.
VR encourages us to indulge our felt needs and desires to the point of restless dissatisfaction.
Therefore, be grateful for what we already have.
Don’t trust the ju-jitsu mirror on its own, though. Let’s turn to psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. The book is almost twenty years old, written when the Internet was still losing its baby teeth, but its message—that having less, not more, makes us happier—is even more relevant today.
Schwartz suggest ways of managing the overabundance of choice in our lives. For instance, we need to be satisficers. The word is a combination of “satisfy” and “suffice” and means knowing when things are good enough or just right. Conversely, we should avoid being maximizers,
who suffer most in a culture that provides too many choices…It is maximizers who worry most about regret, about missed opportunities, and about social comparisons, and it is maximizers who are most disappointed when the results of decisions are not as good as they expected. Learning to accept “good enough” will simplify decision making and increase satisfaction…
Accepting “good enough” has never been harder than now, as Internet and virtual reality platforms are designed to maximize possibilities, opportunities, social comparisons, and options—that is, to make us feel that we’re utterly inadequate.
Schwartz also encourages us to learn to “love constraints”. Related to that, and more shocking, is this bit of advice: make your decisions nonreversible.
When we can change our minds about decisions, we are less satisfied with them. When a decision is final, we engage in a variety of psychological processes that enhance our feelings about the choice we made relative to the alternatives…Agonizing over whether your love is “the real thing” or your sexual relationship above or below par, and wondering whether you could have done better is a prescription for misery.
And here’s Schwartz on gratitude:
When life is not too good, we think a lot about how it could be better. When life is going well, we tend not to think much about how it could be worse. But with practice, we can learn to reflect on how much better things are then they might be, which will in turn make the good things in life feel even better.
Gratitude. Committed decision-making. Loving limitations. Resisting the urge to maximize. These are reliable signposts that may help us navigate our way out of the Escher labyrinth, whether its addictive videogaming or infidelity, or some other beguiling unreality.
The Schwartz/ju-jitsu mirror advice might feel old-fashioned, even a bit dull. Nonreversible decisions? Limits and constraints? What about exploration and discovery and wonder? M.C. Escher himself once remarked “You have to retain a sense of wonder; that’s what it’s all about”.
We’ve all felt the yearning for wonder, for possibility and fresh horizons, and I don’t believe that yearning is wrong or false. But if that yearning is a wild animal, it needs the right kind of wilderness. Not an Escher reality that bedazzles and dulls the mind, but a wilderness of limits that awakens and strengthens the best of our human instincts.
Failing that, we risk living in an increasing unreality, one that seeps out of digitally dazed human lives and spreads into the world, a bold lie writ large across our cities and landscapes, turning the journey of the Pilgrim into an endless spiral that amazes, yet never gets beyond the place it started.
So, let the poet yearn for a wilderness of words; the violinist for a wilderness of four strings; parents for a wilderness of commitments; hermits for a wilderness of prayers. The way forward is to see the wilderness within the confines, and to let the yearning gush within those narrows.
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