“Virtual reality won’t merely replace television. It will eat it alive”. That is the aggressive prediction of Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer. But what is virtual reality (VR) and why should we be concerned about it?
VR is in its infancy so there isn't any general agreement about what it consists of or how fast and in what ways it will grow. Historians of the technology trace its origins back a century or so, to the first explorations of the principle of stereoscopy, or three-dimensional vision. Some decades ago cinema audiences were introduced to 3-D viewing of films, but the novelty didn’t catch on and wasn't developed. In the last decade or so VR has come on the scene in the USA. It has done so in the form of a computer-generated apparent, or virtual, world.
Like many inventions developed in capitalist society, VR benefitted from its military applications. This is how a writer in Business Week (5 October 1992) described a simulation at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency:
Instantly, you're transported inside a tank rolling across the Iraqi desert. You are performing the same maneuvers as a unit ... in the Persian Gulf war. The graphics on the screens are only video-game quality. Yet the illusion works. You duck as shells scream toward you and explode in ear-splitting fury.
That simulation was achieved by three five-foot screens. A more advanced form of VR is projections on stereoscopic lenses moulded inside helmets that participants wear. Multiple sensory information is conveyed. In some systems, a viewer wearing a sensor-laden glove manipulates objects in the computer. In others, images on the screen or a viewer’s perspective are manipulated with a mouse or joystick. Howard Rheingold, in his book Virtual Reality sums it up:
A virtual world is a computer that you operate with natural gestures, not by composing computer programmes, but by walking around, looking around, and using your hands to manipulate objects.
VR is a technology, that is, an applied science or way of achieving certain physical ends. Socialists are interested in technology from three different perspectives: as part of a critique of capitalism, as part of the case for socialism, and (controversially) as a feature of socialist society. These three perspectives will be considered one by one. although over time they may be seen as making up a single socialist perspective on the world.
Technology is used by capitalism mainly to make more profits for the few rather than to improve conditions of life for the many. The extraction of surplus value from workers has been possible since they were first compelled to sell their labour to owners of capital (employers). In the early days of capitalism, productivity was low because there were few machines, or only primitive machines, to make labour more productive. As capitalism developed, the process of exploitation remained essentially the same, but the means of wealth production and distribution became vastly more efficient. The wealth produced is grossly unequally distributed, both between nations and between rich and poor in each nation. And more goods and technological developments sometime have calamitous effects: cars and planes that crash, thalidomide children, nuclear power station disasters, oil tanker spillages, among many others.
VR is a typical example of the way capitalism distorts the development of a technology that has great potential for enhancing the quality of life. So far, most of the development has been for military purposes. Rheingold confidently predicts that “the two largest blocs of users of new information and communication technology in the 1990s will be the global finance and global entertainment industries”. VR might become as addictive, energy-sapping and intelligence-dulling as television, the “plug-in drug” which now requires the average abuser to consume seven hours a day.
Part of the case for socialism is that technology can be used directly for need—meeting and not profit—making purposes. Even with capitalism, technology can and is being used for life-enhancing as well as life-harming purposes—medical technology that saves lives (often after other technologies have imperilled them), environmental measures that increase crops rather than poison them, machines that reduce drudgery rather than killing or maiming workers. Socialism would mean using technology only for human purposes, not balancing those purposes against the pursuit of profit.
The electronic media—of which VR is the latest development—have been used thus far by a few to manipulate the desires of the many, resulting in huge profits for the successful entrepreneurs. With socialism, the really life-enhancing potentialities of VR can be developed, and the capitalist uses put in the history box alongside Cinerama.
With the establishment of socialism, democratic decisions can be made about the appropriate levels and types of technology to meet different needs in different environments. It is utopian in the bad sense to try to predict the future in any detail, except perhaps for fun. But we do need some general principles, today, to help us move towards more detailed principles and their application tomorrow. Marx quite sensibly refused to “write recipes for future cookshops”, but Morris envisaged a basically simple, low technology socialist society in News From Nowhere. Socialists this century have from time to time shown interest in the subject. In the 1950s some Socialist Party members expressed views generally sympathetic to a Morris-type socialist future, though with a critical reaction from most other members who felt there were advantages in retaining at least some hi-tech methods of production and distribution.
At this stage we can only speculate on how and to what extent socialist society will use VR or whatever future refinements of it may be invented. We can say with certainty that, since there will be no buying and selling and no rival nation states to prepare for and engage in war, VR will not be used for business or military purposes.
Three probable areas of VR application may be summarized as medical, industrial and political. The minimal physical activity required to participate in VR may enable the minds of severely physically disabled people to be liberated from the prisons of their bodies. Much work that is now tedious could be made more interesting by simulated realities that enable technical problems to be solved more easily.
The political applications are perhaps the most challenging. Electronic media have so far been controlled by capitalist government and business, whose electors and customers have been mere listeners or viewers. VR experts like to talk of “participants”, and there is scope for interaction between the providers of the virtual worlds and those who experience them. The technology will be there for people in socialist society to use for democratically-decided purposes.