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Monday Memory: In 2012, Academics Found Many Enjoy Virtual Experiences Over Real Ones. By 2014, VR Leaders Were Trying to Put That Into Practice.


"We're Not Ready For An Era Where People Prefer Virtual Experiences To Real Ones" is a classic post from 2012, citing an important just released study:

Co-authored last year by leading virtual world academic Edward Castronova [it] suggests that people get more happiness from being in Second Life than they do from good news in their real life. In other words, as he wrote on his blog, "Second Life is providing a big chunk of life satisfaction, just as big as the factors that previous researchers on life satisfaction have found were the 'biggies,' like health, employment, and family relationships."

It calls to mind a scene in The Matrix (watch above) where Cypher, a guy who enjoys eating virtual steak even if it doesn't exist, decides to betray his real life friends in exchange for an even more luxurious virtual life. AI representative Agent Smith promises to make that happen.

"I think few MMO/virtual world players would make as stark and serious a choice as Cypher did," I observed back then, "but at the same time, we are already well acquainted with many who do sacrifice aspects of their real life for their virtual one — jobs and chores skipped, friends and loved ones ignored, so some of us could spend just a little more time socializing or gaming in a 3D digital landscape that doesn't strictly exist."

I'd argue that it's a false choice, since we often enhance real life friendships in virtual worlds, or just as important, can form new friendships that transcend distance, national origin, and other accidents of our birth. And metaverse platforms enable many of us to make some or most of our real life income from our virtual world content.

But looking back, the wild thing is many in the virtual world/virtual reality industry willingly took on that Agent Smith role, offering to pacify the poor of the world by giving them a better virtual life. As I wrote in my book:


Matrix Experience Machine VR

Back in 2014, shortly after Meta announced acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus VR for 2 billion dollars, the firm’s very young founder Palmer Luckey appeared onstage at a Silicon Valley conference devoted to VR and creating the Metaverse. Someone in the audience asked Luckey why he spoke of a “moral imperative” to bring virtual reality to the masses. 

"This is one of those crazy man topics," Luckey began, “but it comes down to this: Everyone wants to have a happy life, but it's going to be impossible to give everyone everything they want." 

Instead, he went on, developers can now create virtual versions of real experiences reserved only for the wealthy.

It was actually John Carmack who first spoke about a “moral imperative” to develop the Metaverse, and as far back as 1999. The term alludes not to Kant but, as Carmack once told me by e-mail, is a line from the 80s movie Real Genius. (“So don’t take it too terribly seriously.”) 

But he is quite serious about the moral part:

“There is no technical reason why a VR headset needs to be much more expensive than a cell phone,” as he put it to me. “These are devices that you could imagine almost everyone in the world owning. This means that some fraction of the desirable experiences of the wealthy can be synthesized and replicated for a much broader range of people, and that is a reasonable characterization of the positive aspects of a technological civilization.”

I tend to think a future where billions of the globe’s most destitute queue up to enter Internet cafes in smoggy, sunbaked megalopolises so that they can briefly enjoy a virtual beach on a tropical island in the Metaverse seems pretty dystopian. But then again, many making VR and metaverse platforms would strenuously disagree with me.

Carmack and Luckey are hardly alone among pioneers of the virtual reality/metaverse business who well and truly believe that their technology is an adequate pacifier for the underprivileged.

“In a sense some of the things he’s saying are mild in relation to what some of my friends in Silicon Valley say,” as VR pioneer Jaron Lanier once told me, when I asked for his thoughts on Palmer Luckey’s vision of a virtual utopia for the poor. “I hear a lot of talk that people who are rich and successful will be immortal and everyone else will get a simulated reality. And that’s the kind of thing that’s really evil that might lead to a violent reaction.”

Fortunately, the appeal of VR has proven to be limited, so the seductive power of these would-be Agent Smiths is limited. So far.


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