from the fear-is-the-mind-killer dept
Right on cue, the backlash began in earnest this week. Countless news outlets and Twitter users circulated this photo of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg demonstrating Samsung Gear VR Headsets at the Mobile World Congress this week in Spain. It is, admittedly, very white, very male, and not particularly flattering:
Zuckerberg has said that, in his vision for the future, these virtual experiences will be fundamentally social. But the photo suggests something quite different: Hundreds of people share a physical space, but no perception, no experience, no phenomenological anchor. The communality of a conference (literally from conferre, 'to bring together') is thrown over for a series of hyper-individualized bubbles. And you’re reminded, from Zuckerberg’s awkward semi-smile, that the man who owns the bubbles also owns what’s in them. That controlling virtual reality, in other words, is only a step from controlling reality itself.Ooh, scary! I'm not necessarily a fan of Zuckerberg or his tone-deafness during the recent global net neutrality fracas, but the Post's "digital culture critic" seems more than a little confused by what VR is, and what was happening at the event. As folks like Ben Kuchera were quick to point out the event was mostly harmless, with audience members being greeted with a surprise cameo by Zuckerberg after they took off their headsets. Audience members actually reacted with "gasps of excitement" at glimpsing a t-shirt clad billionaire. Nerdy white dudes being nerdy white dudes, sure. But 1984 this wasn't.
When people unfamiliar with VR see someone in a headset, many immediately picture the fat hovering people in Pixar's Wall-E, happily guzzling sugar water while anesthetized to all greater meaning. But while many spent the week deriding VR as a Zuckerberg-controlled big brother enslavement tool, most of the people that have actually tried VR realize it has amazing potential as a tool for creation, expression and connectivity for artists, story tellers, journalists, and musicians. Again, once people actually try VR, it doesn't take long to see the potential.
Yet all week the photo had a bizarre, hypnotizing effect on the media that overshadowed this fact. Fusion, for example, became oddly transfixed by the heaviest man in the photo, magically equating his daily caloric surplus with the idea that VR will somehow make us all miserable:
If you were to choose an attendee in the crowd who most represents You, it would be probably be this man. Here you are, six years from today: Unsatisfied, dour, a VR headset crammed onto your face. Your belongings are at your feet, your computer balances on your lap, your identifying lanyard hangs from your neck. You are watching…something? It doesn’t matter. You hate it.That's some rich analysis, yo. The existential fear of VR from the Luddite wing of the American electorate is palpably bizarre. The Atlantic, for example, published a piece of moody dystopian fiction based entirely on the heavyset man in the photo. The piece is set years in the future -- after we've all apparently become fatter, sadder and notably less productive thanks to Zuckerberg's villainy.
It apparently needs noting: putting on a VR headset doesn't magically prevent you from eating kale, doing yoga or going for a run. If you're chubby outside of VR, you're still chubby with a headset strapped to your head. That's not somehow VR's fault. At the same time, if you've actually watched some of the developer demos for games like Budget Cuts, you'd realize VR gaming can be a very physical and social experience. Still nerdy as hell, granted. But VR is not, contrary to this week's press narrative, somehow synonymous with servitude and muscle atrophy.
We've been over this before at Techdirt countless times. Each and every time a new technology emerges this same narrative bubbles forth: "this new technology is going to make us less social than ever and usher forth a terrifying future where nobody interacts!" XKCD highlighted quite well a few years ago how this idea is neither accurate nor new, and it's getting downright boring:
Sure, until VR tech can be shrunk down and integrated into contacts or glasses we'll all look downright stupid wearing VR headsets. It's just a fact.