A few years ago, a woman let her little girl starve to death while she was playing World of Warcraft. She evolved for days in a virtual world. When she noticed the child’s condition, she called an ambulance, but they couldn’t resuscitate the girl, who had even swallowed cat litter.
This extreme case raises many questions, such as where should we draw the line between real life and virtuality, what about the addiction mechanisms behind this, etc
(TW : eating disorders, self-harm)
Instagram, our distorting mirror
Your daily life may seem trivial, if you compare it to the Instagrammer’s, who appear to be always partying or traveling the world in a furnished van. The opposite is also true. We watch daily vlogs of influencers telling us that their cat has vomited or that their sink is clogged. This content has strictly no value but the interest is elsewhere : the sound of the video playing in the background is the company we no longer have, it’s like taking a coffee with a friend, and they tell you their whole life.
Another mechanism is involved here : we project ourselves into the daily life of someone else. We imagine ourselves in their shoes. We are in an emotionally dependent relationship with them. It’s obvious, for example, in the comment section under the posts of a traveling Youtuber : “You are my sunshine, I listen to you in the subway, at the office etc. I get up every morning knowing you’ll post a new video. You have a great life, it’s nice to see. I love you. “
And what about your life?
However, what you see of the influencers’ life is mostly fake. Everything is framed. They won’t show you the moments of vulnerability, failure, illness or burn out.
Instagram is the distorting mirror of the ideal : see this couple, taking selfies on a bridge in Porto, the latest hype destination for valentine’s day? Their community will envy their love, when as soon as the camera is away, I hear them talk to each other like I wouldn’t talk to my dog.
The follower is the one who becomes a spectator of the lives of others, and who falls into depression, thinking his own life is worthless.
The need to escape in another life is not new, the difference is : today’s technology allows us to go much further.
Imagine you could immerse yourself in a meta-universe, where you’d be whoever you want, and could do anything, absolutely anything you want…
Ultra immersive video games
Between Spielberg’s movie Ready Player One and our reality, there’s only one step.
We’re talking about the possibility of a whole world in VR, it’s more than just a game. We would live through our avatars (ever powerful, young and sexy.) Others would see us as we would like to be, without the burden of frustration and personal failures we carry with us in real life.
In addition to the question of our avatars, the possibilities of experiments are infinite. Do you dream of flying a fighter? You can, thanks to a virtual reality headset and a 360° seat. You will be able to morph into an animal, visit breathtaking landscapes, test extreme sports, and even take in your arms your partner, at the other side of the world, because you will both be wearing a one-piece suit reproducing the sensations. Tesla is working on it. It functions with electrical stimulation on the skin, just like rehabilitation patches at the physio (bad memories of sport injury…) The VR headset allowed a 360° view in the game, the one-piece suit will make us feel the heat, the wind, caresses and bullets.
By virtual reality, we can trick the brain into anything but beware, the physical consequences are real : adrenaline rush, biochemical reaction to fear, pain etc.
The major risk, of course, is addiction. When we overstimulate our thinking organ by giving it shoot after shoot, we could induce many diseases.
There is another ethical issue : can we really do anything in VR? Are we going to torture, break taboos, satisfy the most extreme fantasies etc.?
Who benefits from the crime?
When facing any ethical issue: follow the money. Social networks and video games are huge entertainment platforms, highly profitable.
Influencers, vloggers… the time we spend on our couch watching them while they paddle in Bali literally pays for their travels. It’s their job. Behind that, advertisers have every interest in us remaining static (six hours per day on average) behind our screens.
As spectators, it’s up to us to decide. We finance what we watch. The economic and ethical stakes are enormous.
Motivational videos, for example, capitalize on the idea that you can become a millionaire if you follow certain recipes, without taking into account that you may be from an underprivileged background, in a world fundamentally structured so that you have little chances to succeed. Instead of giving you effective keys, these videos tell you what you want to hear, and you pay for that.
In the same way, some influencers and brands on Instagram monetize our insecurities. How many photos per day undermine your self-esteem by bombarding you with faces and bodies edited with Facetune, in order to sell you “solutions” right after? Let’s go back to reality for a sec. A human body has rolls, scars, hair and stretch marks. To accept and love it like that is an act of resistance, somehow.
Social networks have a proven role in triggering and aggravating mental illnesses. For adolescents, whose identity is still structuring, the consequences are real : eating disorders, self-injury, depression, etc. In 2012, Christopher J. Ferguson studied the impact of media and social networks on teenagers’ mental health. It shows that girls and boys are equal in terms of complexes: 50% of young people using social media are dissatisfied with their bodies and their lives (that was statistically correlated).
Psychiatrists call this phenomenon “body dysmorphism”: your very perception of your body is absolutely distorted. The perception of your life too.
As consumers, we are in the position to ask brands (of fitness, of cosmetics etc.) to be more responsible with their communication.
Virtual worlds in gaming also generate a whole economy, inside and outside the screen. You have to pay for everything, and everything can be sold.
Second Life offers you to “become a creator”, “start a business”, “invest in real estate” etc. To experiment a “false” virtual life is cathartic for sure, but the problem is to invest more time, energy and money in creating virtual companies or art galleries etc., instead of doing it in real life, where it could bring you incomes and satisfaction, instead of serving the gaming industry.
The next step is the neural interface
Virtual reality is just a step towards even more intense gaming experiences.
Planète Robots, in the n°56 issue, claims that Microsoft, Alphabet, Apple and Facebook are currently crossing their skills to create a neural interface for augmented reality, that would project images directly through the optic nerves.
The neural interface from the Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub laboratory (founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife), goes by the name of “Wireless implant brain device”, and aims to translate “thoughts” into “actions”.
This solution has been tested on monkeys, the brain implants being connected to computer commands, in order to trigger and control the primates’ moves. This research aim to treat conditions that cause uncontrolled movements, such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis.
Elon Musk is not left behind on that subject, he has founded Neuralink. In an interview posted on Youtube, the host has to ask Musk several times before he actually confesses that his solution will be physically invasive, that it will penetrate our bodies, our brains, especially, according to Musk, by injecting a chip through the jugular.
Hard to believe that these new technologies will be limited to medicine and not commercialized in the gaming industry. Remember the “Playtest” episode from Black Mirror season 3, where a young man, willing to serve as a guinea pig for a new game, gets a neural interface implanted in his neck. It allows a total immersion in the video game where he has to confront his most repressed and intimate fears. Gradually the limit between reality and what is generated by the game is no longer defined. The mental balance of the character ends up on a flat electroencephalogram.
Of course we want to push the limits of virtuality, because, for example, we looove a good scare (if a Shining escape game existed as in Ready Player One, I’d be the first in line to try it). Now, we can also enjoy porn without limits, in VR. Coupled with teledildonics technologies (connected sex toys), not only will you see the performance of your favorite actors as if you were on the set, but also feel the action, in your own flesh. Imagine letting your imagination run wild for 2 secondes, and it’s not only your favorite actors you’ll be able to bang, but anybody, and anything.
Why even bother with foreplay? One day, a neural interface could be directly connected to the pleasure center in your brain, as it was for the rats in the famous Olds & Milner experiment, during the 50s. By activating a lever, the rodents could stimulate the “pleasure region” of their brain, and trigger the equivalent to orgasms or heroin shots for humans. As a result, the rats enjoyed themselves to death, some individuals even forgot to feed their babies. Does it remind you of something?
Keeping things in perspective
Let’s take a necessary step back when it comes to watching dream lives on social media.
The latest developments in the video game industry are the promise of fun like never before. VR also allows disabled people, for example, to walk on a mountain side or to ride a motorcycle, things they could never normally do. But for all of us, it must not become the last degree of entertainment according to the philosopher Pascal: to be dazed and finally to turn away from real life.