UPDATED! Douglas Rushkoff: Why Most Virtual Reality is Bullshit

Douglas Rushkoff (image from CNN)

Douglas Rushkoff is an American media theorist, writer, columnist, lecturer, graphic novelist, and documentarian. He is best known for his association with the early cyberpunk culture, and his advocacy of open source solutions to social problems. (Source: Wikipedia)

Today, Philip Rosedale tweeted a link to a provocative piece Rushkoff wrote on Medium this past August, titled Most VR is Total Bullshit. And I think it’s a must-read, even if you completely disagree with his premise.

Douglas Rushkoff argues the virtual reality, originally developed to be a countercultural and psychedelic technology, has instead been turned into an experience “characterized less by imagination and creativity than surveillance, control, and extractive corporate capitalism”. He goes on to say:

The VR revival seems fixated on augmented reality, where instead of going into a whole new world, we see imagery superimposed over this one. It is a marketer’s dream technology: novel enough to be interesting, grounded enough to prevent true exploration, and perfectly suited to the task of labeling every object in the world with a price tag.

The current VR hype doesn’t offer us access to new worlds so much as new ways to package consumer entertainment. It’s Facebook’s Oculus Rift, gaming, movies, Bible stories, and of course porn. Most VR today is little more than 360-degree video, a slightly more immersive version of business as usual. This non-interactive entertainment is to real interactive VR what Game of Thrones is to Dungeons and Dragons or Windows is to the command line. The fact that the technology has become easier to navigate and more lavishly rendered is hardly a consolation prize. It’s a prison.

While Rushkoff admits that VR does have some useful applications, he offers a dire warning:

VR does appear to have value in medical or therapeutic contexts. I’m glad we have virtual experiences that can help retrain an obese person to eat less. Gulf War veterans suffering from PTSD have benefited from VR that recreates the conditions of their trauma. But we mustn’t fool ourselves into believing that these applications are delivering the Promethean power of digital fire to the masses. They turn their users into the passive recipients of content, rather than the active constructors of a reality.

And so the race is on to build a VR landscape of, say, the Serengeti, where the animals and savanna look as authentic as they do in Disney’s new CGI version of The Lion King. Never mind the climate crisis threatening the real savannah. People raised with these virtual worlds at their disposal will come to prefer them to reality, anyway, just as they are coming to prefer porn to the messiness of sex. And as members of the Frankfurt School tried to warn us, once a culture prefers the simulacrum to the world, fascism can’t be far behind.

He argues that VR must support and enhance creativity, as opposed to simply immersing the user in simulations:

By focusing on immersive simulation over active creation, most virtual reality technologies undermine the innate human abilities that they could be fostering. “It is worth pointing out that we have been making virtual realities for a very, very long time,” Terence McKenna reminded us at the dawn of VR. “When you sit the children down around the fire and begin to tell the old, old stories and pictures rise out of the flames — that is virtual reality.”

We must use technology to stoke those collaboratively creative flames, instead of extinguishing them.

“When you sit the children down around the fire and begin to tell the old,
old stories and pictures rise out of the flames — that is virtual reality.”
Photo by Jackson Hendry on Unsplash

It’s a short, engaging read, no more than 10 minutes long, and I encourage you to go over to Medium and read it yourself in full, to see whether you agree or not with what Rushkoff has to say.

UPDATE 5:29 p.m.: Well, one reader had this to say about it!

And Peter (better known in High Fidelity and Sansar by his handle, Theanine) makes an excellent point.

Five Thoughts as Google Turns 20

The original Google logo from 1998

Google was incorporated on Sept. 4th, 1998 in the garage of Susan Wojcicki (who is now the CEO of Google subsidiary YouTube), with an initial US$100,000 investment by Sun Microsystems co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim.

It’s hard to believe that this happened only twenty years ago. In those 20 years, Google (now known as Alphabet) has transformed society. The way we look for information. The way we ask for directions. The way we consume the news.

What lessons can we learn from the astonishing growth of Google?

First, those things which might seem unimportant at the time can have great impact. Larry Page’s PageRank algorithm, which relied on the links between web pages to determine the ranking of search results, was a simple idea that became very, very powerful. In fact, it spawned the whole industry of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which is basically figuring out ways to improve your Google search ranking!

Second, never underestimate the power of networks. As the World Wide Web grew (and I remember a time when it was still called that!), the Google search engine only became more accurate and useful over time. The power of networks acts as an amplifier (you need no further proof of that than Donald Trump’s Twitter account).

Third, that being an early entry into a marketplace positions you for growth (call it “the Microsoft effect”). It’s not always true, but often enough, being first is better than being best when it comes to the Internet. As some entrepreneurs like to say: “ready, fire, aim”—it’s better to launch something early, then make constant adjustments to your course as you go along and learn from your mistakes. The fatal mistake is to wait until everything is perfect before taking action. Larry Page and Sergey Brin didn’t wait.

Fourth, that a lot can happen in a short period of time. We tend to underestimate just how quickly things can change in today’s society. The pace of technology is accelerating. Think ahead to 20 years from today—Sept. 8th, 2038. It might seem far away. But every day, it comes a step closer. Who will you be in that world, on that day? If I am still alive, I will be 74 years old and retired, perhaps feeling insecure and afraid in my old age as civilization charges ahead without me. What will I have seen in those twenty years? What will I regret doing? What will I regret not doing? What should I have been paying attention to, while I was busy doing something else? What will I have learned?

Finally, remember that the actions of individual people do make a difference in this world. Sergey Brin and Larry Page had an idea, and that idea changed the world. Philip Rosedale had a dream, and his dream became a daily reality for millions of people on dozens of metaverse platforms. Never doubt for one second that you are not capable of that same miraculous feat, in countless different ways, every single day.

The Google logo today