As TV consumers, perhaps our sense of what’s “bad” is changing in this post-Sopranos, Walter-White-as-antihero, Game-of-Thrones-violence-like-no-other landscape. Or, perhaps we’re all increasingly confused by the world around us as it goes to ruin, and we’re seeking to understand it better by embracing some kind of reflective, sugar-coated entertainment. Either way, moral ambiguity in TV is now definitely en vogue and our viewing tastes are officially cynical.

HBO’s Westworld – inspired by the 1973 film of the same name written by Michael Crichton, about a futuristic theme park populated by robots – is a prime example of that. The theme of the series is the escapist, recreational violence of human beings against robots and in the first few scenes of the very first episode, we’re exposed to moral observations about lack of accountability spiralling into mayhem and sexual violence.

What this show best reflects about the entertainment zeitgeist, however, is the Virtual Reality phenomenon. The show zooms in on potentially dangerous aspects of VR technology and questions it with all the subtlety of a Burger King “buy this burger and get a blowjob” ad. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in a bit.)

But, just in case there are some ethical aspects of Virtual Reality that the show leaves unexplained, here’s a brief breakdown of some potential VR considerations – both in Westworld and relating to real life.

Social Psychology

In the ’60s, psychologist Stanley Milgram proved that our environment can have a powerful, unconscious influence on our behavior. He asked a group of unsuspecting volunteers to administer what they thought were potentially lethal shocks to an anonymous individual. The shocks were false, but the participants went to town with repeated shocking, even when they believed the victim to be close to death. Various experiments since then – the Stanford prison experiment, the Asch conformity experiment – have proved similar things about our behaviour being adaptable in different environments. But, why is this important for VR?

In Westworld – in which human customers come to live out their wild west fantasies by killing them or having sex with them (or both), entire environments are determined solely by Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), the theme park’s owner. The same applies to real life VR immersion, in which we have absolutely no influence on our own surroundings. If Oculus Rift ascertains that slavery is ok to simulate, for example, then things could get weird.

It’s not that some topics are damaging inside of – and confined to – the VR realm; it’s all a game, after all. However, studies show that we’re likely to become desensitized to the things we experience inside VR worlds. So, if one agent controls what we see, how we act and towards whom, questions of environmental manipulation and intention can arise.

Desensitization

Desensitization means that we’re no longer affected by extreme acts and we fail to show empathy, compassion or emotion as a result. Sometimes, in real life, that lack of emotion can be used for good. For example, the Virtual Reality Medical Institute (VRMI) is now using VR goggles, realistic airline seats and a surround-sound speaker system in order to gradually expose patients with a fear of flying to simulated air travel and ultimately help them fly.

But VR fantasies involving violence are perhaps more cause for concern. The VRMI is also developing a system that could “prepare soldiers for combat” by engaging them in simulated combat scenarios. Apparently, this hardens the troops’ physical and emotional responses to killing, blood, panic and so forth.

Whether or not desensitization is morally okay, really depends on the morality of what it is you’re desensitizing people to. Conquering your fear of flying? Great. Hardening your emotional responses to death? Murky. Emotional responses are there for a reason, after all. Given that the commercial use of VR headsets will probably include first-person shooters a-plenty, we’d all do well to acknowledge this.

Privacy

What turns you on? Westworld has a robot whore for that. What’s your favorite rye blend? Here’s the bottle, sweetcheeks…

To make the most of VR, we’ll be sharing a good chunk of our personal information: What we want from our VR experience; what gives us the perfect adrenaline rush; what makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Of course, all of this raises new questions about privacy: Will greater VR immersion in real life lead to greater identity theft? Is VR another means of state surveillance? How will third-party influences be monitored?

Oculus Rift has admitted that it will collect some private data about users; notably your email, occupation, date of birth, where you live, records of any transactions, website and app usage patterns – all of which is fantastic news for scammers. Anything that collects and stores personal information is of interest to thieves: just consider how much private data can go for on the dark web.

VR headsets also require the ability to track and record your movements, including where you’re facing, what you’re looking at, and how you’re interacting with your environment; that’s how we interact with the games. Information like that could improve gameplay… Or, you know, be used to spy on us.

Corporate Manipulation

Whether it’s Burger King telling us that the new “Seven Incher” will blow our minds away and have us yearning for its great taste, next to an image of an open-mouthed young lady, or whether it’s Apple waiting a while to send us text receipts from iTunes so that we don’t feel bad about that Future feat. Drake impulse download, advertising is alive and well – and more manipulative than ever.

In a perfect world, there’d be no substitute for a quality product offered at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world: It is a world of product placement and brand integration and subliminal advertising. In fact, sometimes, the only thing between mediocrity and market dominance is advertising genius.

That’s not a bad thing, per se; it’s just something to remember. VR is the perfect environment in which to sell stuff. A world like Westworld, that immerses the player in someone else’s curated landscape, can sell what it wants. Before we know it, we’ve spent all of our hard-earned cash on oversized burgers and we’re still waiting for that blow job.

Cognitive Effects

Some people worry that using VR heavily will interfere with our non-virtual lives, whether that’s neglecting physical exercise or diminishing our social skills. We say, if done right, VR could actually enhance these things. And besides, failing to hit the gym and/or being a social recluse doesn’t have to come from being a VR user; non-virtual realities can impact those things, too. That said, there are a couple of cognitive concerns that we’ll mention here.

Firstly, the dominant view within neuroscience is that reality is something generated by the brain, as it tries to predict what’s causing all the sensations that are impinging on our senses. When this biological “virtual reality” gets embedded in a technological virtual reality, there may be complex and surprising consequences.

Secondly, studies conducted in the U.S. have also shown that older adults are at a higher risk of depression with lower levels of social interaction. Essentially, face-to-face interaction correlates with mental health. What do we lose if social interaction is replaced by VR? This one’s TBC…

Conclusion

In The Matrix, Cypher says: “I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy, and delicious… You know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” Perhaps that’s also the case for the VR phenomenon.

Virtual reality is about to hit the mass market, and it’s no exaggeration to say that products like Oculus Rift are going to have a massive impact on the modern world. But, the reality behind virtual reality – and whether or not ignorance really is bliss – remains to be seen.

Need something to lift your spirits after that sobering read? Check out these 5 best feel good movies.

  • Images: HBO
Words by Sarah Gibson
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