Facebook's virtual reality just attempts what artists have been doing forever

Mark Zuckerberg says VR will capture human experiences like never before – but is it really superior to what writers and artists achieved centuries ago?

The future is here, and it is glorious – but it’s not real. Or so said Mark Zuckerberg in an interview published on Wednesday, wherein he sketched Facebook’s grand ambitions for virtual reality. If Zuckerberg’s billions have anything to do with it (and it’s reasonable to suppose that they will), headsets like the Oculus Rift will shape our future digital lives, transforming everything from movie-watching, to tennis matches, to sharing baby pictures with our friends into immersive, Technicolor 3D experiences.

The technical challenges facing VR are formidable, as are the scientific ones: there are still gaping holes in our knowledge about how perception works, which have to be plugged before the tech becomes truly immersive (or at the very least, stops making us feel seasick).

But what about the philosophical challenges? What does it mean to “share experiences”? And if that’s what VR is trying to facilitate, is a “scientific understanding” of experience really the only thing developers need?

How ‘rich’ is virtual reality?

For Zuckerberg, video has ushered in a “golden age” of online communication. “Photos are richer than text; video, much richer than photos,” he explains. “But that’s not the end, right? I mean, it’s like this indefinite continuum of getting closer and closer to being able to capture what a person’s natural experience and thought is, and just being able to immediately capture that and design it however you want and share it with whomever you want.”

There’s lots to unpack here. Take the notion of “richness”. Is Zuckerberg correct in saying that text-based communications are less “rich” than video-based or 3D ones – and that VR would really get us “closer and closer” to capturing “natural experience”? And what does he mean by “rich”, anyway?

On one reading, “rich” just means something like “informationally dense”. Photographs and videos might well pack in more information per unit area, or time, than text does. But if we take “rich” to mean “apt for communicating personal experience” – the sense of the word that Zuckerberg seems to have in mind – the putative trajectory of increasing richness away from text and towards VR starts to look less clear.

How should ‘experience’ be represented?

Suppose that I want to convey to you what it’s like to walk a foggy trail in Big Sur. I hold up a picture of me walking and point vigorously at it. You look baffled. I show you a video; it’s a pretty boring video, you think. Exasperated, I eventually put you in a simulator, from which you emerge slightly windblown, able to hazard a guess (informed by your own imaginings of my experience, rather than my experience itself) as to what it was like for me to walk on the trail. But now imagine that instead of all that fuss, I had read to you the opening line of Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Genesis’: “Against the burly air I strode / crying the miracles of God”. Which is the best experience-expressing strategy here? At the very least, it’s not obvious.

More information does not necessarily imply better communication. Brevity is the soul of wit, as another decent wordsmith had it; and being succinct is something that, paradoxically enough, takes time and effort. It took Emily Dickinson a lifetime of skill, careful observation and (it’s safe to assume) numerous attempts to alight upon “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul”.

Which brings us to another of Zuckerberg’s assumptions: that experience itself can (and ought to) be grasped instantaneously.

Zuckerberg wants us to be able to “immediately capture” our experiences, in order to share them with others. But what if “capturing” your experience takes time, effort, and sustained attention?

Virtual reality has existed for 40,000 years

We tend to forget, amid the clamour surrounding the advent of VR, that society is already full of virtual reality experts: artists. The enlisting of the virtual as a way of navigating and coping with the real has been an established part of human life since at least 40,000 years BSV (Before Silicon Valley). And it’s worth noting that the core of artistic practice exists at stubborn odds with the notion of instantaneous capture.

The arts have always advocated the long look, or the close listen. You can’t paint a portrait on the basis of a single glance. And good art rewards repeated visits: we discover something new in our favourite paintings, songs and poems each time we encounter them. It’s no coincidence that artistic production, and also artistic appreciation, is meaningful in proportion as it demands (and rewards) our time.

If the developers of Oculus Rift were to see themselves as the latest innovators in a long history of artistic thought, rather than the ex nihilo disruptors of extant computing platforms, there’s no reason why they, too, couldn’t foster “richness” in this sense. Just as there’s nothing intrinsically ennobling about the arts – Hitler was, after all, an ardent music listener – there’s nothing fundamentally destructive about this latest development in virtual reality, either.

But nobody, not even Zuckerberg, has a clear idea of how we got from pokes to Pokéballs, not to mind where we’re going next. And with the right input at the development level – from scientists, from artists, and even from philosophers – tech’s take on virtual reality could deliver on its promise of enabling expressive digital communication.


Jenny Judge

The GuardianTramp

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