The Virtual World Has Its Limits

I’m glad some people are amazed by what we can do online. Whether they are working from home for the first time and realizing that long commute may not be necessary, live-streaming workout classes and learning that a yoga mat and your body weight are all you need to stay fit, or boomers-and-older only figuring out now how to buy groceries online, I applaud them. However, I must admit that personally, I’m not impressed. For years I’ve been capable of doing all the above and living like a hermit–a physically fit, well-nourished, Zoomer hermit.

Despite this capability, before coronavirus, I obviously chose to spend lots of time in the real, physical world, going out and doing things. Going in person by choice to stores and restaurants, practicing real Pilates and barre, preferring in-person meetings over matcha lattes, changing my opinion after a spontaneous chat at a conference, dating and recently getting married IRL. Let’s admit it: the real world is way better than the virtual one. And while quarantine has shown us, especially the latecomers, what the virtual world can do, it has equally exposed its seams.

Being less than excited about the virtual world is not new. Jaron Lanier, one of my favorite writers, throughout his books expresses disappointment about our foiled expectations for technological progress. We expected flying cars, and got VR flying car experiences, mostly nauseating and low-resolution. We wanted machines that would let us self-repair broken bones at home, and we got high-priced concierge services for the few, and low-priced genetic testing startups looking for an excuse to cash in the obvious way: selling our genomic data to insurance giants. We’re not buying 3D printers or 3D printing at home. People in tech say that innovation is moving “from bits to atoms”. What they really mean is that instead of building inspiring real-life experiences, with some notable exceptions, their goal is to peddle us passable simulations.

From a business perspective, there’s a reason simulation is preferable to IRL. In bits as opposed to atoms, new software and services are infinitely scalable, with no limit to the number of copies potentially sold, unless you consider the limit to be the total population of earth. When you build Microsoft Word, it costs nothing to replicate another copy, so expenses theoretically remain stable selling 10 versus one million copies. Instead of infinite, digital no-cost replication, building a physical good incurs a new production cost for each unit. Naturally, investors prefer to invest in businesses that can scale to be the largest at the lowest cost, so with a few notable exceptions, we’re stuck with a disproportionate emphasis on simulation.

I’m not morally faulting investors for acting in line with their incentives–such is the system–but I’m sad about the results. Simulations are just so poor compared to the real thing. My friends who are stuck alone are feeling the lack of human touch. If you believe online interactions are even a partial replacement for IRL interactions, then you have to believe porn makes a dent in the need for sex. It so obviously doesn’t. Countless people are suffering from the low quality of our simulations. Another example: business development isn’t the same online as meeting new people at a conference, and wouldn’t generate the same quality of results, except for the fact that everyone at present is stuck in the same boat. As consumers our dollars speak and say innovations in simulation aren’t very good. If they were, this would be an incredible moment for the VR industry, and people would be massively buying VR rigs and haptic body suits. I don’t have a single friend who has bought a VR apparatus during coronavirus. Yet, at least. But Most of the people I know–disproportionately young, tech savvy, early adopters–are suffering powerfully from the limits of their simulations, while still finding the benefits worthwhile.

That we’ve been rendered more dependent on our simulation technology is unfortunate in a broader sense. Very few of the popular tools relied upon right now are open source. From WhatsApp to Instagram, most are offered by the world’s biggest tech companies, which make their living harvesting and monetizing user data in a manner that is aligned with shareholders but cuts individuals out of the value flow, when those very individuals are the products. The forthcoming economic recession paired with the winner-take-all popularity of tools owned by the biggest BUMMERs (coined by Lanier: “Behaviours of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent”) makes consolidation in the tech sector likely, making it even harder for smaller startups to challenge surveillance capitalism business models with new ideas. That means if people want to stay in touch with friends and family as more cycles of pandemic roll around, there will be fewer and fewer non-BUMMER options. My only hope there is that people will be annoyed enough by the growing censorship regime on Twitter and similar to actually explore alternate social media platforms. (If you know of a good one, I’m ready to go.)

When we use our simulation tools, we are promoting the consolidation of wealth by the very few. Returning to Lanier, the Internet businesses that rely on big data have “siren servers” that turn everyone else’s work into profit for them, and cut those who originally put in the work, training the AI, out of the value flow. For example, a nurse in an IRL hospital feeds data into a monitor that uses machine learning and neural nets to figure out how to do her job. Someday, the hospital that employs the nurse will fire her and replace her with the machine. It won’t pay her royalties for her time spent teaching the machine every time the machine uses her data. By feeding her lifetime of experience into the machine, she’s participating in cutting herself out of the value flow. In contrast, when we go out and do things in the real world, like patronize a local restaurant, go to the much more pleasant neighborhood pharmacy instead of the harshly lit chain, buy books at the local seller with the curated window display, we are much less likely to be feeding siren servers. Even more so if we’re paying with cash. Zcash… even better.

The argument for VR is crystal clear to me. A student in Afghanistan cannot necessarily travel IRL to visit the Louvre, but through VR, she can still explore it and have a cultural experience. The argument for other digital simulations is of the same type. VR has the potential to democratize experience, and the Internet has successfully (except where it is censored) democratized access to information and communication. To be clear, I think VR should exist, the Internet should exist, and simulations should exist. They should just all be better. We should all be in VR suits right now. The Internet shouldn’t be a BUMMER monopoly. Simulations should be better; first-timers may be wonderstruck, but savvy consumers are rightly dissatisfied.

We need each other, in the flesh, for real. This crisis is making that more evident than ever. The Zoom stock price may rise, cheaper MOOCS might challenge expensive universities, and richer, older people could swap their city apartments for houses in the countryside. There will be lasting changes, surely, but many will flock back into RL as soon as it’s safe, newly grateful. I’ll be among them.

What are the limits of simulation technology you’re noticing? What IRL experiences are you most eager to return to? Let me know on Twitter @amandacassatt and try s p a c i n g o u t l e t t e r s if you’re concerned about censorship.

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