Digital reality and the virtual world

Virtual reality is no less real than physical reality. Experience is the key to reality. Oobah Butler explains how VR will shape us, comparing it to a mind-altering drug.

Reality is a thorny subject. For some people, the digital world still feels unreal. I remember when the first ATMs popped up in the 1970s. Suddenly, there was a machine dispensing what I thought was real money. Granted, this experience was loosely (and unfortunately) related to my bank account. But as long as the ATM was dispensing crispy new banknotes, everything was fine, regardless of my account’s balance.

So what was real – the cash in my hand or my bank balance that was already computerised back then? The digital revolution has confronted us with numerous microdecisions about what we deem reality to be. Is the physical world real and the virtual world unreal? Is there one, big, overarching reality with both physical and digital components? Or are there multiple realities?

Increasingly, our reality is defined through digital products, which afford us infinitely more freedom than in the analogue past. Filter bubbles, fake news, and alternative facts: they‘re just bits after all, bits that can be easily and cheaply manipulated. We now live in multiple realities that are increasingly losing touch with each other. That’s typical for serious epochal breaks. And so the common world view of the past 500 years – what we know as modernity – is fundamentally shaken.

In the infancy of the web, back in the early nineties, there was a clear distinction between real life and life on the internet. Real life was defined as not on the internet. Over 25 years on, this distinction appears naive, even quaint. Real life and life on the internet have merged, but have spawned multiple realities in the process. Reality has been turned into bits. Or is it the other way around?

Playing with digital reality

We need to decide what we adopt for real. Before the pandemic, real work was more often than not tied to a physical location. Now, we can work from anywhere. Meanwhile, the pandemic has turned into an infodemic of misinformation that poses risks to our global health. Some people live in their own reality but still become seriously ill or even die, although they deny the cause.

Oobah Butler performs brilliantly in the distorted reality space. The author, journalist, filmmaker and artist first became famous for a prank when he turned his garden shed in London into the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. After leading the rankings and receiving excited phone calls from potential diners, he even opened the venue for one night, serving microwave dishes.

Thus, he turned fake virtual reality into fake physical reality. Oobah Butler, who will speak at the NEXT Conference Limited Edition later this month, holds up a mirror to those of us who are all too ready to trust and believe in the false realities of our own creation. What’s his take on virtual reality?

“If virtual reality feels as real as they say it’s going to be, then I would call it a kind of mind-altering experience. Something that could shape you and change who you are. In that case, I’d have the same attitude to VR as I do to mind-altering drugs. If I’m doing it, I want to be in a position where I’m secure enough to know it’s a borrowed experience. You need your feet grounded in reality before you can fuck with it too much.”

How real is the metaverse?

He who plays with reality still needs reality to have something to play with. The metaverse is no less real than the physical reality. But this doesn’t answer what reality really is. What is fake, what is a game, and what isn’t? How can we decide? Reality might be a simulation.

That facts are uncertain is often attributed to populists and the post-truth era, or to the multiple realities of the Digital Age. But there is a striking uncertainty on the quantum level as well. In the words of cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman:

“The idea that what we’re doing is measuring publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go. Physics tells us that there are no public physical objects.”

This realisation does not just apply to the quantum level. The concepts of post-normal science and post-normal times reflect it as well. Science suffers from a reproducibility crisis: often, scientific results simply cannot be reproduced, leading to a question mark over today’s scientific assumptions and methods.

What is reality?

This might be related to an observation Donald Hoffman makes: many scientific branches still ignore what quantum mechanics teaches us and stick with Newtonian physics, thus lagging 300 years behind. This striking imbalance needs to be resolved. Newtonian physics might be good enough for many applications, but we cannot retain it as a basic scientific assumption.

If there are no public physical objects, what is reality? Donald Hoffman has an answer:

I’m claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life — my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate — that really is the ultimate nature of reality.

It’s ironic that experience is a key term of the digital industry. That user experience (UX) has been at the forefront of the digital revolution for 25 years. Experience is what unities multiple realities. A headache is real, and sometimes a symptom for Covid-19. Even if you don’t believe in it.

Last updated on October 14, 2021. Photo by Anto Fredric on Unsplash.

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