Molding Versus Mimicking Reality

Experiences trump reality for most human beings. Few users of a technology spend much time contemplating its inner workings, yet all users of a technology care about the experiences that the technology provides them with.

For example, as Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson point out in their book “Infinite Reality,” a person rarely stops to contemplate that a voice s/he hears on a telephone call is not the literal voice of the person s/he is speaking to but an electronic replica of it. In fact we often literally say when recalling phone conversations to others that we “spoke” with somebody, indicating that we accept the telephone experience as a reasonable substitute for direct person-to-person speech (characterized by sound waves traveling from the speaker’s mouth to the listener’s ear). [1]

Few people take time to ponder the layout of pipes running through the walls of their homes – they care more that water comes out of a faucet when they turn it on or that gas is available to light the stove when they need it.  Few care about the inner circuitry of their cellphones, the roles of each worker in a restaurant’s kitchen, and so on.   In other words, what’s onstage nearly always trumps what’s backstage.

All technological inventions are created to increase convenience for a person or group by making it easier for that person or group to access certain experiences (thereby avoiding other unwanted experiences in the process).  But since experiences trump reality for most of us, it follows that a hypothetical future technology that enables any person to perfectly mimic reality at will could easily be considered as the greatest invention of all time, because it would maximize convenience for everyone.

In the early years of the Industrial Age, we were nowhere close to having an ability to perfectly mimic reality, and so our tools focused instead on molding the real world around us to create the experiences we desired. Since we couldn’t singlehandedly bring huge swaths of experiences directly to ourselves, we created vehicles over time to transport us to them. We also created factories that produced products related to experiences that people desired, and logistical systems to transport these products to various locations around the globe to make the experiences associated with them accessible to wide ranges of people. A lot of human workers were required to ensure that people in various locations could access various experiences reasonably smoothly, which eventually led to the late Industrial Age global economy that we are familiar with today. In short, humanity has streamlined global infrastructure in the Industrial Age around reality molding activities.

On a planetary scale we may thus view our modern Industrial Age economy as a giant tool or machine comprised of billions of human “components” that operate in conjunction with a staggering number of machine components (and some animal “components,” such as when horses are used for transportation, for example).  Our modern economic “machine” functions to provide individual humans with access to certain experiences as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, since the bulk of experiences that the machine provides today require real world resources (and time) to produce and deliver to consumers, society has had to ration individual access to the experiences the “machine” is able to provide by using money. In other words, money can be viewed as an objective indicator of an individual’s ease of access to the various experiences offered by the Industrial Age economic machine.

However we are all well aware that this machine has huge issues and inefficiencies. Firstly, the current version of the machine (i.e. the global economy) is simply the latest iteration of an ancient design that humanity has had to repair and upgrade numerous times as a species (to continue the analogy). Secondly, the quality and availability of the experiences that the machine is able to provide varies widely across the globe due to location specific physical and logistical constraints.  Thirdly, the operation of this machine wastes a great deal of humanity’s waking hours on repetitive tasks and causes a worrying amount of stress on the biosphere.

As with any other machine that a family owns (like a car, for example), sometimes it makes sense for that family to repair or upgrade it, but at other times a disruptive technology comes along that simply renders the old machine obsolete by being both cheaper and better at producing an essentially equivalent experience or end result. Virtual reality represents precisely this kind of disruptive technology for the Industrial Age economic machine.

As mentioned above, humanity has streamlined global infrastructure in the Industrial Age around reality molding activities.  However today we have reached the point as a species where we are reasonably good at mimicking certain aspects of reality. We are highly skilled at electronically reproducing and generating sound, and many are comfortable with being immersed in electronic sound environments such as those provided by headphones or earbuds.  We are gifted at electronically reproducing and generating both static and dynamic 2D images on 2D electronic displays (such as TVs, smartphones, computer monitors, etc.). We have also made solid progress in reproducing and generating both static and dynamic 3D images (as evidenced by the existence of 3D movies, holograms, and virtual retinal displays), but a lot of work of course remains to be done.

What is commonly referred to as “virtual reality” technology today, which audio-visually immerses an individual in a simulated 3D environment with stereo sound, is still in its relative infancy but rapidly improving. What is commonly referred to as “augmented reality,” which overlays virtual objects or scenes over parts of a viewer’s 3D field of view (and may also generate sounds that a user hears), has also made significant strides.  Although these technologies are still considered somewhat niche, a decent number of virtual and augmented reality products intended for the mass market are set to be released over the next year or so.  Although much work remains to be done on refining the consumer products in this space and creating a useful virtual reality ecosystem, the countdown to market saturation is now clearly underway.

The virtual and augmented reality niche is poised to rocket into the mainstream in the not too distant future as the public discovers that virtual and augmented reality experiences are providing better and better substitutes for real world experiences at cheaper and cheaper prices, and begins to respond to this fact with their wallets (the subject of my next post).  Purely real world experiences are going to lose this battle handily in the long run, driving our global infrastructure (and global economic “machine”) to evolve from a focus on reality molding activities to a focus on reality mimicking activities.

[1] Although I independently came up with this telephone example some months ago, I have just begun reading the fascinating book “Infinite Reality” by Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, which I was amazed to notice mentions the same example.

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