Opinion: Is Virtual Reality Undemocratic?

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Opinion: Is Virtual Reality Undemocratic?
March 15, 2018
Image: Defense Imagery Management Operations Center / Public Domain

 

Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do
Jeremy Bailenson

 

It is now commonly accepted among media theorists that most technologies are pharmakon—remedies that are also poisons. As we’ve seen time and again with new platforms such as Facebook or even the 24-hour cable news cycle, solutions to existing problems soon introduce new problems of their own. Given the crisis presented most recently by the 2016 election—when technologies once hailed as tools for democracy were suddenly used to threaten it—we are being forced to examine more urgently and carefully what makes a medium conducive—or dangerous—to democracy.

 

It is surprising, therefore, to come across Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson’s new book Experience on Demand, which treats virtual reality (VR) as the cure for our democratic malaise. Bailenson puts forth an optimistic vision for VR that is not, as it is commonly portrayed, about enhanced entertainment or the escapism of sci-fi depictions. He instead conceptualizes it as a means, not an end. Undergoing graphical simulations, he argues, is only valuable to the extent that it makes us better people once we take the headset off.

 

In his hierarchy of noble use cases, a living room Olympics spectator watching skiers whiz beside him in VR falls low in the pyramid. A better application is for the skiers themselves to do a thousand virtual runs down the slopes of Pyeongchang before stepping foot in South Korea. And better still would be for all the fans at home to engage in VR experiences relevant to their own day jobs.

 

With his research lab at Stanford and his company STRIVR, Bailenson has converted NFL quarterbacks, Walmart execs, and tech CEOs into VR evangelists. Training in VR can make us better on the field and in the workplace, he argues, but Bailenson’s hopes for the technology do not stop there.

 

Bailenson sees VR as a platform for improving our political discourse, too. He believes that taking excursions with our avatars through carefully crafted simulacra can ultimately help people gain perspective on environmental issues, as well as build empathy across cultural, racial, gender, and generational divides. Virtual reality is the medium that will give maximum resonance to progressive messages, so the argument goes. It will enable us to walk in another person’s shoes with greater fidelity than ever before.

 

With the market for virtual reality technology projected to increase twentyfold by the 2020 election, the edenic bent of Experience on Demand can be tempting. Armed with the persuasive power of VR, Bailenson argues, progressive content creators can influence public opinion by means of experiential conversion rather than verbal persuasion.

 

But what about the flip side? A harsh opening day review in the New York Timesaccused the book of being blind to VR’s potential abuses. As long as a Stanford professor and his graduate students are the ones orchestrating these on-demand experiences, after all, we need not worry about VR applications intended to reinforce prejudice, fear, and fake news. But given the rapid rise of VR,  the point at which we will need to worry is rapidly approaching. 

 

Consider, for instance, Roger Berkowitz’s work, which draws on Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianismand highlights how recent technologies have made it far easier for totalitarian figures to construct their neatly packaged narratives and deny any reality that exceeds their goals. Whereas past totalitarian groups crafted their state-sanctioned realities through broadcasted speeches and by controlling newspapers, radio, film, and art, the alt-right movement surrounding Donald Trump has thrived on Fox News and tweets. Berkowitz insists, “The point of their fabrications is not to establish facts, but to create a coherent fictional reality.”

 

If totalitarianism is a matter of fabricating compelling alternate realities for masses of isolated individuals, then the upcoming spread of virtual reality should already concern us. With immersive environments supposedly simulating realistic experiences, virtual reality promises to engulf consciousness to an unprecedented extent and serve as a megaphone for today’s online echo chambers.

 

To his credit, Bailenson does concede that VR is well suited for disseminating propaganda. He peppers (albeit lightly) every chapter with warnings about how addictive the next wave of headsets will likely be and how horrific actions performed in VR can inflict people with real trauma or even prime them to act violently. After roughly twenty years observing the medium’s psychological effects, both good and bad, he champions moderate use—never more than twenty minutes at a time—even if the content is benign.

 

I also do not fault Bailenson for aiming to showcase emerging, enriching forms of VR storytelling, social advocacy, and cross-cultural learning experiences. Teachers, journalists, and activists should be aware of ways they might harness VR in the service of their longstanding missions. His is a worthwhile intervention to expand the public imagination of VR to include applications beyond the entrenched associations with videogames, pornography, and sports watching.

 

But I think the book has another blind spot—one that hides in plain sight amid Bailenson’s success stories. One after another, visitors to Bailenson’s VR lab inhabit avatar bodies of an age, race, or gender different than their own; they experience what simulated discrimination looks like in the guise of these avatars, and they are said to be less biased afterwards, according to the lab’s outpatient assessments. Particularly in times of partisan gridlock and urban/rural stalemates, we may be tempted to welcome this notion that a new technology can, in twenty minutes or less, make someone less sexist or more sympathetic to refugees. But the promise of such ideal outcomes clouds the haphazard methods adopted in pursuing them. Content distracts from form.

 

Bailenson’s insistence that his experiments prove something about VR’s persuasive abilities is also buttressed by his contempt and dismissal of older media forms, which he writes off as not up to the task of advancing democratic objectives. But while the goals of promoting empathy and shared experiences are certainly laudable, they quickly, in Bailenson’s telling, tend toward coercion, an impulse that is not only dangerous in the wrong hands but, when applied to the public sphere, would actually short-circuit the democratic process.

 

A medium, after all, is only democratic to the extent that it engenders reflective introspection and public deliberation. Readers and viewers should be able to resist and counter any message with ease. Such deliberation and resistance often breeds frustration, but far from being a weakness, as Bailenson sees it, such frustration is itself inherent to the democratic process.

 

Most of Bailenson’s anecdotes detail the behavior of undergraduates who participate in psychological studies at Stanford and submit to virtual experiences. The studies follow a template: the student steps into a VR simulation about, say, deforestation and climate change, and then, on her way out of the lab, some apparently unrelated activity is staged: the student is required to wash her hands, or a pregnant researcher “accidentally” spills a glass of water and asks for help. The student’s performance on these secret tests (e.g., the amount of water they washed with, the number of napkins they took to clean up the spill) is taken as a measure for the effectiveness of virtual reality. Bailenson flaunts the results to argue that VR can be a leading technology in the fight to curb climate change. He casts VR as the ultimate medium for facilitating shifts in mindset that lead to lasting behavior modifications—like a less invasive lobotomy.

 

But the commendable aims orienting these lab exercises yield to slighted comparisons and hasty conclusions on the page. The studies consistently adopt older media as their control condition, laying a foundation for Bailenson’s epochal pronouncements. The hypothesis, it seems, is if the test subjects who undergo a VR simulation use less napkins than those who read a text, then VR is a more effective mode of communication than prose.

 

What text is selected as the stand in for print media about the environment? Perhaps an excerpt from an environmentalist work famed for its persuasive rhetoric, such as Silent Spring or The End of Nature? Hardly. The control text in one study is “a carefully crafted written account describing what it would be like to cut down a tree.” Small wonder that the students who experience tree cutting in VR proved to be 20 percent more eco-friendly (i.e., they used 20 percent fewer napkins to clean a spill) than the text-equipped group.

 

Bailenson’s lab then conducted a follow-up study to measure how lasting this VR-induced environmental awareness “boost” was. Upping the rigor, researchers chose “a more compelling control condition”—participates were shown a video of trees being cut down. Like the control text, this control video underperformed in comparison to tree-cutting in VR.

 

Standing on the shoulders of these so-called findings, Bailenson proclaims, “not only did VR produce larger changes than other media, those changes were more enduring.” The implication: only a medium as compelling as VR can produce the sudden, widespread behavioral changes we need to tackle twenty-first century problems. Text and video are no longer compelling enough.

 

Bailenson’s unified stance against older media technologies is also problematic. On one hand, his depiction of VR presents the medium as our most effective way to sway those people who, despite ample opinion pieces and topical documentaries goading them forward, continue to dig their heals further into the wrong side of history. On the other hand, Bailenson’s zeal for the power of VR to produce behavior modifications, and his total denigration of every medium that is not VR, seems to approach a desire for mind control.

 

Magazines, books, and movies are faulted for leaving readers and viewers too much to their own devices: “their immersive effects pale next to VR.” The flat surfaces of literature and cinema leave sensory gaps, which call upon the audience to make imaginative and interpretative leaps at regular intervals.

 

Virtual reality, conversely, fills every gap; its users need not interpolate or speculate. A virtual simulation plays upon the user’s entire sensorium from every angle all at once, demanding a total effort just to take it all in. Bailenson happily points out that in his lab, it is commonplace for grown men to shriek, sweat, cry out, and cower to protect themselves while wearing the headset. No other medium feels so real, so immediate, so suspending of disbelief.

 

Bailenson cites such bodily responses as support for the notion that VR simulations get through to people more decisively than the content of any other medium. What essay or painting can compel an “elderly federal judge [to dive] horizontally into a real table”?  Bailenson’s VR can, and after numerous comparisons with technologies past, he crowns VR “the most psychologically powerful medium in history.”

 

Indeed, he extols this capacity for visceral, emotional impact as a self-evident justification for why it should be the next go-to venue for well-intentioned content creators looking to win hearts and minds. He promotes his lab’s simulations as “shortcuts” in lieu of reading, for example, about the science of climate change. To the extent that digital innovation is an arms race in pursuit of ever more attention-seizing stimuli, Bailenson touts VR as the A-bomb equivalent. Those of us trafficking in words for printed pages and laptop screens are trifling with swords and pitchforks. If you want to affect change, he seems to be advising, go straight for the jugular.

 

Yet, as Bailenson ventures some mini-theses to explain the apparent shortcomings of older media, he delivers a high theory one-liner that falls just shy of laughable: “VR is a democracy” and filmmakers are “dictators.” Why learn about the Colosseum or coral reefs, he argues, through a fixed sequence of finite video footage when you can strap on a VR headset and explore it for yourself from every angle in any order? The latter method, according to Bailenson, provides for a more objective way to learn about parts of the world beyond the reach of our travel budget. VR simulations capture all the details in every direction, making them accessible and responsive to each viewer’s gaze, whereas the making of films and texts generally involves many cuts, limited foci, and linear transitions.

 

The freedom to look left in addition to looking right is certainly novel, but the liberties VR grants are almost exclusively limited to acts of consumption. Bailenson—wearing blinders of his own status and access—fails to see how VR may well be the most undemocraticmedium in history.  For starters, the barriers to entry for producing VR content are extraordinarily high. While those barriers will presumably lower as the technology develops, they will never be as low as print, photography, and traditional video. The “democratic” experience of consuming VR pales in comparison to lay people having the ability to create their own footage.

 

Moreover, democracy is not a matter of simply convincing others to agree with your viewpoint or position. Indeed, in Bailenson’s telling, virtual reality may dutifully relieve us of the hermeneutic activities that, in less immersive media, give us agency. While the VR user is always engaged within the headset, books make it easy for us to pause, to look up from the page, and to write notes in the margins. In other words, books allow us to digest, analyze, and reflect, whereas the VR user’s reflection gets deferred for later, if at all.

 

Books and television fail, Bailenson argues, because “we are almost always aware of their artificiality,” and VR succeeds, he says, because “our brain becomes confused enough to treat these signals as reality.” But this paints VR as so compelling that it borders on compulsion. Indeed, it is awareness of the artifice that breeds critical distance. Such was the logic behind Bertolt Brecht’s “alienation effect” in theater. He filled his plays with conscientious reminders to his audience that this is a play and you are not these characters. He wanted theatergoers to scrutinize the action on stage rather than lose themselves in it. Virtual reality’s heightened sense of presence makes it more difficult to toggle between immersion and reflection.

 

In recent promotional podcasts, amid the give and take of interviews, Bailenson has adopted a more nuanced stance when he occasionally describes VR working in tandem with other media. He acknowledges that each have different strengths and limits: virtual reality is great for surveying the territory, he suggests, while other media are better for conceptualizing the map.

 

In his book, however, the contentious mode predominates, and older media appear as haggard foils against which to accentuate the power of virtual reality. Simplistic as his comparisons are, they do clarify the essential lure of VR’s power dynamic: the power of VR is about having more power over viewers who, while in the headset, are relatively powerless to distance themselves from the content that is so vividly in their face. The alleged weaknesses of older media stem from the fact that they allow their audience too much latitude, too much freedom to turn away, to  get lost in a thought, or to be skeptical.

 

No media technology, of course, is either purely totalitarian or totally democratic. Writing has aided both enslavement and liberation at different points in the history of literacy. But if VR proves half as compelling as Bailenson claims, then we will need more than his lab’s “twenty-minute limit” rule to save us from ourselves and from simulations that compel through shock, awe, and brain tricks. We will need to maintain the cultural vibrancy of older media forms, especially the ones that don’t always leave us mesmerized.

 

I worry that Bailenson’s rationale for ranking VR above other media, though harmless enough in itself, may be a glimpse into the future when the headsets are ready for primetime. As VR enthusiasts pile on more superlatives to promote their technology in the coming years, we need to argue bullishly that older media’s relative shortcomings in the wow-factor department are actually strongholds when it comes to democracy.

 

This is not a matter of mere nostalgia; clinging to less immersive media for political discourse is about maintaining a more equitable balance of power between content creators and content consumers. Democratic media enables citizens to weigh the pros and cons of various policies. If a medium carries so much psychological power that it short-circuits our capacity to be critical in the process, then that medium harbors significant threats to democracy.

 

Virtual reality promises a media landscape where citizens are pushed and pulled between simulations battling to strike just the right nerve. Instead, we need a vision for VR that positions the person in the headset as a critical participant, not a passive receptor who submits to digital conversion experiences and demonstrates comprehension through obedience. The best hope for VR to become democratic medium is for technologists to stop flexing the medium’s muscles, stop relishing in what it can do to users, and start asking how it can empower them.

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