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The Allegory of the Virtual Reality Headset

It’s popular in certain technology circles to assume we’re living in a kind of a computer simulation. The philosopher and academic, Nick Bostrom formally set forth “the simulation argument” in 2003. The discussion continues today among top tech pioneers as well as in an article titled, “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out” (Preston Green. New York Times. August, 2019). In the article, the author warns readers of scientists who are testing to find out whether or not we are actually living in a simulation. The writer’s concern is that, similar to experimenting with the Large Hadron Collider (the world’s largest particle accelerator), scientists might discover something they weren’t supposed to, putting in danger the longevity of the universe and in the case of a simulation, our overlord’s decision to unplug us. This article of serious concern was printed in the New York Times!

But Eastern non-duality teachings, and even science, has shown us for hundreds of years that we are already living in a sort of organic virtual reality where nothing is what it seems. It’s no surprise that recent consumer technology is beginning to show us that the Hindu’s concept of maya is not only feasible but is replicable to a greater degree than ever imagined. For decades, theater, cinema and amusement parks have drawn us in and offered an escape from the mundane. But nothing compares to the latest VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) technologies when it comes to creating fully immersive and interactive experiences.

VR, in particular, is set to be the next big diversion. Will VR be so captivating that we begin to live dual lives or choose to have an alternative virtual life? Will the effect be that we become confused about what’s real? If so, what are the parallels between our current world as constructed by maya and the one VR will soon be able to create?

This parable, which I wrote back in 2015 when concern about the dangers of VR was just starting, makes the point:

April 13, 2015

One of the upcoming technology trends will focus heavily on virtual reality by essentially strapping a television set to your head and giving you the ability to walk inside it. However, it doesn’t stop there. These new devices will soon also detect a user’s body movement, and it won’t be long until people are able to experience virtual worlds that seem very similar to our own. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave may then no longer be an allegory but an actual reality.

In their VR lives we will identify with our avatar (digital persona) and its many accomplishments. Everyone will have a role to play or the whole thing falls apart; there is no straying from the pack. The avatars get virtual badges for visiting places just like we used to with that Foursquare app years ago. Some participants even become presidents and kings of VR countries. Many have VR families and even jobs in the VR world so they can earn virtual currency and buy virtual rewards. It all seems so real!

But just like any good story, all VR lives must come to an end someday, and oh, how they fear that day of reckoning when one must unplug and come out of their VR sleep. This day of unplugging hangs over their heads heavily; a virtual demise is guaranteed. No one is allowed to stay in their VR life forever, not even the most “successful” roles in the VR world.

Many of the players have forgotten they are not real; that they are only digital avatars in a digital program. For them even worse than being unplugged someday is the thought of not being real. They’ve become so identified with their avatar that any possibility of being something other than their avatar seems utterly impossible. Anything beyond the VR world feels like a void; an empty black hole. “What’s the point of going back to such emptiness?” they think to themselves. “How could I leave after having invested so much? How could I possibly exist without that which I am now?”

Many of the avatars panic and look for a solution, any solution — anything for a little peace of mind. This creates a whole new set of roles in the VR world. There are priests, rabbis, shamans, monks, nuns, gurus, scientists, talk show hosts and many more self-proclaimed truth sayers. They’ve devised elaborate stories with many doors. Some of those doors, they tell believers, are not to be opened. The believers agree without question — anything to quell the dreaded fear they hold inside.

Meanwhile, the avatars go on with their VR lives applying layers of meaning and significance to it. They form groups and devise political structures, rules and governments within the VR. They begin to design and build products from VR stuff and sell them along with other services to other avatars. Some of these businessmen accumulate a great amount of virtual goods, making their eventual demise even more painful to accept. “It’s all ether!” one avatar sadly proclaimed as he was leaving the VR world. There are even philosophers who write important treatises on the nature of VR and circulate their ideas like user guides. In all these ways and many more, the avatars become entrenched. New avatars are simply told “this is the way it’s always been” and are quickly assimilated.

“But it all seemed so real!” proclaimed one of the users after returning from what seemed like decades in the VR world. It’s always the same comment no matter who goes through it. “Real is what is perceived to be real,” is my usual non-response. In a few days they’ll be back for another session, another life. They always do. They always come back.

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