Escapism and Virtual Reality
The use of computers in society provides obvious benefits and some
drawbacks. `Virtual Reality', a new method of interacting with any computer,
is presented and its advantages and disadvantages are considered. The human
aspect of computing and computers as a form of escapism are developed, with
especial reference to possible future technological developments. The
consequences of a weakening of the sense of reality based upon the physical
world are also considered. Finally, some ways to reduce the unpleasant
aspects of this potential dislocation are examined. A glossary of computing
terms is also included.
Computers as Machines
The progression of the machine into all aspects of human life has continued
unabated since the medieval watchmakers of Europe and the Renaissance study
of science that followed Clocks . Whilst this change has been
exceedingly rapid from a historical perspective, it can nevertheless be
divided into distinct periods, though rather arbitrarily, by some criteria
such as how people travelled or how information was transferred over long
distances. However these periods are defined, their lengths have become
increasingly shorter, with each new technological breakthrough now taking less
than ten years to become accepted (recent examples include facsimile
machines, video recorders and microwave ovens).
One of the most recent, and hence most rapidly absorbed periods, has been that
of the computer. The Age of Computing began with
Charles Babbage in the late 19th century Babbage , grew in the
calculating machines between the wars EarlyIBM , continued during the
cryptanalysis efforts of World War II Turing,Bletchley and
finally blossomed in the late 1970's with mass market applications in the
developed countries (e.g. JapanSord ). Computers have gone through several
`generations' of development in the last fifty years and their rate of change
fits neatly to exponential curves Graphs , suggesting that the length of
each generation will become shorter and shorter, decreasing until some
unforeseen limit is reached. This pattern agrees with the more general
decrease of length between other technological periods.
The great strength of computers whether viewed as complex machines, or more
abstractly as merely another type of tool, lies in their enormous flexibility.
This flexibility is designed into a computer from the moment of its conception
and accounts for much of the remarkable complexity that is inherent in each
design. For this very reason, the uses of computers are now too many to ever
consider listing exhaustively and so only a representative selection are
Computers are now used to control any other machine that is subject to a
varying environment, (e.g. washing machines, electric drills and car
engines). Artificial environments such as hotels, offices and homes are
maintained in pre-determined states of comfort by computers in the thermostats
and lighting circuits. Within a high street shop or major business, every
financial or stockkeeping transaction will be recorded and acknowledged using
some form of computer.
The small number of applications suggested above are so common to our
experiences in developed countries that we rarely consider the element which
permits them to function as a computer. The word `microprocessor' is used to
refer to a `stand-alone' computer that operates within these sorts of
applications. Microprocessors are chips at the heart of every computer, but
without the ability to modify the way they are configured, only a tiny
proportion of their flexibility is actually used. The word `computer' is now
defined as machines with a microprocessor, a keyboard and a visual display
unit (VDU), which permit modification by the user of the way that the
microprocessor is used.
Computers in this sense are used to handle more complex information than
that with which microprocessors deal, for example, text, pictures and large amounts of
information in databases. They are almost as widespread as the microprocessors
described above, having displaced the typewriter as the standard writing tool
in many offices and supplanted company books as the most reliably current form
of accountancy information. In both these examples, a computer permits a
larger amount of information to be stored and modified in a less
time-consuming fashion than any other method used previously.
Another less often considered application is that of communication. Telephone
networks are today controlled almost entirely by computers, unseen by the
customer, but actively involved in every telephone call phones . The
linking of computers themselves by telephone and other networks has led
people to communicate with each other by using the computer to both write the
text (a word-processor) and to send it to its destination. This is known as
electronic mail, or `email'.
The all pervasive nature of the computer and its obvious benefits have not
prevented a growing number of people who are vociferously concerned with the
risks of widespread application of what is still an undeniably novel
technology comp.risks,ACMrisks . Far from being reactionary prophets of
doom, such people are often employed within the computer industry itself and
yet have become wary of the pace of change. They are not opposed to the use of
computers in appropriate environments, but worry deeply when critical areas of
inherently dangerous operations are performed entirely by computers. Examples
of such operations include correctly delivering small but regular doses of
drugs into a human body and automatically correcting (and hence preventing)
aerodynamic stability problems in an aircraft plane1,plane2 . Both
operations are typical `risky' environments for a computer since they contain
elements that are tedious (and therefore error-prone) for a human being to
perform, yet require the human capacity to intervene rapidly when the
unexpected occurs. Another instance of the application of computers to a
problem actually increasing the risks attached is the gathering of statistical
information about patients in a hospital. Whilst the overall information about
standards of health care is relatively insensitive, the comparative costs of
treatment by different physicians is obviously highly sensitive information.
Restricting the `flow 'of such information is a complex and time-consuming
Predictions for future developments in computing applications are notoriously
difficult to cast with any accuracy, since the technology which is driving the
developments changes so rapidly. Interestingly, much of what has been
developed so far has its conceptual roots in science fiction stories of the
late 1950's. Pocket televisions, lightning fast calculating machines and
weapons of pin-point accuracy were all first considered in fanciful fiction.
Whilst such a source of fruitful ideas has yet to be fully mined out, and
indeed, Virtual Reality (see below) has been used extensively
Neuromancer and others, many more concepts that are now appearing that
have no fictional precursors.
Some such future concepts, in which computers would be of vital importance,
might be the performance of delicate surgical procedures by robot, controlled
by a computer, guided in turn by a human surgeon; the control of the flow of
traffic in a large city according to information gathered by remote sensors;
prediction of earthquakes and national weather changes using large computers
to simulate likely progressions from a known current state weather ; the development of
cheap, fast and secure coding machines to permit guaranteed security in international
communications; automatic translation from one language to another as quickly as the words
are spoken; the simulation of new drugs' chemical reactions
with the human body. These are a small fraction of the possible future
applications of computers, taken from a recent prediction of likely developments
JapanFuture . One current development which has relevance to all the above, is the concept
known as `Virtual Reality' and is discussed further below.
Virtual Reality, or VR, is a concept that was first formally proposed in the
early Seventies by Ted Nelson ComputerDreams , though this work appears
to be in part a summary of the current thinking at that time. The basic idea
is that human beings should design machines that can be operated in a manner
that is as natural as possible, for the human beings, not the computers.
For instance, the standard QWERTY keyboard is a moderately good instrument for
entering exactly the letters which have been chosen to make up a word and
hence to construct sentences. Human communication, however, is often
most fluent in speech, and so a computer that could understand spoken words
(preferably of all languages) and display them in a standard format such as
printed characters, would be far easier to use, especially since the skills of
speech exist from an early age, but typing has to be learnt, often painfully.
All other human senses have similar analogies when considering
their use with tools. Pictures are easier than words for us to digest
quickly. A full range of sounds provides more useful information than beeps
and bells do. It is easier to point at an item that we can see than to specify
it by name. All of these ideas had to wait until the technology had advanced
sufficiently to permit their implementation in an efficient manner, that is,
both fast enough not to irritate the user and cheap enough for
The `state of the art' in VR consists of the following. A pair of rather
bulky goggles, which when worn display two images of a computer-generated
picture. The two images differ slightly, one for each eye, and provide stereo
vision and hence a sense of depth. They change at least fifty times per
second, providing the brain with the illusion of continuous motion (just as with
television). Attached to the goggles are a pair of conventional high-quality
headphones, fed from a computer-generated sound source. Different delays in
the same sound reaching each ear provide a sense of aural depth. There is
also a pair of cumbersome gloves, rather like padded ice-hockey gloves, which
permit limited flexing in all natural directions and feed information about
the current position of each hand and finger to a computer.
All information from the VR
equipment is passed to the controlling computer and, most importantly, all
information perceived by the user is generated by the computer. The last
distinction is the essence of the reality that is `virtual', or
computer-created, in VR.
The second critical feature is that the computer should be able to modify the information
sent to the user according to the information that it received from the user.
In a typical situation this might involve drawing a picture of a room on the
screens in the goggles and superimposing upon it a picture of a hand, which
moves and changes shape just as the user's hand moves and changes shape. Thus,
the user moves his hand and sees something that looks like a hand move in
front of him.
The power of VR again lies in the flexibility of the computer. Since the
picture that is displayed need not be a hand, but could in fact be any created object
at all, one of the first uses of VR might be to permit complex objects to be
manipulated on the screen as though they existed in a tangible form.
Representations of large molecules might be grasped, examined from all sides
and fitted to other molecules. A building could be constructed from virtual
architectural components and then lit from differing angles to consider how
different rooms are illuminated. It could even be populated with imaginary
occupants and the human traffic bottlenecks displayed as `hot spots' within
One long-standing area of interest in VR has been the simulation of military
conflicts in the most realistic form possible.
The flight simulator trainers of the 1970's had basic visual displays and large hydraulic
rams to actually move the trainee pilot as the real aeroplane would have moved. This has
been largely replaced in more modern simulators by a massive increase in the amount of
information displayed on the screen, leading to the mind convincing itself that the physical
movements are occurring, with reduced emphasis on attempts to provide the actual movements.
Such an approach is both cheaper in equipment and more flexible in configuration, since
changing the the aeroplane from a fighter to a commercial airliner need only involve
changing the simulator's program, not the hydraulics.
Escapism can be rather loosely defined as the desire to be in a more pleasant
mental and physical state than the present one. It is universal to human experience
across all cultures, ages and also across historical periods. Perhaps for this
reason, little quantitative data exists on how much time is spent practicing
some form of escapism and only speculation as to why it should feel so
important to be able to do so.
One line of thought would suggest that all conscious thought is a form of
escapism and that in fact any activity that involves concentration on
sensations from the external world is a denial of our ability to escape
This hypothesis might imply that all thought is practice, in some sense, for
situations that might occur in the future. Thoughts about the past are only
of use for extrapolation into possible future scenarios.
However, this hypothesis fails to include the pleasurable parts of escapist
thinking, which may either be recalling past experiences or, more importantly
for this study, the sense of security and safety that can exist within
situations that exist only in our minds. A more general hypothesis would note
separate concepts of pleasure and necessity as equally valid reasons for any
Can particular traits in a person's character be identified with a tendency to
escapist thoughts that lead to patterns of behaviour that are considered extreme
by their society? It seems unlikely that a combination of hereditary
intelligence and social or emotional deprivation can be the only causes of
such behaviour, but they are certainly not unusual ones, judging by the common
stereotypes of such people.
The line of thinking that will be pursued throughout this essay is the
idea that a person who enjoys extreme forms of escapist thoughts will often feel most
comfortable with machines in general and with computers in particular.
Certainly, excessive escapist tendencies have existed in all societies and
have been tolerated or more crucially, made use of, in many different ways.
For instance, apparent absent-mindedness would be acceptable in a
hunter/gatherer society in the gatherers but not for a hunter. A society with
a wide-spread network of bartering would value a combination of both the
ability to plan a large exchange and the interpersonal skills necessary to
conclude a barter, which are not particularly abstract. In a society with
complex military struggles, the need to plan and imagine victories becomes an
essential skill (for a fraction of the combatants).
Moving from the need for abstract thought to its use, there is a scale of
thought required to use the various levels of machines that have been
mentioned earlier. A tool that has no electronics usually has a function that
is easy to perceive (for example, a paperclip). A machine with a
microprocessor often has a larger range of possible uses and may
require an instruction manual telling the operator how to use it (e.g. a
modern washing machine or a television). Both of these examples can be used
without abstract thought, merely trusting that they will do what they either
obviously do, or have been assured by the manual that they will do.
The next level is the use of computers as tools, for example, for
word-processing. Now a manual becomes essential and some time will have to be
spent before use of the tool is habitual. Even then, many operations will
remain difficult and require some while to consider how to perform them. A
`feel' for the tool has to acquired before it can be used effectively.
The top level of complexity on this scale is the use of computers as flexible
tools and the construction of the series of instructions known as programs to
control the operation of the computer. Escapist thoughts begin when the
operations of the programs have to be understood. In many cases, it is either
too risky or time-consuming to set the programs into action without
considering their likely consequences (in minute detail) first. Such detailed
comprehension of the action of a program often requires the person constructing the lists of
instructions (the programmer) to enter a separate world, where the symbols and values of the
program have their physical counterparts. Variables take on emotional significance and
routines have their purpose described in graphic `action' language. A cursory examination of
most programmers' programs will reveal this in the comments that are left to help them
understand each program's purpose. Interestingly, even apparently unemotional people
visualise their programs in this anthropomorphic manner Weizenbaum76,Catt73 .
Without this ability to trace the action of a program before it is performed in
real life, the computing industry would cease to exist. This ability is so
closely related to what we do naturally and call `escapism', that the two have
begun to merge for many people involved in the construction of programs.
For some, what began as work has become what is done for pleasurable relaxation, which is a
fortunate discovery for large computer-related businesses. The need for time-clocks and
foremen has been largely eliminated, since the workers look forward to coming to work,
often to escape the mundane aspect of reality.
There are problems associated with this form of work motivation. One major
discovery is that it can be difficult to work as a team in this kind of
activity. Assigning each programmer a section of the project is the usual
solution, but maintaining a coherent grasp of the project's state then becomes
increasingly difficult. Indeed, this problem means that there are now
computers whose design cannot be completely understood by one person
MMMonth . Misunderstandings that result from this problem and the
inherent ambiguities of human languages are often the cause of long delays in
completion of projects involving computers. (The current statistics are that
cost over-runs of 300 are not uncommon, especially for larger projects and
time over-runs of 50 are common SWEng ).
Another common problem is that of developed social inadequacy amongst groups
of programmers and their businesses. The awkwardness of communicating complex
ideas to other (especially non-technical) members of the group can lead
them to avoid other people in person and to communicate solely by messages and
manuals (whether electronic or paper).
Up to now, most absorption of the information necessary to `escape' in this
fashion has been from a small number of sources located in an environment full
of other distractions. The introduction of Virtual Reality, especially with
regard to the construction of programs, will eliminate many of these external
distractions. In return, it will provide a `concentrated' version of the world
in which the programmer is working. The flexible nature of VR means that
abstract objects such as programs can be viewed in reality (on the goggles'
screens) in any format at all. Most likely, they will be viewed in a manner
that is significant for each individual programmer, corresponding to how he or
she views programs when they have escaped into the world that contains them.
Thus, what were originally only abstract thoughts in one human mind can now be
made real and repeatable and may be distributed in a form that has meaning for
other people. The difference between this and books or paintings is the amount
of information that can be conveyed and the flexibility with which it can be
The Dangers of Virtual Reality
As implied above, the uses of Virtual Reality can be understood in two ways.
Firstly, VR can be viewed as a more effective way of communicating concepts,
abstract or concrete, to other people. For example, as a teaching tool, a VR
interface to a database of operation techniques would permit a surgeon to try
out different approaches on the same simulated patient or to teach a junior
basic techniques. An architect might use a VR interface to allow clients to
walk around a building that exists only in the design stage ArchieMag .
Secondly, VR can be used as a visualisation tool for each individual. Our own
preferences could be added to a VR system to such an extent that anyone else
using it would be baffled by the range of personalised symbols and concepts.
An analogy to this would be redefining all the keys on a typewriter for each
typist. This would be a direct extension of our ability to conceive objects,
since the machine would deal with much of the tedious notation and the many
symbols currently necessary in complex subjects such as nuclear physics. In
this form, VR would provide artificial support for a human mind's native
abilities of construct building and imagination.
It is the second view of VR, and derivations from it, that are of concern to
many experts. On a smaller scale, the artificial support of mental activities
has shown that once support is available, the mind tends to become lazy about
developing what is already present. The classic case of this is, of course,
electronic calculators. The basic tedious arithmetic that is necessary to
solve a complicated problem in physics or mathematics is the same whether
performed by machine or human, and in fact plays very little part in
understanding (or discovering) the concepts that lie behind the problem.
However, if the ability to perform basic arithmetic at the lowest level is
neglected, then the ability to cope with more complex problems does seem to
be impaired in some fashion. Another example is the ability to spell
words correctly. A mis-spelt word only rarely alters the semantic content of a
piece of writing, yet obvious idleness or inability in correct use of the
small words used to construct larger concepts often leaves the reader with a
sense of unease as to the validity of the larger concept.
Extending the examples, a worrying prediction is that the extensive use of VR
to support our own internal visualisations of concepts would reduce our
ability to perform abstract and escapist thoughts without the machine's
presence. This would be evident in a massive upsurge in computer-related
entertainment, both in games and interactive entertainment and would be
accompanied by a reduction of the appreciation and study of written
since the effort required to imagine the contents would be more than was
considered now reasonable.
Another danger of VR is its potential medical applications. If a convincing
set of images and sound can be collected, it might become possible to treat
victims of trauma or brain-injured people by providing a `safe' VR environment
for them to recover in. As noted Whalley , there are several
difficult ethical decisions associated with this sort of work. Firstly, the
decision to disconnect a chronically disturbed patient from VR would become
analogous to removing pain-killers from a patient in chronic pain. Another
problem is that since much of what we perceive as ourselves is due to the way
that we react to stimuli, whatever the VR creator defines as the available
stimuli become the limiting extent of our reactions. Our individuality would
be reduced and our innate human flexibility with it. To quote Whalley
`` virtual reality devices may possess the potential to
distort substantially [those] patients' own perceptions of themselves and
how others see them. Such distortions may persist and may not necessarily be
universally welcomed. In our present ignorance about the lasting effects of
these devices, it is certainly impossible to advise anyone, not only mental
patients, of the likely hazards of their use."
Following on from these thoughts, one can imagine many other abuses of VR.
`Mental anaesthesia' or `permanent calming' could be used to control long-term
inmates of mental institutions. A horrendous form of torture by deprivation of
reality could be imagined, with a victim being forced to perceive only what
the torturers choose as reality. Users who experienced VR at work as a tool may
chose to use it as a recreational drug, much as television is sometimes used
today, and just as foreseen in the `feelies' of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
Computers are now an accepted part of many peoples' working lives and yet
still retain an aura of mystery for many who use them. Perhaps the commonest
misapprehension is to perceive them as an inflexible tool; once a machine is
viewed as a word processor, it can be awkward to have to redefine it in our
minds as a database, full of information ordered in a different fashion.
Some of what people find difficult to use about today's machines will hopefully be
alleviated by the introduction of Virtual Reality interfaces. These should
allow us to deal with computers in a more intuitive manner.
If there ever comes a time when it is necessary to construct a list of tests to
distinguish VR from reality, some of the following observations might be of
The most difficult sense to deceive over a long period of time will probably be
that of vision. The part of the human brain that deals with vision processing
uses depth of focus as one of its mechanisms to interpret distances. Flat
screens cannot provide this without a massive amount of processing to
deliberately bring the object that the eyes are focussed upon into a sharper
relief than its surroundings. Since this is unlikely to be economical in the
near future, the uniform appearance of VR will remain an indication of its
Another sign may be the lack of tactile feedback all over the body. Whilst
most tactile information, such as the sensation of wearing a watch on one's
wrist, is ignored by the brain, a conscious effort of detection will usually reveal its
presence. Even the most sophisticated feedback mechanisms will be hard-pressed to duplicate
such sensations or the exact sensations of an egg being crushed or walking barefoot on
pebbles, for example.
The sense of smell may prove to be yet another tell-tale sign of reality. The
human sense of smell is so subtle (compared to our present ability to
recreate odours) and is interpreted constantly, though we are often unaware of
it, that to mimic the myriad smells of life may be too complex to ever achieve
The computer industry will continue to depend upon employees who satisfy some
part of their escapist needs by programming for pleasure. In the near future,
the need for increased efficiency and better estimates of the duration of
projects may demand that those who spend their hours escaping are organised by
those who do not. This would lead to yet another form of stratification within
a society, namely, the dreamers (who are in fact now the direct labour force)
and their `minders'. It should also encourage societies to value the power of
abstract thought more highly, since direct reward will be seen to come from
Virtual Reality is yet another significant shift in the way that we can
understand both what is around us and what exists only in our minds. A
associated with VR is that our flexibility as human beings means that we may
adapt our thoughts to our tool, instead of the other way round. Though
computers and our interaction with them by VR is highly flexible, this flexibility
is as nothing compared to the potential human range of actions.
Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Glenford Mapp of Cambridge University
Computer Laboratory and Olivetti Research Laboratory, Dr. Alan Macfarlane of
the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, Dr. John Doar
and Alan Finch for many useful discussions. Their comments have been fertile
starting grounds for many of the above ideas.
This essay contains approximately 4,500 words, excluding Abstract, Glossary
Chip for microchip, the small black tile-like objects that make
Computer machine with a microprocessor and an interface that
by the user.
Database collection of information stored on a computer which permits.
to the information in several ways, rather like having multiple
in a book.
Email mail. Text typed into one machine can be transferred
to another remote machine.
Microprocessor stand-alone computer, with little option for change by the user.
Program series of instructions to control the operation of a microprocessor.
Risk often unforeseen dangers of applying computer-related technology
Stand-alone to the rest of the electronic world.
User human who uses the machine or computer.
VDU Display Unit. The television-like screen attached to a computer.
Virtual to mean `imaginary' or `existing only inside a computer'
VR Reality. Loosely, an interface to any computer that
the user to use the computer in a more `involved' fashion.
Word processor application of a computer to editing and printing text.
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