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Escapism and virtual reality

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

considered below.

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

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

mass production.

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

the building.

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

Whalley directly,


`` 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

considerable risk

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

and Bibliography.


Chip for microchip, the small black tile-like objects that make

electronic machines.

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

new applications.

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.


L. Mumford,

Technics and Civilisation ,

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1963, pp.13--15.


J.M. Dubbey,

The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage ,

Cambridge University Press, 1978.


William Aspray,

Computing Before Computers ,

Iowa State University press, 1990.


B.E. Carpenter and R.W. Doras (Editors),

A.M. Turing's ACE report of 1946 and other papers ,

The MIT Press, 1980.


David Kahn,

The Codebreakers ,

London, Sphere, 1978


Takeo Miyauchi,

The Flame from Japan ,

SORD Computer Systems Inc., 1982.


J.L. Hennessy and D.A. Patterson,

Computer Architecture : A Quantitative Approach ,

Morgan Kaufmann, California, 1990.


Amos E. Joel,

Electronic Switching : Digital Central Office Systems of the World ,

Wiley, 1982.


comp.risks , a moderated bulletin board available world-wide on computer

networks. Its purpose is the discussion of computer-related risks.

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