The Dark Side of Virtual Reality

I love virtual reality. As a teenager in the 90’s, it was something of a “sacred technology” that was constantly displayed but was never really played. And it’s something I’ve talked about very positively many times on my show Sovryn Tech. I even mentioned one of the many benefits that I see in the coming future in another blog post which was a review of the new web series, Star Trek Continues, where they used Star Trek’s holodeck technology (the ultimate in virtual reality, no headset required) to help Captain Kirk work through his past traumas. The ability to do a very realistic virtual re-enactment of past psychological traumas that you are trying to process and heal from is so powerful, it makes virtual reality–or “VR”–worth it alone, to say nothing of the fantastic possibilities for communication, gaming, education, and entertainment that it could create. And unlike when I was a teenager and it was only available as prototypes or expensive systems, VR is now a reality within everyone’s grasp.

Unfortunately, like any other tool–and VR should be kept in perspective as a tool–it can be used constructively, or it can be used in a very malicious way (all of this could very well be true for “augmented reality” or “AR”, as well). Now I want to make this very clear, I do not want to in anyway hold back the development of VR. I want it, and I want it now. But a thought struck me the other day as to a system that could use VR in a horrifying way. The system I’m referring to is the “criminal justice system“. Imagine incredibly realistic VR being used to not only create a virtual prison (or some other hyper-realistic conditions for so-called “criminals” to experience), but perhaps to even create a time-lapsed prison sentence where a person experiences 20 years inside of a couple of hours.

Don’t think people would ever be interested in doing this to other human beings? Think again. While not exactly using VR, researchers at Oxford University are already interested in having “criminals” experience 1000 year-long sentences inside of 9 hours.

Sadly, most people would probably think that these VR “prison” sentences would somehow be humane. There is nothing humane about putting human beings in cages, virtual or not.

The purpose of justice is to make a victim whole for the “crime” against them. It is impossible for that to be achieved by imprisonment–again–virtual or not. But the bulk of the modern world is based around a criminal justice system where imprisonment is the go-to resolution for criminal activity.

There are far better ways to make victims whole in our world, modern or ancient. It’s called “restorative justice“. I recommend researching it if you never have. Could VR be used to achieve the goals of restorative justice? Perhaps. But restorative justice needs to be explored, implemented, and accepted in our present reality before we could accurately imagine how virtual reality could help in its implementation.

And that highlights the real solution to this very possible and terrifying use of the amazing technology that VR is. The solution is not to never develop VR, or to hold it back. The solution is to realize that the criminal justice system is anathema to the human condition and way of life. People need to say that what is really an “injustice system” that we are used to today is no longer acceptable. It diminishes who we are, and is likely based on the Bronze Age religious belief (instead of empirical evidence) that humans are somehow inherently “evil” (newsflash: they’re not).

Humans can treat each other with dignity, and technology can help us to do that (even VR). But let’s decide to use technology for those reasons, and not for the purposes of harming others. Let’s use technology like virtual reality as a freeing force, not as one that imprisons us.

Carpe lucem!