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Virtually reality? The value of virtual activities and remote interaction

By Hannah Maslen    

The Oxford Martin School recently held a two-day symposium on virtual reality and immersive technologies. The aim was to examine a range of technologies, from online games to telepresence via a robot avatar, to consider the ways in which such technologies might affect our personal lives and our interactions with others.

These sorts of technologies reignite traditional philosophical debates concerning the value of different experiences – could a virtual trip to Rome ever be as valuable (objectively or subjectively) as a real trip to Rome? – and conceptual questions about whether certain virtual activities, say, ‘having a party’ or ‘attending a concert’, can ever really be the activity that the virtual environment is designed to simulate. The prospect of robotic telepresence presents particular ethical challenges pertaining to moral responsibility for action at a distance and ethical norms governing virtual acts.

In what follows, I introduce and discuss the concern that virtual experiences and activities are to some extent deficient in value, especially where this relates to the formation and maintenance of close personal relationships.

Rebooting the Experience Machine

Although virtual environments such as the virtual world Second Life and massive multimedia online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) are relatively new, philosophers have used thought experiments involving forms of virtual reality for decades. The purpose of such thought experiments is to try to illuminate what is of value to the lives and wellbeing of human beings. In 1974, Robert Nozick used the Experience Machine thought experiment to argue against the view that human wellbeing consists only in pleasurable experiences, no matter how complex or apparently real. He compared an entirely simulated life, full of pleasurable simulated experiences, with a non-simulated life, with fewer pleasurable (but ‘real’) experiences. Based on his intuition that the non-simulated life is preferable to the simulated life, notwithstanding the greater amount of pleasure experienced in the latter, Nozick concluded that maximising pleasure and minimizing pain, even from complex experiences, cannot be the only things that bear on an individual’s wellbeing. In addition to experiencing pleasure, Nozick argues that we value doing certain things, being a certain sort of person, and having contact with deeper reality.

Although less extreme, plausible immersive technologies might nonetheless raise related questions: ‘Are virtual experiences good for us?’; ‘Are we exposing ourselves to delusion when we become immersed in virtual environments?’; ‘How (if at all) do our virtual experiences relate meaningfully to our real lives?’. The main difference between the Experience Machine on the one hand and plausible virtual reality on the other, is that when we use immersive technologies we know that this is what we are doing. Indeed, emphasising the doing, it is often more natural to talk of our engagement with the virtual as virtual activity, rather than mere, passive virtual experience. Correspondingly, in almost all cases, we do not confuse the virtual with the real, even when we become temporarily psychologically immersed. Moreover, our commonplace virtual activities often do have consequences for the real world, either for ourselves or for others, even when our actions occur in the virtual environment. As a really basic example: if my avatar tells your avatar a funny joke in Second Life, your physical self will laugh, you may be put in a better mood, and you might later repeat it to your partner over dinner.

It is important to note that ‘virtual activities’ are far from a homogeneous set, and their value to individuals and society will vary greatly depending on the precise features. For example, being a pilot in Second Life may have similar value to playing a game, whereas using an immersive simulator to learn transferable aviation skills will be of very different value. Remotely piloting a drone to drop aid packages in a crisis will be of different value still. Concerns might primarily be directed to those types of virtual experiences and activities that could be thought to be a misuse of time or those that are used as an impoverished substitute for a real life experience. However, this sort of concern is not peculiar to virtual reality and depends heavily on one’s conception of the good life, goals and values.

Close personal relationships

Whilst is seems clear that interaction with others in the virtual world can be of value – indeed, it is the prospect of interaction with other agents that confers on the virtual some of the value associated with its connection to reality – we might think that these interactions are impoverished in important ways and, being so, are less valuable than ‘the real thing’. This worry is especially salient in relation to close personal relationships, which are often partly sustained and expressed by acts involving physical intimacy. Given the absence of physical contact in many forms of virtual interaction, are such interactions be of limited value in the context of close relationships? Do they contribute significantly less to human wellbeing than non-virtual interactions?

It is plausible that some virtual interactions, even those between close friends, have the potential to be as valuable as equivalent non-virtual interactions. Indeed, there will be many activities in which friends engage that could be performed equally well in a virtual environment such as Facebook. In such cases, the virtual activity will satisfy all the conditions for constituting the activity for which it is a substitute. Such virtual interactions will therefore, in a sense, not even be substitutes. For example, where what you want to do with your friend is to ‘have a conversation’, a smooth-running video call might enable the interlocutors to have precisely the interaction that constitutes ‘having a conversation’. If having a conversation consists in something like ‘exchanging and responding in real-time to statements on a topic’, this can fairly easily be achieved virtually.

It might even be possible for friends to ‘spend time together’ via such means, even where ‘spending time together’ is supposed to consist in more than a mere exchange of information: perhaps re-familiarizing oneself with the other’s personality and nurturing an emotional connection are part of what one does when one ‘spends time with’ another person. To the extent that the virtual activity consists in the same interpersonal dimensions as the ‘real’ activity, it is likely to be of just as much value. Not all the incidental features that tend to accompany ‘spending time together’ (perhaps, for example, sitting on a sofa) will be necessary for an activity to be one of spending time together.

Physical intimacy

The potential limits of virtual interaction will become clear when we consider that such interactions may fail to satisfy the conditions necessary for the activity to constitute a particular intimate activity. It may therefore be correspondingly less valuable. For many examples of these activities, psychical contact is necessary. Even for intimate interactions not involving sex, the touch or mere physical presence of the other is arguably necessary for it to play the requisite role in the relationship and thereby carry the associated value. Comforting your partner with an embrace, for example, generally requires physical contact. The sorts of technologies available today for remote interaction would enable only a poor substitute for the comfort of a caring embrace, devoid of any physicality. Indeed, long-distance relationships can sometimes suffer as a result of the lack of an adequate substitute for physical intimacy.

Future possibilities for remote contact, especially those involving robot avatars, will raise fascinating possibilities for physical intimacy at a distance. The contribution that such interactions could make to individuals’ subjective wellbeing will be an interesting psychological line of inquiry. Deeper philosophical questions will be raised about the nature of such activities and whether they can ever constitute – satisfy the conditions for – certain species of physically intimate activities (in the way that a ‘Skype conversation’ can fully constitute ‘a conversation’), or whether such virtual interactions must be understood as different (albeit potentially still valuable) kinds of activities. Further questions will be raised about the authenticity of the real and/or virtual participants, especially given the prospect of altering characteristics.

Wellbeing by design

Finally, it should be noted that whether a virtual activity actually constitutes the activity it is intended to substitute is a conceptual question; the answer will not necessarily tell us whether we should engage in the activity. In contrast, the ways in which virtual activities of all different types contribute to our wellbeing is of huge normative significance. Reflecting on the best way to conceive of wellbeing and how virtual experiences can promote it is not only a task for philosophers and psychologists; such considerations must also feature saliently in the minds of the designers and engineers who create the immersive technologies increasingly prevalent in our lives.




Nozick, R., 1974, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.


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