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Should we be afraid of virtual reality?

authors like
Susan Greenfield and Roger Scruton have raised worries about the rise of virtual worlds such as Second Life, which
they fear might have a negative impact on human relationships, as people
increasingly spend their lives hidden behind an “avatar”. The movie Surrogates
, recently released, precisely pictures a future humanity that lives
as it were by proxy: the story takes place in a world where people stay at home
and send remote-controlled “surrogates” – androids that are typically younger
and better-looking versions of themselves – out in the world to do things for
them. In the same vein, American futurologist Ray Kurzweil
predicts that within a quarter of a century, virtual reality (VR) will rival the real
world: “If we want to go into virtual-reality mode”, he says, “nanobots will
shut down brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will
become commonplace”. However, far from sharing the worries of people like
Greenfield and Scruton, Kurzweil believes this is a prospect we should look
forward to.*


success of virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft,
each of which
boasts more than 10 million users who spend on average about 20 hours a week in
alternate reality
suggests that such anticipations are not completely far-fetched. Author Edward Castronova
has even suggested, in a book published two years ago, that the near future
will be marked by an “Exodus to the Virtual World” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007):
he foresees that some people will be spending all of their lives in such a
world and more or less disappear from reality, the question being how large
this group of people will be. Let us assume that it might turn out to be
substantial. Should that give us cause for concern? Hazards we might foresee in
such a scenario include the following:


1)    What we might describe as a loss of
authenticity in people’s lives. As Robert Nozick suggested in Anarchy, State
and Utopia
and its
famous section on the “Experience Machine” (Basic Books, pp.42-45), at least
some of us want to do
certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them (p.43):
things like going out with friends, traveling to faraway places, or engaging in
a romantic relationship. People spending their lives immersed in VR would
merely experience simulacra of such activities, and their lives would arguably
be of less value than if they had really been doing such things. VR-enthusiasts
like Kurzweil
seem to oppose such a distinction, maintaining that “[i]n virtual
worlds we do real romance, real learning, real business. Virtual reality is
real reality.” But clearly part of the interest of VR is that it allows people to do (virtually at least) things
that they cannot do in the real world, if only because access to such things is
difficult; and it seems plausible to think that there is an important
difference between my actually going to see the pyramids of Egypt, or having sex,
and my sitting alone in my house in an armchair with electrodes plugged into my
brain (or nanobots running around in it), believing I am doing these things –
especially if my gorgeous partner has been created by computer programmers, and
I have never set foot out of Oxford, UK.


2)    A decreased opportunity to practice
the virtues. Arguably, I am less courageous if I spend several years leading
troops of fictional soldiers to face fictional dangers in my spare time, than
if I actually go and work as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan – even if
we assume that when I plug into my VR war game I forget, as long as I am
playing, that it is just a fiction. My acts of bravery in the fictional world
might still deserve some praise, but surely the fact that I am not really
in danger – and knew before plugging
in that I wasn’t going to be – when I am playing diminishes the amount of
praise that is owed to me for my courage. VR thus promises to give us the
feeling of being virtuous without the costs that virtue often imposes in the
real-world – a mere simulacrum of virtue. It would also support a selfishly hedonistic lifestyle if large numbers of people decided to spend as much time
as possible plugged into an imaginary world rather than actually doing things
and helping other, real human beings.


3)    A quick fix for life’s problems.
Castronova considers the
example of “a heavy-set girl from a small town who gets victimised just because
her body isn't the 'right' kind of body”, and “goes online to make friends
because she can't get a fair shake in the real world”. He sees this as a
legitimate way of taking “refuge” from an inhospitable world. But such a
solution might also occult alternative, more desirable options, such as
overcoming the influence of the suspect social norms that caused the girl to be
victimised, by working to change those norms (though of course this isn’t
something a person could achieve on her own) or at least by escaping their impact,
for instance by moving to a new area where she might find people who would
accept her as she is – which importantly, might also help her to accept herself
as she is. True, VR
does provide people with the opportunity to have fun experimenting with new
identities, which seems innocuous provided that they do not do this because
their actual identity makes them unhappy; in the latter case, however, VR looks
like a less than ideal solution.


4)    Social disaffiliation. What would
happen if VR became so attractive to people that they found it preferable, all
things considered, to live on benefits and spend their existence in the more
pleasant virtual world? And even if the law prohibited them from doing so, we
might still imagine large amounts of people going to work only in order to be
able to afford their “second life”, and doing their best to retire early so
that they might at last “disappear” into VR. Obviously, such a trend would
drive people further away from democratic participation, as their concerns
would shift from this world to the other one, provided that the political regime in
place allowed them to plug in for long enough.



I don’t
wish to depict VR simply as an evil. How harmful or beneficial it will turn out
to be will depend on the use we make of it. In some Western countries,
average person already spends around 30 hours a week watching TV
If people spent that time immersed in VR instead, it isn’t clear that things
would get worse. And assuming that spending a reasonable amount of time (maybe
less than 30 hours a week) watching TV or playing traditional video games can be beyond
reproach, VR – when used with moderation – might simply constitute a further
improvement upon these forms of entertainment. Moreover, we should not forget
that VR can also provide educational and therapeutic (in the context of
psychotherapy) benefits.


would be worrying, for the reasons outlined above, would be an extreme version
of Castronova’s “exodus” scenario. If it turned out that the actual world could
never be as satisfactory as the virtual one, at least for some people, then it
would be difficult to argue against the legitimacy of the exodus. But there are
reasons to believe otherwise, especially as modern technology becomes increasingly able to help
us achieve fulfillment by changing ourselves and the world around us. It would
be disappointing if it ended up being used instead to help us escape from this
world into a fiction – a new opium of the people.


* Kurzweil
also anticipates that within the same amount of time we might become immortal.
Though I’m more willing to share his enthusiasm about such a prospect, I won’t
discuss it here.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Virtual reality is no danger in small doses; Castronova suggests that the doses won’t stay small. Already there are markets in “virtual” property. But virtual reality won’t remain an experience machine for long. There will be cheating (virtual fraud), there might even be virtual robbery. This, of course, will save us from the possibility of everyone logging in to an experience machine and letting (whom?) control their lives. So “fallen man” will manifest himself/herself in the virtual worlds and people will escape from them to …

  2. Perhaps a better term is “introdus” (used in Greg Egan’s novel “Diaspora”, where indeed the vast majority of posthumans lived virtual lives).

    Suppose you went for a holiday in Egypt, but the devious travel company sent you to a perfect imitation Egypt in some other desert. You had the same experiences, but it wasn’t the real Egypt. Would you say this holiday was inauthentic, even if you would never learn of the cheating? (that the travel company here is acting wrongly doesn’t seem to affect the issue of authenticity; the VR example is just a case where you actually know what they are doing and accept it) Similarly, would the Peace Corpos volunteer be less brave if it turned out that all along, without his knowledge, he was protected by American drones? The real benefits of holidays or character building experiences are to a large extent internal. A mediated romance is still a romance.

    That said, VR might be an explanation for the Fermi Paradox. Sufficiently advanced civilizations might find ways of producing supernormal stimuli so enjoyable that there is no incentive to deal with the real world. There might even be environmental reasons for going entirely virtual: However, I have a hard time to imagine this to always be true for all individuals in all possible alien civilizations.

    In a world of potentially instant gratification of many desires, and guaranteed *apparent* instant gratification of all desires, it would seem that there is a higher premium for the virtue of being able to work towards the non-instant goals. Willpower, temperance and similar virtues may actually become more important. Especially since the social value of achieving them may become bigger. I wonder whether this would be a balancing factor?

  3. A virtual world may preclude or hinder certain possibilities for human development. Unless it were a perfect model of our unpredictably developing natural environment (would this be possible?), it may not afford us the opportunity to experience things that might only be enabled by qualities of our natural environment that have not yet been, or cannot be, known by us.

  4. Anders: thanks for the references.

    If someone were taken to a perfect physical copy of Egypt, believing it to be Egypt, I would indeed be inclined to call her experience inauthentic – after all, she was mistakenly led to believe that she was visiting Cairo when in fact she only saw a replica of it. Things might arguably be different if she actually knew it was a replica. However, if she then insisted that she had actually visited Egypt, again I would tend to call her attitude inauthentic, insofar as she would be neglecting the important difference between the experience of a replica and of the original. I don’t want to say it would be illegitimate of someone who couldn’t afford to visit Egypt to resort to VR instead. But I do want to say that the “real thing” has a special status, and that by trying to substitute VR for it, we would be losing something.

    I agree that the Peace Corps Volunteer in your example should probably not be called less brave if it turned out he actually hadn’t been at risk (though he believed he was), because our attribution of a character trait should arguably not depend on contingent external factors of which the agent was (non-culpably) unaware. Still, it seems to me plausible to think that he would have less merit than if he had really been at risk, for our degree of merit does seem to depend (partly) on such external factors.

    The advantages of going entirely virtual are an interesting issue, but I personally have misgivings about the implications of mind uploading for personal identity. As for the virtues of willpower and delayed gratification, they would indeed be of special importance in the context you mention, but the question is, would there be an incentive for people to practice them? If it were generally accepted that having virtual friends or partners, or traveling the world in VR, were just as valuable as the “real thing”, then I guess few people would want to do the hard work required to make real friends, improve one’s appearance or social skills, or save money for a real trip to Egypt or South America (and deal with all the organizational and technical issues it would involve).

  5. Good post Alexandre, a very interesting topic! I am in almost complete agreement with Richard Chappell’s postabout the important normative differences between mere hallucination (as in Nozick’s original machine) and a non-solipsistic interactive VR (as in Second Life). I wonder why you, Alexandre, refer to the latter as “a fiction” at all actually. I suspect that participants in Second Life view themselves as really engaged in a virtual life (as, in fact, they are) rather than as fictionally engaged in real life.

    I do have one qualification to add to what Richard said: there is one asymmetry between physical and virtual life which is, as far as I can see, ineliminable – we cannot conceive of ourselves as continuing to survive in our virtual identities if we do not also continue to survive in our physical identities. But the converse is not true. This means we must continue to lend special weight to our physical survival if we care about any other kind of survival, and perhaps this is what leads some of us to think (incorrectly) that nothing virtual really matters and that only the physical really counts.

  6. The short answer is no. If anything Virtual Worlds have to win the fight for relevance. The fact is that virtual reality inside of the virtual worlds represent a small sliver of the real activity sourounding the practical uses of virtual reality.

    Medicine has certainly embraced the use of virtual simulation to remove brain tumours and treat cardiac patients in recovery. You can read more over at

  7. Simon: I spoke of a “fiction” particularly with regard to games that involve facing dangers and fighting battles, such as World of Warcraft. If you want to describe WoW as a virtual world rather than as a fictional one that’s fine by me; nevertheless, I believe it’s plausible to describe the dangers encountered by WoW players as fictional, insofar as the harms caused by the actions of your enemies in such a game are far milder than they are in real life – e.g. if someone kills you in WoW you become a “ghost” and have the opportunity to be resurrected. Not so in real life, as far as I’m aware.

    I agree about the existence of this asymmetry you point out. Maybe it explains why some people believe that “nothing virtual really matters” – a radical view which I don’t espouse; it isn’t, though, the only consideration that can lead one to regard our achievements and activities in this world as having more value than their virtual counterparts. E.g. the constraints (from physics, biology, psychology, etc.) that bear on us in this world are much tighter than they are in virtual worlds, which is precisely what makes the latter so appealing, but also implies that our achievements in this world often have more value, insofar as they were more difficult to earn.

  8. Alex, if it’s true that the constraints that bear on us in this world are indeed “tighter” than in virtual worlds, this is something that indicates that much more should be achievable in virtual worlds than in our world. Supposing this to be true, it may not be a great achievement to e.g. make a million dollars or climb a mountain in VR. But other things will be just as difficult to earn in VR as these things are in real life (‘building a city’, say). And if people make equal effort in VR, we should expect ‘building a city’ just as common in VR as climbing a mountain or making a million dollars are in real life. So even if climbing a mountain in real life has more value than ‘climbing a mountain’ in VR, we should expect the VR world to be filled with other achievements (like ‘building a city’) which do have the same value as climbing a mountain in real life. From the argument that the “same” achievements would have less value in VR because they are easier to acheive there, you can’t get to the conclusion that a VR world or a VR life would be any less valuable than a real one.

    As an aside, it also seems to me a contingent fact, if it is a fact, about our current VR worlds that the constraints are *in general* looser than those in real life, and I doubt that that is precisely what explains their appeal. Most people find real life pretty appealing despite its many constraints. So I think we could design a VR world with equally tight constraints (aside from the asymmetry I already mentioned that our VR survival must always be dependent on our physical survival).

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