One of the channels I regularly follow on Twitter is called Futurism. As it's name suggests, it's a website dedicated to articles and videos about the future, technology, and its innovators. Of recent interest was their tweet about a piece called Uncanny Valley in which they tease:
In this sci-fi short film, we get a dark look at the possible implications of virtual reality, and what happens when the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur.
Being a fan of all things dark and futuristic, I just had to check it out; and I have to say, it was some of the most intense ten minutes I've ever watched! [*]
- Spoilers From This Point Forward -
So, the film's quality is as good as any modern motion picture in terms of the writing, acting, and special effects. It's a sci-fi mockumentary in the style of District 9 with residents of a run down apartment sharing their stories of life as VR addicts. One gets the impression they're the outcasts of society - junkies, criminals, and extreme introverts who can no longer cope with the real world.
One man says he has a hard time dealing with people, preferring the excitement of the virtual realm to real life, wanting it to be as extreme as possible, as real as possible. Another laments his past run-ins with the law, in contrast to his profound elation at being able to be himself online in a way that doesn't hurt anyone.
We see a social worker describe the consequences VR addiction has had on its players. She laments how many of them turned to the digital world as an outlet for their inability to cope with the real world, and how this creates a compounding downward spiral rendering them that much more inured in their miserable existence.
They live in abject poverty, some of them physically shaking or huddling like opium junkies. One man describes how he literally lives on a flight of stairs like a bum, and yet he doesn't seem to care about his lot, because he has purpose and excitement in his simulated life online.
As our social worker alludes, we're left wondering what else these people have to look forward to, and would they just give up on existing altogether if it were taken away from them?
Would that be for the best, even?
Such bread-and-circus subsistence is an all-too-common symptom of living in a Rat Utopia. People looking for a constant rush of dopamine and adrenaline, but who are otherwise useless eaters - a perpetual drain of resources on society, whom we only continue to support because the thought of ending their lives prematurely strikes us as sociopathic and immoral.
As I write this, I myself struggle with the moral and philosophical implications of how to fix such an existence, and whether it wouldn't in fact be kinder to put them down rather than wait for Nature to take its course, or for them to do it themselves out of despair.
Part of me wants to hold onto hope for their potential, while silently acknowledging such persons may simply fade out of the gene pool slowly over time, especially if they aren't reproducing.
In a previous article, I discussed the joys and dangers of transhumanism with regards to sex, with one of the benefits being no actual people get harmed in the process of abusing pixels on a screen. At first, it seems like that's a huge draw for the players in Uncanny Valley as well. The rush of killing enemies in a high-intensity simulation where you're free to act without consequences to yourself or others.
As costly to the players as such addictive behavior might be, we could at least sleep comfortably if we knew for sure it was only affecting them and no one else. After all, they chose this life style.
No one held a gun to their heads, as it were.
That is, until the film completely flips the script and reveals that the enemies of our protagonists are in fact real people!
After a glitch in the game, one curious soul wanders haplessly down the rabbit hole until at last the curtain is drawn back and he comes face to face with a woman - ostensibly of Middle Eastern descent - huddled over the recently-slain body of a man we can only assume is her loved one.
The camera pulls back and it's revealed that this isn't just a digital world, but rather our gamers are directly controlling the behaviors of an army of robotic soldiers in some far-off foreign war, with real human casualties. All at once, any last vestiges of naiveté collapse and we see the simulation for what it is - an insidious trick befitting the Machiavellian machinations of the military higher-ups of Ender's Game who would take advantage of people's innocent desires for pleasure and personal fulfillment to wreck havoc half a planet away.
One player says he lives for the thrill of the battlefield. Would he still feel the same way if he learned the truth about what his gaming experience was? Would he quit cold turkey out of a sudden sense of guilt, or has he become so addicted, so wholly detached from reality, that he's fallen into a strange, involuntary sociopathy he just can't let go of?
We can hope for the best, of course; but again, the film takes a darker twist.
Our freshly red-pilled gamer has scarcely any time to stop and consider the consequences of his actions before we see a similar robot soldier enter his apartment. As we peer through the vision of the drone, we see the world of the game as presented to its human controller, with the addict taking form as an enemy within the holographic universe.
The ending is left as a cliff-hanger, but it's hard to shake the feeling we already know the outcome, since it was only by an act of fate this poor unfortunate soul even glimpsed the truth in the first place.
Whether this was a one-off, an honest mistake resulting from a glitch, or malicious common occurrence is left to the viewer's imagination. Given that the UN is considering a ban on killer robots, I wouldn't bet on a happy ending.
Uncanny Valley is clearly meant to be a dystopian commentary on the potential highlights and pitfalls of a world addicted to virtual reality. The name suggests being caught in a place of intense discomfort during a pivotal transition in humanity's technological evolution. The sort of place humanoid robots are generally in now, that we keep hoping we'll be able to overcome if we just push a little harder.
Of course, the future isn't guaranteed.
Uncanny Valley does a spectacular job in terms of the visual effects. The military vehicles are reminiscent of the tilt-rotors and unmanned tanks in Ghost in the Shell.
The "battlefield" has a sort of hellish feel to it, with fire and brimstome rising into the sky.
I really like the designs of the "ghosts" as well - the simulated projections that VR gamers have to hunt down and shoot. They have a really sinister aesthetic, appearing otherworldly and inhuman, which science suggests makes it easier to exterminate in a very cold, detached way. They stand in stark contrast to the soft, fragile, familiar human faces of the men and women behind the virtual masks.
Even calling them ghosts gives a certain fatalistic impression that the targets are already dead, further playing into the cyclical misfortune of this futuristic society.
In many ways, I'm reminded of the Ready Player One trailer - Steven Spielberg's upcoming film in which humans live in parasitic trailer parks, escaping to the Oasis online to avoid the dregs of their society. It'll be interesting to see how the two compare and what the outcome of Spielberg's movie will be.
Both movies paint a very dark forecast of the future of VR; but again, is that necessarily guaranteed?
I won't pretend like it couldn't happen, but let me leave you with a bit of optimism and say that any form of technology has no inherent moral quality. It's just a tool to be wielded for good or ill by its user, and it's up to each of us to exercise our wills to ensure a positive outcome.
The same virtual reality that makes these extreme introverts, outcasts, and criminals a bunch of bags of neuroticism could, if geared towards such a purpose, be used to retrain them to be more productive, gregarious, self-confident members of society. We already know that to be true of the internet, for instance. As many people who waste their lives addicted to porn, gaming, and social media, there are just as many who use it to spread truth, build businesses, raise social awareness, and connect with people across the globe.
(This blog is a perfect example.)
In the virtual world, you could practice speaking in front of crowds, learn to flirt, do improv, dance, sing, and negotiate a business deal or global political crisis, all without having to suffer the embarrassment attendant with real live human beings, or the consequences of epic failure.
It can be your practice run. A dress rehearsal to improve your social skills before applying them in the real world.
When it comes to technological solutions, the future takes a shotgun, all-of-the-above approach. If the fields of genetics and cybernetics can't cure people of certain toxic impulses, if philosophy and online education can't do it either, then VR could be the last vestige of rehabilitation:
I'm certainly an advocate of gaming, both for pleasure and for therapy. We've already seen ample evidence to suggest that first-person shooters, for instance, can lead to a decrease in criminality by providing a healthy outlet for such unsavory desires.
We've also seen people become addicted to it, and that's certainly not healthy.
As a result of my own personal experiences with addiction, if there's one thing I've learned about the subject, it's that we're all addicted to something; and just as the mind can only hold one thought in its focus at a time, so too can we only be addicted to one thing as a time.
We are programable moist robots. Garbage in, garbage out. The best hope for anyone is to become addicted to something positive and constructive, for both self and others. To crowd out any and all opportunity for negative, destructive, immoral compulsions. Technological innovations will expound both the good and the bad aspects of society, and hopefully movies like Uncanny Valley will continue to serve as a timely warning for future generations in the hopes our destiny won't be steered so lopsided towards a nightmarish dystopia.
* Ok, so it was really only 8:52, bite me.