Labeling Reality

199019-neuromancer

Fiction writers have often predicted technological advances and political events, from H. G. Wells to Arthur C. Clarke and George Orwell. Two recent novels anticipate what may be in store at the intersection between virtual reality (VR), the tactile internet and the internet of skills.

In “The peripheral” by William Gibson and in “The three-body problem” by  Liu Cixin, a key part in the plot is played by VR devices featuring interfaces that provide haptic feedback to the user. Using such devices, the user is immersed in the virtual world not only audio-visually but also through the sense of touch. In both cases, the virtual reality turns out (spoiler warning!) to be more authentic than the main characters first envisioned, making their presence and decisions in the virtual world consequential for their actual lives.

In “The peripheral”, the seemingly artificial world is in fact in the actual future — or, more precisely, in an actual future — which can be affected by the actions of the user. Instead, in “The three-body problem”, the virtual reality is a model of an existing planet whose inhabitants are on their way to Earth. VR technology is used in Gibson’s story as a means to project one’s skills and experience to a different time and place, while in Liu’s novel it is leveraged as a tool for propaganda and recruiting.

In both novels, users are, at least at first, not aware of the true nature of the VR “games”, making them even more effective in their respective objectives. In an era in which reality and fiction are ever more intertwined, VR may introduce a new, potentially dangerous, element, further blurring the line between truth and made-up facts and histories.  

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