Frankenstein is one of my favourite books. On first read, I was struck by its dark undertones, romantic prose, and its thematic concerns with the dangers of obsession- embodied by the titular scientist’s fated attempt at playing God.
I consider myself a person of science, someone who has wholeheartedly embraced the scientific world. I praise scientific achievement, educate myself daily on recent discoveries, and am increasingly reliant on critical technological advancements as they embed themselves in the quotidian. However, I now find myself reflecting more frequently on the spectre of Frankenstein as a portent for our culture, especially as it dives deeper into a relatively uncharted scientific territory: virtual reality.
I am not categorically opposed to virtual reality. In fact, I understand there are many wonderful applications that virtual reality possesses. For example, there exist virtual reality welding machines that allow for users to practice their trade before using actual machines and material. I can envision similar applications for a span of other professions, such as pilots, surgeons, or even electricians. I see people praising its pioneering in the fields of gaming, design, and architecture. So perhaps it is not that I distrust the technology fundamentally, but rather am concerned regarding the way its users may begin to depend on it.
Technology addiction is becoming an increasingly tangible reality. According to Addiciton.com, surveys conducted in the US and Europe have concluded that 1.8%-8.2% of the population suffers from internet addiction, and its easy to recognise how the patterns of attachment and dependency form. I see why people become addicted, as can I see myself slipping into those patterns, and it serves to only solidify in my mind how technology addiction is real and evolving. Virtual reality is only the latest addition to the arsenal of devices on which we find ourselves becoming increasingly dependent. Ultimately, I suspect it could affirm itself as one of the most potent.
Already, we create & curate the best versions of ourselves on our social networks, our phones, and our tablets. We post our happiest pictures. We use specially designed apps to facilitate our lives. We use our devices to assume greater control over how the outside world perceives our happiness and success. What I fear most about virtual reality in the future is the possibility of abandoning our own lives to create, nurture, and perfect new facades, ones that are barely real at all. The ongoing perceptions of it as a technological novelty are in lockstep with the current constraints on computing power it relies upon; but as Elon Musk noted this past month, we’ve gone from Pong to near-photorealistic simulations in the span of a generation, throwing into sharp relief the furious pace at which computing performance has rocketed upwards over the past half-century. In this vein, many of the current futurological predictions speak in terms of “when”, not “if”, future generations will have access to incomprehensible amounts of computing power, a development which could signal the erasure of the qualitative and phenomenal differences between the real world, and our created ones.
As this technology drills forward, we run the same risks of playing God that Frankenstein did; birthing creations in our own image, augmented and copied versions of ourselves persisting in a drastically skewed world. I see the lines between reality and virtual reality becoming blurred. What is now seen as a game or as a tool, I fear will develop into a lifestyle and a crutch. I already know people who prefer to send texts instead of make phone calls, who stay at home rather than go out, and who trust their computers more than they trust people.
I remain hopeful though, and sometimes these fears seem more like a self-established paranoia, stemming from 5+ years of reading almost exclusively science fiction novels. I believe fully in the phenomena and simplicity of nature, and that being present and open-minded allows for people to experience the beauty and idiosyncrasies of what surrounds us. I would rather take the imperfections and pitfalls of what does exist, over being led on by illusory perfection. Or, as Frankenstein himself doubted, “When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?”
cover photo: Getty Images