Virtual reality: anti-social, or social aid?

Oculus VR has the potential to facilitate types of social interaction that go way beyond ‘FaceTime' but there may be a price to pay.

As we head towards the cliff-face of the digital abyss, we should perhaps pause, just for a second, and contemplate how this new frontier influences our consciousness on a day-to-day level. 

Over the last 25-odd years we’ve had our faces pressed up against a screen: first cinema, then TV; followed by Gameboys, computers, mobile phones, tamagotchis, tablets and more.

With every new fandangled gadget comes a host of very worried businesspeople who set up entire industries around these new inventions, whoring themselves out to media publications for comment (“won’t somebody think of the children?”) or selling themselves out to corporations as consultants on how these new gizmos can help drive corporate synergy through targeted marketing and multi-platform cross-disciplining.

Worry is a natural bi-product of newness. Truth be told, the market probably couldn’t function without it. 

So naturally, Facebook’s announcement that it had acquired Oculus VR sent "The Machine" into overdrive. Will the decision anger Oculus’ grassroots Kickstarter investors? (Investors who, incidentally, should have known when they signed up that Kickstarter is the antithesis of venture capitalism -- that’s kind of the point.) Will entire generations of Facebook users forever be marching around town wearing headsets -- and what will this mean for selfies? 

Usually I tend to treat most of this as White Noise. But as someone who spends the better part of my day hunched over a screen -- be it mobile, laptop or tablet -- with headphones on, oblivious to my surroundings, it occurred to me that perhaps we are missing the most important question of all: What implications does this new technology have for our social behaviour?

Is technology ‘anti-social’?

If you’ll forgive the intrusion into the personal, let me make a confession: I am socially dependent on my phone and laptop. There, I said it.

It’s not the ‘fear of missing out’ that drives this social dependency, nor is it technological addiction or whatever other marketing slogans these snake-oil merchants are using today – no, it’s something a little more pathetic than that: These devices offer me intimacy. They allow me to forge connections and have conversations that I would otherwise struggle to achieve in person.

I am a socially anxious person; I’m also incredibly deaf. I usually have to ask people to repeat themselves -- particularly in outdoor or loud environments. I’ve never had my ears tested, but my brain just seem to be attuned to prioritising ambient noise over what’s immediately in front of me. It’s a quality that is at times embarrassing, often leading me to give up halfway through a conversation and just nod.

Then there’s the challenge of conversation itself: around the 20 minute mark I start to worry I’ll run out of things to say. I drop things, and fumble my words. Worse still, I’ll mistake feigned interest for fascination and talk a person’s ear off about something they couldn’t possibly care about.

In contrast, I feel a sense of calm roaming the web, headphones plugged in. There’s something about the cancellation of ambient noise that that allows me to focus. I’m introverted, and therefore online interaction is a great way to help me interact socially. 

Where does Oculus fit in?

The Oculus is potentially a very attractive device for the socially challenged. What’s to stop three friends from across the world all hanging out in the park together, via Oculus? This is an exaggeration, obviously -- yet in its ability to create immediate virtual environments, Oculus would facilitate types of social interaction that go way beyond ‘FaceTime’. 

You and your friends could live happily ever after in identical, customised environments -- online. I could hang out all day in the Louvre with the friends I have acquired online over time, but can’t otherwise see face-to-face because of geography. 

Then of course there’s pornography -- perhaps not a topic for discussion in this column, but let’s just say someone’s going to make a lot of money out of these synergies.

So in this sense, Oculus has the potential to be a great enabler of social interaction, and I imagine it could also be a great learning device for the mentally or emotionally challenged, creating virtual environments in which they can practice social engagement with a computer--simulated person, then to interact with real people via the device before finally engaging with them in ‘reality’. That fourth wall offered by the headsets could be a very valuable tool.

But could the technology also hinder social interaction? 

The answer depends on one’s interpretation of ‘pro-social’ and ‘anti-social’ -- and here the concept of ‘mobile phone etiquette’ is a useful illustration. Do we not value our online interactions? Are they not as tangible and important as what we get in our physical, day-to-day experiences? 

I walk around all day sucking up information like a sponge. Whether I’m listening to podcasts or watching an episode of The Good Wife, doing a Google Hangout with friends overseas or Skypeing an entrepreneur on a bus on the way to the pub in Galway, the line between work and life hasn’t just blurred -- it’s disappeared. Nine-to-five doesn’t exist. And I’m always, always entertained… if I’m not I’m sleeping. 

Does this mean I’m addicted to technology? Does this mean I don’t love my friends and family? Should I care that my friend is checking her Facebook while we order lunch?

My answer to all of these questions is no. 

I’m always going to believe that it’s good to get outside and have the sun on one’s face and the wind in one’s hair. And I’m always going to advocate for regularly spending time with people, because it’s good for your well-being, and essential for your mental health.

I’m a technology advocate, so I also believe that anything that engages the socially isolated is a good thing -- whether that’s a mobile phone or a virtual reality headset.

But as technologies like Oculus become more widespread, we may be forced to more seriously contemplate what it means when we begin to prefer them.

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