It is 12:28 a.m. on June 10th in Brooklyn, New York. A Thursday. Overcast, though maybe that’s only how I remember it. I’m sure there’s a way to check that in some weather archive stored in a readily available location on the internet for any technology-competent person; however, I’ve decided not to look into it. My English professor once read us a quote about creative nonfiction and how it is actually not the author’s responsibility in the genre to get the nitty-gritty of the facts right, but rather to provide an honest account of their experience. If I were to learn it was raining that night, or perhaps a thunderstorm, that would heavily impact my confidence in candidly reciting the rest of the story. How could I be trusted as a narrator if I couldn’t remember a detail as lively and violent as a thunderstorm? To seek out this information would therefore be reckless and immature. Aesthetically, emotionally, spiritually: it was overcast. And I’m tired of talking about it.
I am half-drunk and my friend is playing a DJ set. We are in his brother’s girlfriend’s apartment, although his brother lives there as well. They must be getting pretty serious, I remember thinking. My friend has gotten really good at DJing recently, or so he tells me. The floor seems to have a constant hum and the walls vibrate with every bass hit that emanates from his seemingly very expensive speakers. Every now and then he will exclaim something like “How crazy is this?” or “My friend made this song.” I remember admiring how aesthetically coherent the apartment was when I walked in. Truthfully, I thought the rug really tied the room together. I pondered how long it would be until I accumulated enough capital to purchase a rug. Not too long, I supposed.
I am wearing an Oculus virtual reality headset.
My current goal is to kill two men who are running at me: one with a gun, one with clenched fists. I hesitate to call them men. They are more like minimalist polygonal mannequins, and they certainly lack the empathy or reason of common man. The catch was this: the men (I’ve decided to call them men) only moved when I moved, which was communicated to the game by the controllers that wrapped around each of my hands. In fact, everything in the world I now inhabited moved only at my accord. When one of the men shot a bullet at me, I slowly knelt down and watched as it leisurely whizzed by my left ear. It was at this moment that my friend informed me that I was getting close to the television, although that information didn’t particularly impact my next move. In a swift motion, I arose from my kneeling position and punched the man who shot the bullet at me in the face, obliterating him into a thousand little specks of virtual matter. I caught the gun that fell from the now-extinct man’s hands before quickly turning around and shooting the other oncoming foe in the face, decimating him in the same vein as his friend and prompting the message “level complete.” My friend took this time to once again inform me of my whereabouts in relation to his brother’s girlfriend’s television, completely unaware of the feats of athleticism I had just accomplished and the absolute carnage that ensued.
I felt strange walking home that night. I had a lot of thoughts running through my head. I briefly pondered the notion that perhaps what I am currently experiencing as reality is actually some simulation built from a not-so-distant technology, but discarded the idea on the grounds that it was ultimately a trite and boring thought. To be perfectly honest, I had always been totally and completely disinterested in virtual reality and the discourse surrounding it. I felt the same way about virtual reality as I did about Elon Musk or Bitcoin or veganism. I felt that those who wished to engage me in dialogue on these topics (liberal media, weirdo Joe Rogan dudes, etc.) were trying to sell me something, and by participating I was somehow being profited on. I suppose I still feel this way. I cringe a bit at the thought that my name will be attached to something that will likely be remembered as just another spoke on the greater virtual reality discourse wheel. However, there is no denying that I felt something on my short walk home that night. And if it made me feel something, surely it’s worth writing about, right?
I was first off struck by the quality of the technology. Perhaps aided by the trance-inducing tempo of my friend’s blaring music and the sedative nature of the lukewarm beers I had drunk throughout the night, there was an honest moment where I felt completely immersed in the game. It was truly like nothing I had experienced before, and I had to take a moment when I was done to recalibrate myself to the real world (“the real world”). For a piece of equipment bought at Walmart for $399.99 that I went into using with a slight undertone of irony, I was not expecting this.
I was also struck by my acute understanding at the time that this would have little-to-no effect on me in the future. I do not mean this on an interpersonal level. Perhaps in 50 years, our world will be uninhabitable and we will all turn to virtual reality to live out the rest of our days in 4K UHD, myself included. This is not the type of effect I was talking about. What I meant was that even as I walked home disoriented and convinced that the real world didn’t look all too different from the world I saw in the goggles, I still knew that when I woke up the next morning I would once again not care about virtual reality at all. That was scarier than the technology.
This, to me, feels like a very modern experience. Perhaps more modern than the experience of virtual reality itself. It is truly incredible how seamlessly I am able to move on from what should be a transcendental experience. How I can FaceTime my mother or turn on the light in my bathroom with no hands or listen to Mozart through a mystical device called “bluetooth” while walking through a technological wasteland he could’ve never imagined in his wildest dreams. But in a world of vaccines and nine different Fast & Furious movies and the ocean being on fire and NFTs and bad Twitter discourse, I suppose that’s only natural. There are too many things, too many ideas, too many people, too many Fast & Furious movies, too much stuff. Indifference to things as trivial as virtual reality to me feels almost like a form of self-preservation.
This is, almost surely, a bad thing. Oculus, the market-leading product in virtual reality technology, was purchased in 2014 by Facebook, one of the most notoriously nefarious companies in the world. I don’t even particularly care to ponder the potential downsides of a company like Facebook owning a device whose goal is quite literally to alter our sense of reality, although my intuition tells me that has to be not good.
And yet, I just can’t bring myself to care. I can’t bring myself to care about the technology, about the upsides, the downsides, the debates, the cultural relevance, my experience with it, anything. Because yesterday I entered a reality coded by some geeks at Facebook, and tomorrow California may burn, or a new TikTok trend may spark a nationwide debate on the ethics of consuming sugar cereals, or there may be a surprise drop of Fast and Furious 10: Really Fast. And ultimately, If I ever do choose to humor any prolonged thoughts on virtual reality, I will surely be met by a New York Post article titled, “Forget Virtual Reality (Yawn), The Future is in Plastics, Baby!” And the cycle repeats.
Maybe this article will age poorly. In fact, I’m almost sure it will. Perhaps virtual reality really is our destiny and the ethics surrounding it are the most pressing issue of modern times. That wouldn’t surprise me. I do not claim to know these things. I only wish to express to you, the reader, that I have experienced the other side, and I have made it back. And it was awe-inspiring, earth-shattering, scary, exhilarating, unforgettable and impressive. And I, not behind a guise of coolness or a wish to posture as an all-knowing essayist, do not care about it at all. This is the superpower, or tragedy, of our generation. This is why our parents call us entitled. This is perhaps bad for the world. However, it seems to me our only defense mechanism against the absolutely whacko, utterly insane world we have been handed. It is not brave, or noble, or even virtuous, but necessary. I would be much more willing to engage in conversation on this point. It seems ripe with contention. But on the topic of virtual reality, I will continue to do as I’ve always done: check out.
Statement Deputy Editor Leo Krinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.