Virtual Reality or What Used to Be Called Literature
April 30, 2018

The students were understandably terrified as they headed to their slaughter. With the aid of special goggles and gloves provided by the Stanford Lab, they had drunk from a virtual trough, had eaten virtual hay, and were now prodded to their virtual death. “I felt as if I was in the place of a cow,” confessed one participant.

Having read about this experiment in Jeremy Bailenson’s Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality is, How it Works, and What it Can Do, I felt a sense of déjà vu. For I had been discussing this type of perspective-taking with my freshman class in relation to Apuleius’ Latin novel, The Golden Ass.

A native of Madaura in North Africa (125-170CE), Apuleius asked readers to imagine themselves as a donkey instead of a cow. More than two thousand years ago he performed the same exercise Bailenson was conducting — getting people to put themselves in the hooves of an animal. He achieved a similar effect through the artifice of art rather than the gadgets of virtual reality; in other words, through stories, humor, and hyperbole.

Finding himself in an area of Greece known for magic and sorcery, the aristocrat Lucius takes up with Fotis, the servant of the witch, Pamphile. After he observes Pamphile turn herself into a bird, Lucius begs his lover for the magic potion. As soon as she offers it to him, he smears it on his body and begins to flap his arms, expecting to soar. But rather than sprouting wings and feathers, he grows hair, hooves and a long tail.

By accident Fotis had given him the wrong mix and our hero turns into an ass. Unfortunately for him, bandits then break into the house, seize Lucius, load him with their loot, and prod him to a cave. And Lucius, still retaining his consciousness as a man with considerable literary skills, begins to see what it’s like to lose his autonomy and be used as a beast of burden. He turns into a commodity, repeatedly bought and sold, with potential owners shoving their fingers into his mouth to check his state of health. “We bought him in a Cappadocian slave-market,” shouts out one auctioneer.

Lucius, of course, is treated just like any other animal but his emotions and brain interpret these actions as oppression and cruelty. His transformation into an ass becomes a parable of slavery which allows Apuleius to conduct a satire of Roman society.

At the same time, Apuleius demonstrates how a change of perspective can be transformational. Despite the degradation, exploitation, and torture Lucius endures, he is grateful to “his many adventures in ass-disguise” because they broadened his “experience.” He prizes his long ears with which he picks up fascinating stories. Lucius, the ass, sees himself as an Odysseus, “who had visited many cities and come to know many different peoples.” He believes, in other words, that his conversion gave him empathy, the capacity to understand other people. And we, as readers, acquire this same perspective by following his ass-odyssey.

This, of course, has always been one of the functions of literature. Story-telling enables listeners to live vicariously, through the fears, loves, anxieties, and promises of other people. Readers enter the minds of these individuals and follow their adventures, all the time knowing that this is an invented narrative.

Bailenson claims that virtual reality can surpass literature in creating life-like experiences. When the technology is perfected, virtual reality could become the “ultimate empathy machine,” allowing us to inhabit the body of another person, swim like a whale, walk like a cow, but also kill like a mass-murderer and torture like a sadist.

Avoiding the Internet boosterism of the previous decade, Bailenson acknowledges that virtual reality can be a tool both for social improvement and evil. While one person can augment her language skills by virtual reality, the other can become an accomplished murderer. Bailenson celebrates virtual reality’s capacity for enabling us to “fly to the moon like Superman,” while expressing disquiet about its potential for misuse. Despite these misgivings, he is optimistic about the power of Virtual Reality to enhance our aptitude for empathy and see the world through the eyes of a refugee or of a fish in a net.

If virtual reality can indeed foster interpersonal and international understanding, if it can allow us to appreciate the positions of other individuals or animals, it should be welcomed. But it won’t make us happy. We won’t be satisfied to float into endlessly life-like sensations because we require fabrication in our lives as much as authenticity.

For its part, virtual reality seeks the verisimilitude of the ancient painter Zeuxis who, upon unveiling his painting of a bunch of grapes, watched birds descend upon them. It tricks the mind into believing that the fabrication is totally real, seeking to erase the distance between the concept and the thing. It forgets, however, that we, as human beings, also need to hang on our walls paintings that we know are paintings, that is, representations of reality.

As much as we strive for a slice of life, we also seek the lies of fiction. We delight in the boundary between fantasy and actuality, needing the separation between the actual and the possible that virtual reality erases. What defines us as human beings is our pleasure in entering the imaginary worlds of Odysseus, Anna Karenina, or Harry Potter, and in juxtaposing their lives with our own.

The beauty of art is the frame, the boundary we fashion around the fabricated image that helps us better appreciate the real one. Jarod Lanier, a founder of virtual reality, understands this. It is when you remove the goggles of Virtual Reality, he says, that things make sense. “The most ordinary surface, cheap wood or plain dirt, is bejeweled in infinite detail for a short while.”

Lanier describes here defamiliarization, the capacity of literature to heighten experience, to make the stuff of life seem brighter, marvelous, and worth noting. Literature has always asked us to pause and take notice of the wonder of life. It makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar, providing a perch from which to observe, criticize, and change our lives.

Seen from this perspective the real danger of virtual reality lies less in unceasing addiction than in the obliteration of the boundary between fact and fiction. By destroying artifice, it may end up killing what makes us human.

While the sirens of virtual reality lure us into an infinitely expanding empiricism, our inner voices sing just as insistently that we need illusion.

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