Escapism And Virtual Reality Essay, Research Paper
Escapism and Virtual Reality
The use of computers in society provides obvious benefits and some drawbacks.
`Virtual Reality’, a new method of interacting with any computer, is presented
and its advantages and disadvantages are considered. The human aspect of
computing and computers as a form of escapism are developed, with especial
reference to possible future technological developments. The consequences of a
weakening of the sense of reality based upon the physical world are also
considered. Finally, some ways to reduce the unpleasant aspects of this
potential dislocation are examined. A glossary of computing terms is also
Computers as Machines
The progression of the machine into all aspects of human life has continued
unabated since the medieval watchmakers of Europe and the Renaissance study of
science that followed Clocks . Whilst this change has been exceedingly rapid
from a historical perspective, it can nevertheless be divided into distinct
periods, though rather arbitrarily, by some criteria such as how people
travelled or how information was transferred over long distances. However these
periods are defined, their lengths have become increasingly shorter, with each
new technological breakthrough now taking less than ten years to become accepted
(recent examples include facsimile machines, video recorders and microwave
One of the most recent, and hence most rapidly absorbed periods, has been that
of the computer. The Age of Computing began with Charles Babbage in the late
19th century Babbage , grew in the calculating machines between the wars
EarlyIBM , continued during the cryptanalysis efforts of World War II
Turing,Bletchley and finally blossomed in the late 1970’s with mass market
applications in the developed countries (e.g. JapanSord ). Computers have
gone through several `generations’ of development in the last fifty years and
their rate of change fits neatly to exponential curves Graphs , suggesting that
the length of each generation will become shorter and shorter, decreasing until
some unforeseen limit is reached. This pattern agrees with the more general
decrease of length between other technological periods.
The great strength of computers whether viewed as complex machines, or more
abstractly as merely another type of tool, lies in their enormous flexibility.
This flexibility is designed into a computer from the moment of its conception
and accounts for much of the remarkable complexity that is inherent in each
design. For this very reason, the uses of computers are now too many to ever
consider listing exhaustively and so only a representative selection are
Computers are now used to control any other machine that is subject to a varying
environment, (e.g. washing machines, electric drills and car engines).
Artificial environments such as hotels, offices and homes are maintained in pre-
determined states of comfort by computers in the thermostats and lighting
circuits. Within a high street shop or major business, every financial or
stockkeeping transaction will be recorded and acknowledged using some form of
The small number of applications suggested above are so common to our
experiences in developed countries that we rarely consider the element which
permits them to function as a computer. The word `microprocessor’ is used to
refer to a `stand-alone’ computer that operates within these sorts of
applications. Microprocessors are chips at the heart of every computer, but
without the ability to modify the way they are configured, only a tiny
proportion of their flexibility is actually used. The word `computer’ is now
defined as machines with a microprocessor, a keyboard and a visual display unit
(VDU), which permit modification by the user of the way that the microprocessor
Computers in this sense are used to handle more complex information than that
with which microprocessors deal, for example, text, pictures and large amounts
of information in databases. They are almost as widespread as the
microprocessors described above, having displaced the typewriter as the standard
writing tool in many offices and supplanted company books as the most reliably
current form of accountancy information. In both these examples, a computer
permits a larger amount of information to be stored and modified in a less time-
consuming fashion than any other method used previously.
Another less often considered application is that of communication. Telephone
networks are today controlled almost entirely by computers, unseen by the
customer, but actively involved in every telephone call phones . The linking of
computers themselves by telephone and other networks has led people to
communicate with each other by using the computer to both write the text (a
word-processor) and to send it to its destination. This is known as electronic
mail, or `email’.
The all pervasive nature of the computer and its obvious benefits have not
prevented a growing number of people who are vociferously concerned with the
risks of widespread application of what is still an undeniably novel technology
comp.risks,ACMrisks . Far from being reactionary prophets of doom, such people
are often employed within the computer industry itself and yet have become wary
of the pace of change. They are not opposed to the use of computers in
appropriate environments, but worry deeply when critical areas of inherently
dangerous operations are performed entirely by computers. Examples of such
operations include correctly delivering small but regular doses of drugs into a
human body and automatically correcting (and hence preventing) aerodynamic
stability problems in an aircraft plane1,plane2 . Both operations are typical
`risky’ environments for a computer since they contain elements that are tedious
(and therefore error-prone) for a human being to perform, yet require the human
capacity to intervene rapidly when the unexpected occurs. Another instance of
the application of computers to a problem actually increasing the risks attached
is the gathering of statistical information about patients in a hospital. Whilst
the overall information about standards of health care is relatively insensitive,
the comparative costs of treatment by different physicians is obviously highly
sensitive information. Restricting the `flow ‘of such information is a complex
and time-consuming business.
Predictions for future developments in computing applications are notoriously
difficult to cast with any accuracy, since the technology which is driving the
developments changes so rapidly. Interestingly, much of what has been developed
so far has its conceptual roots in science fiction stories of the late 1950’s.
Pocket televisions, lightning fast calculating machines and weapons of pin-point
accuracy were all first considered in fanciful fiction. Whilst such a source of
fruitful ideas has yet to be fully mined out, and indeed, Virtual Reality (see
below) has been used extensively
Neuromancer and others, many more concepts that are now appearing that have no
Some such future concepts, in which computers would be of vital importance,
might be the performance of delicate surgical procedures by robot, controlled by
a computer, guided in turn by a human surgeon; the control of the flow of
traffic in a large city according to information gathered by remote sensors;
prediction of earthquakes and national weather changes using large computers to
simulate likely progressions from a known current state weather ; the
development of cheap, fast and secure coding machines to permit guaranteed
security in international communications; automatic translation from one
language to another as quickly as the words are spoken; the simulation of new
drugs’ chemical reactions
with the human body. These are a small fraction of the possible future
applications of computers, taken from a recent prediction of likely developments
JapanFuture . One current development which has relevance to all the above, is
the concept known as `Virtual Reality’ and is discussed further below.
Virtual Reality, or VR, is a concept that was first formally proposed in the
early Seventies by Ted Nelson ComputerDreams , though this work appears to be
in part a summary of the current thinking at that time. The basic idea is that
human beings should design machines that can be operated in a manner that is as
natural as possible, for the human beings, not the computers.
For instance, the standard QWERTY keyboard is a moderately good instrument for
entering exactly the letters which have been chosen to make up a word and hence
to construct sentences. Human communication, however, is often most fluent in
speech, and so a computer that could understand spoken words (preferably of all
languages) and display them in a standard format such as printed characters,
would be far easier to use, especially since the skills of speech exist from an
early age, but typing has to be learnt, often painfully.
All other human senses have similar analogies when considering their use with
tools. Pictures are easier than words for us to digest quickly. A full range of
sounds provides more useful information than beeps and bells do. It is easier
to point at an item that we can see than to specify it by name. All of these
ideas had to wait until the technology had advanced sufficiently to permit their
implementation in an efficient manner, that is, both fast enough not to
irritate the user and cheap enough for mass production.
The `state of the art’ in VR consists of the following. A pair of rather bulky
goggles, which when worn display two images of a computer-generated picture. The
two images differ slightly, one for each eye, and provide stereo vision and
hence a sense of depth. They change at least fifty times per second, providing
the brain with the illusion of continuous motion (just as with television).
Attached to the goggles are a pair of conventional high-quality headphones, fed
from a computer-generated sound source. Different delays in the same sound
reaching each ear provide a sense of aural depth. There is also a pair of
cumbersome gloves, rather like padded ice-hockey gloves, which permit limited
flexing in all natural directions and feed information about the current
position of each hand and finger to a computer.
All information from the VR equipment is passed to the controlling computer and,
most importantly, all information perceived by the user is generated by the
computer. The last distinction is the essence of the reality that is `virtual’,
or computer-created, in VR.
The second critical feature is that the computer should be able to modify the
sent to the user according to the information that it received from the user.
In a typical situation this might involve drawing a picture of a room on the
screens in the goggles and superimposing upon it a picture of a hand, which
moves and changes shape just as the user’s hand moves and changes shape. Thus,
the user moves his hand and sees something that looks like a hand move in front
The power of VR again lies in the flexibility of the computer. Since the
picture that is displayed need not be a hand, but could in fact be any created
object at all, one of the first uses of VR might be to permit complex objects to
be manipulated on the screen as though they existed in a tangible form.
Representations of large molecules might be grasped, examined from all sides and
fitted to other molecules. A building could be constructed from virtual
architectural components and then lit from differing angles to consider how
different rooms are illuminated. It could even be populated with imaginary
occupants and the human traffic bottlenecks displayed as `hot spots’ within the
One long-standing area of interest in VR has been the simulation of military
conflicts in the most realistic form possible.
The flight simulator trainers of the 1970’s had basic visual displays and large
hydraulic rams to actually move the trainee pilot as the real aeroplane would
have moved. This has been largely replaced in more modern simulators by a
massive increase in the amount of information displayed on the screen, leading
to the mind convincing itself that the physical movements are occurring, with
reduced emphasis on attempts to provide the actual movements. Such an approach
is both cheaper in equipment and more flexible in configuration, since changing
the the aeroplane from a fighter to a commercial airliner need only involve
changing the simulator’s program, not the hydraulics.
Escapism can be rather loosely defined as the desire to be in a more pleasant
mental and physical state than the present one. It is universal to human
experience across all cultures, ages and also across historical periods. Perhaps
for this reason, little quantitative data exists on how much time is spent
practicing some form of escapism and only speculation as to why it should feel
so important to be able to do so.
One line of thought would suggest that all conscious thought is a form of
escapism and that in fact any activity that involves concentration on sensations
from the external world is a denial of our ability to escape completely.
This hypothesis might imply that all thought is practice, in some sense, for
situations that might occur in the future. Thoughts about the past are only of
use for extrapolation into possible future scenarios.
However, this hypothesis fails to include the pleasurable parts of escapist
thinking, which may either be recalling past experiences or, more importantly
for this study, the sense of security and safety that can exist within
situations that exist only in our minds. A more general hypothesis would note
the separate concepts of pleasure and necessity as equally valid reasons for any
Can particular traits in a person’s character be identified with a tendency to
escapist thoughts that lead to patterns of behaviour that are considered extreme
by their society? It seems unlikely that a combination of hereditary
intelligence and social or emotional deprivation can be the only causes of such
behaviour, but they are certainly not unusual ones, judging by the common
stereotypes of such people.
The line of thinking that will be pursued throughout this essay is the idea that
a person who enjoys extreme forms of escapist thoughts will often feel most
comfortable with machines in general and with computers in particular.
Certainly, excessive escapist tendencies have existed in all societies and have
been tolerated or more crucially, made use of, in many different ways. For
instance, apparent absent-mindedness would be acceptable in a hunter/gatherer
society in the gatherers but not for a hunter. A society with a wide-spread
network of bartering would value a combination of both the ability to plan a
large exchange and the interpersonal skills necessary to conclude a barter,
which are not particularly abstract. In a society with complex military
struggles, the need to plan and imagine victories becomes an essential skill
(for a fraction of the combatants).
Moving from the need for abstract thought to its use, there is a scale of
thought required to use the various levels of machines that have been mentioned
earlier. A tool that has no electronics usually has a function that is easy to
perceive (for example, a paperclip). A machine with a microprocessor often has
a larger range of possible uses and may require an instruction manual telling
the operator how to use it (e.g. a modern washing machine or a television). Both
of these examples can be used without abstract thought, merely trusting that
they will do what they either obviously do, or have been assured by the manual
that they will do.
The next level is the use of computers as tools, for example, for word-
processing. Now a manual becomes essential and some time will have to be spent
before use of the tool is habitual. Even then, many operations will remain
difficult and require some while to consider how to perform them. A `feel’ for
the tool has to acquired before it can be used effectively.
The top level of complexity on this scale is the use of computers as flexible
tools and the construction of the series of instructions known as programs to
control the operation of the computer. Escapist thoughts begin when the
operations of the programs have to be understood. In many cases, it is either
too risky or time-consuming to set the programs into action without considering
their likely consequences (in minute detail) first. Such detailed comprehension
of the action of a program often requires the person constructing the lists of
instructions (the programmer) to enter a separate world, where the symbols and
values of the program have their physical counterparts. Variables take on
emotional significance and routines have their purpose described in graphic
`action’ language. A cursory examination of most programmers’ programs will
reveal this in the comments that are left to help them understand each program’s
purpose. Interestingly, even apparently unemotional people visualise their
programs in this anthropomorphic manner Weizenbaum76,Catt73 .
Without this ability to trace the action of a program before it is performed in
real life, the computing industry would cease to exist. This ability is so
closely related to what we do naturally and call `escapism’, that the two have
begun to merge for many people involved in the construction of programs. For
some, what began as work has become what is done for pleasurable relaxation,
which is a fortunate discovery for large computer-related businesses. The need
for time-clocks and foremen has been largely eliminated, since the workers look
forward to coming to work, often to escape the mundane aspect of reality.
There are problems associated with this form of work motivation. One major
discovery is that it can be difficult to work as a team in this kind of activity.
Assigning each programmer a section of the project is the usual solution, but
maintaining a coherent grasp of the project’s state then becomes increasingly
difficult. Indeed, this problem means that there are now computers whose design
cannot be completely understood by one person. Misunderstandings that result
from this problem and the inherent ambiguities of human languages are often the
cause of long delays in completion of projects involving computers. (The current
statistics are that cost over-runs of 300 are not uncommon, especially for
larger projects and time over-runs of 50 are common SWEng ).
Another common problem is that of developed social inadequacy amongst groups of
programmers and their businesses. The awkwardness of communicating complex ideas
to other (especially non-technical) members of the group can lead them to avoid
other people in person and to communicate solely by messages and manuals
(whether electronic or paper).
Up to now, most absorption of the information necessary to `escape’ in this
fashion has been from a small number of sources located in an environment full
of other distractions. The introduction of Virtual Reality, especially with
regard to the construction of programs, will eliminate many of these external
distractions. In return, it will provide a `concentrated’ version of the world
in which the programmer is working. The flexible nature of VR means that
abstract objects such as programs can be viewed in reality (on the goggles’
screens) in any format at all. Most likely, they will be viewed in a manner that
is significant for each individual programmer, corresponding to how he or she
views programs when they have escaped into the world that contains them. Thus,
what were originally only abstract thoughts in one human mind can now be made
real and repeatable and may be distributed in a form that has meaning for other
people. The difference between this and books or paintings is the amount of
information that can be conveyed and the flexibility with which it can be
The Dangers of Virtual Reality
As implied above, the uses of Virtual Reality can be understood in two ways.
Firstly, VR can be viewed as a more effective way of communicating concepts,
abstract or concrete, to other people. For example, as a teaching tool, a VR
interface to a database of operation techniques would permit a surgeon to try
out different approaches on the same simulated patient or to teach a junior
basic techniques. An architect might use a VR interface to allow clients to
walk around a building that exists only in the design stage ArchieMag .
Secondly, VR can be used as a visualisation tool for each individual. Our own
preferences could be added to a VR system to such an extent that anyone else
using it would be baffled by the range of personalised symbols and concepts. An
analogy to this would be redefining all the keys on a typewriter for each typist.
This would be a direct extension of our ability to conceive objects, since the
machine would deal with much of the tedious notation and the many symbols
currently necessary in complex subjects such as nuclear physics. In this form,
VR would provide artificial support for a human mind’s native abilities of
construct building and imagination.
It is the second view of VR, and derivations from it, that are of concern to
many experts. On a smaller scale, the artificial support of mental activities
has shown that once support is available, the mind tends to become lazy about
developing what is already present. The classic case of this is, of course,
electronic calculators. The basic tedious arithmetic that is necessary to solve
a complicated problem in physics or mathematics is the same whether performed by
machine or human, and in fact plays very little part in understanding (or
discovering) the concepts that lie behind the problem. However, if the ability
to perform basic arithmetic at the lowest level is neglected, then the ability
to cope with more complex problems does seem to be impaired in some fashion.
Another example is the ability to spell words correctly. A mis-spelt word only
rarely alters the semantic content of a piece of writing, yet obvious idleness
or inability in correct use of the small words used to construct larger concepts
often leaves the reader with a sense of unease as to the validity of the larger
Extending the examples, a worrying prediction is that the extensive use of VR to
support our own internal visualisations of concepts would reduce our ability to
perform abstract and escapist thoughts without the machine’s presence. This
would be evident in a massive upsurge in computer-related entertainment, both in
games and interactive entertainment and would be accompanied by a reduction of
the appreciation and study of written literature, since the effort required to
imagine the contents would be more than was considered now reasonable.
Another danger of VR is its potential medical applications. If a convincing set
of images and sound can be collected, it might become possible to treat victims
of trauma or brain-injured people by providing a `safe’ VR environment for them
to recover in. As noted Whalley , there are several difficult ethical
decisions associated with this sort of work. Firstly, the decision to disconnect
a chronically disturbed patient from VR would become analogous to removing pain-
killers from a patient in chronic pain. Another problem is that since much of
what we perceive as ourselves is due to the way that we react to stimuli,
whatever the VR creator defines as the available stimuli become the limiting
extent of our reactions. Our individuality would be reduced and our innate human
flexibility with it. To quote Whalley
“virtual reality devices may possess the potential to
distort substantially [those] patients’ own perceptions of
themselves and how others see them. Such distortions may persist
and may not necessarily be universally welcomed. In our present
ignorance about the lasting effects of these devices, it is
certainly impossible to advise anyone, not only mental
patients, of the likely hazards of their use.”
Following on from these thoughts, one can imagine many other abuses of VR.
`Mental anaesthesia’ or `permanent calming’ could be used to control long-term
inmates of mental institutions. A horrendous form of torture by deprivation of
reality could be imagined, with a victim being forced to perceive only what the
torturers choose as reality. Users who experienced VR at work as a tool may
chose to use it as a recreational drug, much as television is sometimes used
today, and just as foreseen in the `feelies’ of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Computers are now an accepted part of many peoples’ working lives and yet still
retain an aura of mystery for many who use them. Perhaps the commonest
misapprehension is to perceive them as an inflexible tool; once a machine is
viewed as a word processor, it can be awkward to have to redefine it in our
minds as a database, full of information ordered in a different fashion. Some
of what people find difficult to use about today’s machines will hopefully be
alleviated by the introduction of Virtual Reality interfaces. These should allow
us to deal with computers in a more intuitive manner.
If there ever comes a time when it is necessary to construct a list of tests to
distinguish VR from reality, some of the following observations might be of use.
The most difficult sense to deceive over a long period of time will probably be
that of vision. The part of the human brain that deals with vision processing
uses depth of focus as one of its mechanisms to interpret distances. Flat
screens cannot provide this without a massive amount of processing to
deliberately bring the object that the eyes are focussed upon into a sharper
relief than its surroundings. Since this is unlikely to be economical in the
near future, the uniform appearance of VR will remain an indication of its
Another sign may be the lack of tactile feedback all over the body. Whilst most
tactile information, such as the sensation of wearing a watch on one’s wrist, is
ignored by the brain, a conscious effort of detection will usually reveal its
presence. Even the most sophisticated feedback mechanisms will be hard-pressed
to duplicate such sensations or the exact sensations of an egg being crushed or
walking barefoot on pebbles, for example.
The sense of smell may prove to be yet another tell-tale sign of reality. The
human sense of smell is so subtle (compared to our present ability to recreate
odours) and is interpreted constantly, though we are often unaware of it, that
to mimic the myriad smells of life may be too complex to ever achieve
The computer industry will continue to depend upon employees who satisfy some
part of their escapist needs by programming for pleasure. In the near future,
the need for increased efficiency and better estimates of the duration of
projects may demand that those who spend their hours escaping are organised by
those who do not. This would lead to yet another form of stratification within a
society, namely, the dreamers (who are in fact now the direct labour force) and
their `minders’. It should also encourage societies to value the power of
abstract thought more highly, since direct reward will be seen to come from it.
Virtual Reality is yet another significant shift in the way that we can
understand both what is around us and what exists only in our minds. A
considerable risk associated with VR is that our flexibility as human beings
means that we may adapt our thoughts to our tool, instead of the other way round.
Though computers and our interaction with them by VR is highly flexible, this
flexibility is as nothing compared to the potential human range of actions.
Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Glenford Mapp of Cambridge University
Computer Laboratory and Olivetti Research Laboratory, Dr. Alan Macfarlane of
the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, Dr. John Doar and
Alan Finch for many useful discussions. Their comments have been fertile
starting grounds for many of the above ideas.
This essay contains approximately 4,500 words, excluding Abstract, Glossary and
Chip – for microchip, the small black tile-like objects that make
electronic machines. Computer – machine with a microprocessor and an
permits by the user. Database – collection of information stored on a
computer which permits.
to the information in several ways, rather like having multiple
in a book. Email – mail. Text typed into one machine can be transferred
to another remote machine. Microprocessor – stand-alone computer, with
little option for change by the user. Program – series of instructions to
control the operation of a microprocessor. Risk – often unforeseen dangers of
applying computer-related technology new applications. Stand-alone – to the
rest of the electronic world. User – human who uses the machine or computer.
VDU – Display Unit. The television-like screen attached to a computer. Virtual
- to mean `imaginary’ or `existing only inside a computer’ VR – Reality.
Loosely, an interface to any computer that
the user to use the computer in a more `involved’ fashion. Word processor
application of a computer to editing and printing text.
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Turing B.E. Carpenter and R.W. Doras (Editors), A.M. Turing’s
ACE report of 1946 and other papers, The MIT Press, 1980.
David Kahn, The Codebreakers, London, Sphere, 1978
Takeo Miyauchi, The Flame from Japan, SORD Computer Systems Inc., 1982.
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Amos E. Joel, Electronic Switching : Digital Central Office Systems
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comp.risks , a moderated bulletin board available world-wide on computer
networks. Its purpose is the discussion of computer-related risks.