Let the Masses Live In VR–A Socioeconomic Exploration

As technology continues its exponential gains and catapults us into the realms of augmented and virtual reality, a chasm is forming between those who are looking to live unplugged as they cultivate a life of digital detoxing and those who are anxiously awaiting the moment they can live a majority of their life exploring alternate realities from the comfort of their own home.

Living in Portland, OR—a city rooted in hippies but swarming with recently relocated Seattle and SF programmers—I often find myself sandwiched between these battling ideologies. As someone who also bikes into the woods twice a day to meditate between bouts of programming and writing sci-fi on the laptop for hours on end, I’m in a unique position to stand torn in the middle, attempting to find my own sense of balance on the tumultuous rift of malcontent.

Yet I have begun to see interesting commonalities that tend to divide the two armies of this struggle, and the data looks conspicuously well correlated to the unequal distribution of wealth and the resulting economic class system. 

Those with more money or more flexible employment (and therefore often more freedom) tend to stand on the side of nature, while those hovering around the lower edges of the middle-class tend stand on the side of technology. (I should note I’m talking about the general masses here, not the well-off programmers and engineers creating the technology). 

While both camps pursue their goals through different channels, I found that—ironically enough—both are actually seeking the same thing: a reprieve—nay, an escape—from capitalistic slavery and the restrictive overstimulation of modern society.

But each have different means with which to attain that relaxation, and this is where we find the socioeconomic divide dictating whether you’re pro-tech or pro-disconnect. 

From the digital detox camp, the most common arguments I hear say that technology can’t replace the real thing no matter how real it feels, that it’s better to actually hike a mountain in the real world than to hike a simulated one in VR; that it’s better to actually go to the Louvre than take a virtual tour; that rather than have virtual sex, everyone should be out mingling with their community and finding a real person to explore intimacy with.

And these are all wonderfully valid opinions, but I can’t help but wonder if they are founded on privilege and a naivety that ignores the current inequalities of the world and the limitations forced upon many individuals.

Both hiking and camping usually require a substantial amount of time, either most of a day or an entire weekend; they also require a vehicle and money for gas. They also require a certain amount of physical fitness. The same goes for travel: lots of time, and lots of money saved so we can afford the days away from work and the cost of the transportation and accommodations. But those stuck in minimum wage jobs can’t afford to take that time off. Even if they still got paid while they were gone (which doesn’t happen, because minimum wage jobs rarely–if ever–get PTO), they likely couldn’t afford the plane/train ticket or the accommodations in another place. Why? Well, because they work a job where their pay is literally calculated by the government to be the bare minimum amount of money they can survive on. It is the “minimum wage” that will allow the person to afford a roof over their head and groceries, and these days it rarely even succeeds at providing that simple, humanistic need.

And for those who might actually be lucky enough to have the money, they may have only managed to accrue it after years of sitting in cars on the way to work, where they sit in cubicles, before returning home to sit on a couch, exhausted. Where they eat unhealthy, processed meals (like most fast food), which was all they could afford between the exhausting commute and sleep. And such poisoned, stationary bodies are not made for hiking or long days of walking with a backpack through a city. And years of this sedentary lifestyle of comfort strips many of the desire to put themselves on the road of uncomfortable adventures. 

And sure, we could pass the blame onto the people rather than the system; we could argue these people need to take control of their lives and exercise or work a job that doesn’t exhaust them so much; but again, that’s a very privileged statement ignoring the very real disenfranchisement that afflicts massive pockets of our society and flings them into a vicious cycle of debt and poverty.

We could ask people to think more clearly to navigate their way out of this cycle, but the aforementioned food fogs the brain as the stomach struggles to digest these heavy meals that lack nutrition. Thanks to an oppressive consumerism market, though, this food-coma stupor may seem like the only option. It’s hard to imagine an alternative choice when you look at a comparison of apples versus double cheeseburgers: 

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If you’re struggling to make ends meet and raising a family on limited time, which would you choose if you only had 5 dollars? You know the apples won’t fill your kids up, and so you’re forced to go with the less healthy option.

And it’s this same mentality that we have to approach technology-usage with if we are to get to the core issue:

We may know that VR doesn’t provide the same substance and sustenance as a real human connection or a real-world adventure, but when your back is against the wall of starvation and homelessness and loneliness, the “unhealthy” option is an extremely satisfying way to survive and cope with the disenfranchisement placed upon you by a tilted economic system.

And so for many, the closest they may ever get to the Louvre, Angkor Wat, Macchu Pichu, or the Great Barrier Reef is through the lens of VR goggles. The 600-800$ or so they managed to save for the VR rig can unlock infinite daily adventures that will educate, fulfill, and inspire them–recurring feelings they normally couldn’t have afforded even once a year because of their limited time, money, and/or physical fitness.

Does this mean that we should accept the social inequality by throwing ourselves into an alternate reality while the world around us burns from greed and a lack of compassion?

Of course not. But rather than take the easy way out and blame technology, we need to be curious apes who look beyond that facade to find the real issue, to realize that this is a cultural response based on a failing in how we structured our society. This issue exposes a cultural need to escape reality because we feel so trapped in economic enslavement and the physical debilitation that is a result of either chance or insufficient healthcare; because while a small percentage of people are able-bodied and able to afford trips around the world and frequent nights out on the town, many are simply hoping the lights don’t get turned off, that the pain in their back and legs goes away long enough to walk to the bathroom, and that the McDonalds will feed their kids enough to get them to the next day.

And so we must not blame the technology, but instead ask why we yearn so deeply for the escape it provides us from our reality. What is it about the real world that makes us want to get away from it so desperately? If you ask me, it’s because the negligible free-time and money we get after mundane and exhausting work leaves us little ability to live the fulfilling life we wish we could.

So we must address the core issue. We must fight to restore balance to the economic distribution of wealth in the world, to provide options like Guaranteed Basic Income, to put an end to the extortion perpetrated by global businesses, and to close the tax loopholes that allow the wealthiest companies and people to avoid paying their fair share. When these things happen, I suspect you’ll see a greatly increased balance between the desire to live digitally and the desire to live in the flesh. At least until we can upload our consciousnesses into a simulation indistinguishable from reality. But until then, let the masses live in VR.