Wireless Technologies

Virtual reality will be the new opium of the people

The phrase “opium/opiate of the people/masses” has a tangled history but the originator of the phrase is generally agreed to be Karl Marx who declared:

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

That religious theme became a meme for followers including Lenin and, more surprising, the English author and theologian Charles Kingsley, who wrote:

“We have used the Bible as if it were a mere special constable's hand book, an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded, a mere book to keep the poor in order.”

But it wasn’t too long before other thinkers and writers started to apply the formula to other suspects. George Orwell never actually used the opium/people term but he is often bracketed alongside it and he struck much the same note in Nineteen Eighty-Four when he wrote of the “proles” (common people):

“Heavy physical work, the care of home and children, pretty quarrels with neighbours, films, football, beer and above all gambling filled the horizon of their minds. To keep them in control was not difficult.”

And in his essay The Sporting Spirit Orwell suggested that international sporting contests can act as a blindfold for bigger considerations:

“Organised games are more likely to flourish in urban communities where the average human being lives a sedentary or at least a confined life, and does not get much opportunity for creative labour.”

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s unhappy characters are, literally, rendered soporific by state-administered dosages of the drug “soma”. On the other hand, and with characteristic sunniness, the modern Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote in The Joke that “optimism is the opium of the people”.

You may or may not believe that optimism, religion, drugs or mass culture act as a deterrent to deep, independent thinking in the world today, but it’s pretty clear that technology is taking a leading enabling role in the modern sleepwalking and slack-jawed society.

You only have to look around you to see how deeply people are immersed in junk consumption of games, entertainment snippets, gossip, messaging, pictures, video, music and so on, often cocooned with headphones that also block out sound just as the LCD screen consumes vision. Of course, games, gossip and the desire to be titillated and stimulated predate our digital lives but the opportunity to drift and linger, bathing in what Nicholas Carr describes as The Shallowsinstant gratification and answers to questions without having to take your brain out of neutral gear has surely never been greater.

A more optimistic person might argue that modern technologies such as social media provide a platform for political dissent, knowledge sharing, news dissemination and many other positive things. But can we really believe that most of the new digital consumption for leisure is driving people to think more, be better citizens, understand their world better, and act in favour of the benefit of society?

And now along comes virtual reality, effectively a way to further virtualise ourselves from others and exist in an abstracted parallel world of fantasy. The immersion in the digital world will only become deeper and might lead us unthinkingly to a dumb obeisance to the latest games, culture and fantasy the masters of Silicon Valley and elsewhere throw at us.

Boosters of the technology point to many potential positive aspects of VR but for the large majority of consumers the effect might be more stupefying and lead to more open-mouthed distraction rather than source of enlightenment.


Related reading:

HTC Vive uses zombies to push VR in London

VR at the virtual crossroads: which way next?

Social VR network to end digital narcissism


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Torquemada, not his real name, has been casting a jaundiced eye on the technology world since the Sinclair C5 was causing as much excitement as the driverless car today, a 64K RAM pack could turbocharge performance, and Alan Sugar was the equivalent of Elon Musk.

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