Who’s Afraid of VR?

As virtual reality gains traction in the marketplace, leaders and pundits are increasingly raising the alarm about the dangers of this new technology. Are the critics right? Should we be worried about the unprecedented dangers of this new form of information technology? Could virtual reality be ruining children’s minds and corrupting their morals?

Let’s Play a Game

Before you decide, let’s play a little game. Below are several examples of the fears people have about new technology. Try and spot the ones that deal with VR:

  1. A European scientist is concerned that an overabundance of information will be “confusing and harmful” to people’s brains.
  1. A leading intellectual fears we may be “creating forgetfulness in learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories”
  1. A medical journal warns about the possibility of exhausting children’s brains
  1. A major news story claims that a new technology harms IQ more than marijuana use

Ready for the answer? None of them have anything to do with VR. It was a trick question. Here are where these worries came from:

  1. This was the worry of Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner who died in 1565. He was worried about the negative effects of the printing press.
  1. This was one of Socrates’ arguments against writing. He believed it was more important to memorize information than to get into the habit of writing.
  1. This was published in an 1883 medical journal warning about the dangers of schools.
  1. CNN published this story relating to email in 2005.

New Technology, Old Worries

There is something about human civilization that fears change and progress. Worries and warnings about the newest technology has always been a part of humanity. There were probably cavemen who were stressed that the wheel and fire would turn children into lazy blobs who were too stupid to hunt for food.

Much of the recent worries about virtual reality are the same worries that we have always had. VR will make people stupid. People’s brains will become overloaded. They will not be able to distinguish between reality and fantasy.

The truth is that humans have proved to be incredibly adaptive. The printing press, email, and Facebook were all supposed to have made us less intelligent. But, mankind has continued to progress.

The worries about VR are interesting not because they are innovative, but because they are essentially the same as the worries about technology hundreds and thousands of years ago. They also echo the warnings about any new trend in society. Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the web, and the Pac-Man were going to ruin the moral fabric of society.

The next time you read an alarming article about the dangers of VR, consider that the brains of those critics may have become confused and harmed because of the over abundance of information available in books. Then remember that Conrad Gessner lived in the 1500’s and the world has done pretty well since then.

NOTE: The examples in this post were taken from this excellent 2010 article from Slate by Vaughan Bell. He also gives several more examples of critics being alarmed by technology.

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