Immersive technology is at an inflection point. Right now, we can fool almost all of the subconscious mind. A simple trip through one of the many theme parks across the world, and you can find rides that use a combination of visual imagery and physical movement to convince your deep mind that what you see is happening. Sure, right now these technologies tend to take up most if not all of a large room, but that won’t always be the case. As with all technology, the trends and increasing capability and decreasing size will eventually bring these experiences into our homes. Whether the PlayStation 7 simply downloads itself into your brain and runs on the software of your mind, or if we have to go through the whole laying down in a giant vat of jelly step on the way there, we are going to be living in simulated as well as actual reality. The interesting question to me is not what will that look like and how will we do it, but what will that do to us?
History and Immersive Technology
Historically there are two major impacts on the social structure that technology enables. This has to do with access, or the ability of a certain segment of society to get and use the technology, as well as employment, or how different segments of society use that technology. Take cell phones for example. Those of wealth and means can afford to buy cell phones for their children. This means that from a very young age, children are connected not just to each other and their parents wherever they are, but they literally have the sum total of all human knowledge at their fingertips. And I mean all human knowledge, not just the good stuff that we might run into in a public-school classroom.
Others with fewer means might have only a single cell phone among the family or retain that for the use of the adults. This is a little less radical change than giving a computer to a child at a young age, as it leaves most of the responsibility and access in the hands of those who are older. Hopefully, they are wiser as well. This also means that the children of those families have less access to the world from an earlier age. This can have all sorts of implications and consequences down the line. Will they grow up faster or slower? Will they know more about the way their world works, and less about the rest of society? Are they inherently advantaged or disadvantaged by not having access to the internet and connectivity?
An associate economic example above, we can see that both accessibility to technology and the eventual use case of that technology will impact us on a deep social level. And that’s just a cell phone. What would it be like if this immersive reality literally was a ticket to the stars? A ticket to the rest of the universe? What if only those who could afford it could hop into a teleoperated body and observe methane geysers on io, or take a core sample of an asteroid from the safety of their homes?
Science Fiction and Immersive Technology
As a huge science fiction fan, I want to point out a great example of this technology gap in a series by Alastair Reynolds. Poseidon’s Children is a trilogy about a far-future society that embarks on the first human effort to colonize another star. Humanity has already taken over most of the solar system and exists in relative peace. However, the immersive technology has risen to the point where quantum entanglement allows people to instantaneously connect with donor bodies anywhere in the solar system and experience what it’s like to be there. Whether that is deep underneath the ocean, or on the surface of Mars, they have access to anywhere that humans are.
But only for those who can use the technology and can afford it.
And so simply because of the fact of its existence, this technology creates a gap between the haves and the have-nots. Those who can use the technology can travel and learn and experience and indeed be more connected to humanity. Those that can’t are looked down on as backward and myopic.
The Future of Our Own World
Wherever we are going with immersive technology, whether it be full sense manufactured worlds, where the ability to experience one thing while your body is elsewhere, we must be mindful of the impacts that access and use will have on us not just as nation-states or segments of society, but as a species writ large.
The technology we have, who has it, and how we use it, will determine the course we chart into the future.