Martorella: Virtual reality

Years ago, as an advertising executive, I worked with an electronic company that was exploring the brave new world of virtual reality technology. I can vividly remember playing an early virtual reality video game against my colleague. We battled while wearing giant, clunky space helmets and standing on fenced-off circular platforms positioned about 20 feet apart from each other. The comparison to current VR technology played with a smartphone encased in light plastic goggles is akin to comparing the original room-sized computers of the 1950s to today’s laptops.

Fast-forward two decades to the release of the novel “Ready Player One” which depicts a dystopian world set in 2044 in which the only escape from the hopeless dystopian reality is via virtual reality. The main character spends most of his time donning the goggles that transport him to this alternate world, The Oasis. He even attends a virtual college, walking through a virtual campus, sitting in virtual classrooms, and interacting with others in their avatar forms, unclear of whether they are portraying their actual age, gender or even hair color.  But everyone in The Oasis is aware of this split from reality. It is why they are there.

So I have expected for a long time that we would use VR technology for fun and education, assuming that we would know our reality was altered when we put our goggles on and entered into it.

However, lately it feels like we may be experiencing a different strain of virtual reality. One without headwear, not of our choosing, and lacking clearly identified players.

The past year has been one of division and disillusionment for many.

Regardless of your political affiliations or personal involvement, you have probably noticed a heightened level of angry discourse around polarizing topics fueled by controversial claims. This divisive and combative atmosphere is seeping through our society, pitting one side against another, among family and friends, even here in our lovely community and in this, our hometown newspaper.

While of course there have always been differing opinions and conflict, there now seems to be a pervasive lack of respect for other people, much less other opinions, combined with a quick-to-the-draw mentality that shoots down opponents before they can even finish a sentence. Individual “winning” is exalted over group harmony, nastiness is disguised as “telling it like it is,” and the more outrageous the put down, the better.

Stories are condensed down to 140 characters with little regard for what is omitted, and explosive headlines are repeatedly shared without their full text. Facts are adjusted or taken out of context to make one’s point, and counterpoints are just ignored. “Fake News!!!” has become the fashionable retort, but neither side thinks it’s about them.

Because through it all, we easily find support for our viewpoints. With Twitter, Facebook and other news feeds as our main source of information, we are all creating our own realities.

Online we follow select news sources, and that selection invites suggested links to other similar sources and opinions. The splintered television arena means we can choose our television news from specific like-minded television and radio stations.

Before you know it, it seems like the majority agrees with us and the others are all outliers  —  I mean, look at all those commenters on that Twitter thread! And all those Facebook followers!  While this appears supportive, the reality is that we have self-selected our information and those who comment on it, and even those commenters are only virtually real.

In November 2017, Facebook admitted it may have up to 60 million fake accounts.  A March 2017 study from The University of Southern California and Indiana University found that up to 15% or roughly 48 million active Twitter accounts were fake. These automated accounts, or “bots,” are used to target specific groups or reply to specific topics. They chime in with positive comments for the ideas they were bought to support and trash-talk the opposition. And they work quickly and cheaply. It’s been reported that Devumi, a popular source for buying social media followers, has over 3.5 million fake accounts available for its customers, and its rates start at 500 followers for just $10 (though they deny any such sales).

So our view of reality is molded by the “likes” and “follows” of real and imaginary supporters who reinforce our beliefs of what is right and inflate our criticisms of what is wrong.

This gets me thinking again of my ad days, when we would have to submit reams of paperwork supporting the claims made in our commercials before they could air on network television. Now, anyone can tweet anything the moment they think it and it reaches further than any commercial on any network, in a lot fewer than 30 seconds. No fact-checking required.

It is said there are three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the truth, which usually falls somewhere in between. If we each take one small step in towards that truth, maybe we can work together to create a better reality instead of having to escape to an alternative one.


Rebecca Martorella, LMFT welcomes ideas and comments and can be reached at [email protected]

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