Virtual reality

It continually surprises me how easily we allow ourselves to slip into relationships with fictitious people. Give the average person a novel to read, or a TV series to follow, and they will find themselves drawn into the passion of lives that never existed.

This will happen even though they know for certain that the people in these books and on these screens do not exist. In many cases, those people cannot exist, at least in the reality we inhabit. You will never actually meet a Hobbit, or a Vampire (at least, I hope for your sake you won’t). Yet it takes very little to make you care about them, to share in their pain, their joy and sorrow, their triumphs and their tragedies.

I think the actual cause of this transference is the evolutionary history of language itself. Since humans evolved spoken language, large portions of our perception of the world around us has become channeled through linguistic perception. Yes, we can appreciate the inanimate world without the benefit of language, but the moment other people enter the equation, we instinctively reach for words and sentences to make sense of our emotional response to them.

And this means that even people who consist of nothing but words (such as the characters in a novel) will feel real to us, since so much of the cognitive apparatus we already use in assessing other people will be fully engaged. Intellectually, we know that the characters in a novel do not exist. But our emotions tell us otherwise.

Recently I wrote about the future of augmented reality — about how some time in the next few years technology will allow us to see the world not literally as it is, but rather as merely one aspect of the info-verse that will perpetually surround us and dwell among us, infusing even our most casual social encounters.

Yet in light of our species’ odd relationship with language, was I really talking about anything new — anything that is not in fact many thousands of years old? We have always lived within virtual reality, from the moment the first early humans began talking to each other in generative grammatical languages.

In fact, to be human is to be incapable of having a social relationship with another human completely outside of language. We perceive one another through a cloud of symbols, as translated by the virtual-reality screen of the unspoken verbal descriptions within our own minds.

In any way that matters on a social or interpersonal level, we already live our entire lives within virtual reality.

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