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How VR Gaming will Wake Us Up to our Fake Worlds
Eliott Edge   Jun 28, 2016   Ethical Technology  

“It has no relationship whatsoever to anything anchored in some kind of metaphysical superspace.  It’s just your cultural point of view […] Travel shows you the relativity of culture.”

— Terence McKenna

Human civilization has always been a virtual reality.  At the onset of culture, which was propagated through the proto-media of cave painting, the talking drum, music, fetish art making, oral tradition and the like, Homo sapiens began a march into cultural virtual realities, a march that would span the entirety of the human enterprise.  We don’t often think of cultures as virtual realities, but there is no more apt descriptor for our widely diverse sociological organizations and interpretations than the metaphor of the “virtual reality.”  Indeed, the virtual reality metaphor encompasses the complete human project.

Virtual Reality researchers, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, write in their book Infinite Reality; “[Cave art] is likely the first animation technology”, where it provided an early means of what they refer to as “virtual travel”.  You are in the cave, but the media in that cave, the dynamic-drawn, fire-illuminated art, represents the plains and animals outside—a completely different environment, one facing entirely the opposite direction, beyond the mouth of the cave.  When surrounded by cave art, alive with movement from flickering torches, you are at once inside the cave itself whilst the media experience surrounding you encourages you to indulge in fantasy, and to mentally simulate an entirely different environment.  Blascovich and Bailenson suggest that in terms of the evolution of media technology, this was the very first immersive VR. Both the room and helmet-sized VRs used in the present day are but a sophistication of this original form of media VR tech.

Today, philosophers and critics have pointed out that businesses such as McDonald’s and Starbucks are like virtual realities in and of themselves.  They have a specific and immersive decorum as well as sanctioned behaviors, symbols, and even philosophies.  When you enter Starbucks, you enter Starbucks World.  In contemporary jargon, these are called hyperrealities—they are microcosms with their own purposes and messages.  Disneyland and Times Square are the epitome of consumerist hyperrealities in the United States.  These hyperrealities are cloned (copied and pasted) and hold a global footprint in an ever-homogenized worldwide monoculture.  They are a touchstone of the global capitalist project; many stores in many locations that are nearly exactly the same.  (Similarly, even restaurants that aren’t franchise mega-chains offer differing atmospheres; competing little worlds to wine and dine in.)  Where did the hyperrealities that typify contemporary life get their start?  What happened between the cave paintings, and these franchises that nearly everyone on the planet today knows intimately well?  I’d like to suggest they got their start with the codification of certain places of worship and the belief systems that joined them.

A simple illustration of the origin of our more complex cultural virtual realities is found in the temple or the church, which acted as the centerpiece of many cultures as they began their voyage into modernity.  When we strip the church of the concepts and objects about it, what are we left with?  Unoccupied, we are left with a mere building.  Yet as we add the corresponding accouterments into and around this building, its virtual reality generating effects amplify and multiply.  A church has its altar, its sacred texts, costumes, rituals, sermons, perspectives, symbols, architecture, and so on. All of them are meaningful.  The religion is built from this assemblage.  Outside, the church is just a building.  Inside, the church is a virtual reality—the nodal point of a given religion and a given people.  They all work together to reinforce a very specific perception of the world.

Indeed, no one ever actually ‘enters a church’. One in fact stumbles headlong into the idea of a church—a hyperreal onslaught that the very constitution of the church is purposefully designed to generate. Entering a church is really entering a church-shaped thought. The church building was an early virtual reality headset.  From within the church building one looks outward from it and magically the world becomes that religion.  The primordial incarnation of this building-sized headset was none other than the very same image-laden, torch-lit caves of our pre-architectural ancestors. 

We see this virtual reality-ness in all the objects around and inside a given church or temple, but one very blatant example can be seen in the Christian handiwork of stained glass art.  We have here a nigh on literal representation of key features of contemporary virtual reality technology: filtering and projection.  The stained glass is a projective filter that works in both directions simultaneously: light coming into the building is transformed to bring the cultural program of meaningful images into the interiors of the sanctuary where they are contemplated and dogmatized; and back out of the building where the observers inside look outward to a terra firma that is now obfuscated or filtered by the media-messages embedded in the stained glass.  The stained glass itself is an evolution of the cave painting.  Stained glass would go on to evolve into the pixel.  Indeed, stained glass was really a stop between the cave painting and the pixel.

Take another criterion of human civilization and culture in terms of the virtual reality metaphor; language.  Regarding text, Kevin Kelly has stated:

“The human mind is actually, has a propensity, a natural gift to move into other realities.  When you are reading a book, a novel, when you’re totally engrossed in a story, particularly one that’s not visual, that you’re imagining in your own mind, you’re creating a kind of version, a kind of virtual reality.”  

When we read we decode the text.  That translation directs the theater of our minds to run or play out a given simulation (“See Spot run!  Run Spot run!”). This whole phenomenon of reading and imagining takes place in the invisible holodeck of our minds (more on the term ‘holodeck’ later).  Taking this analogy and bringing it back to the ‘inner’ virtual reality of the ‘voice in our heads’, one reads a religious text that is then projected outward, creating a now religious-ized ‘external’ reality.  This is how the vision of a Christian world or a Hindu world is actualized: by deeply absorbing and projecting text-induced mental simulations like “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one can come to the Father except through me”.  Once I have faith and believe this to actually be true, I am then living in a Christian virtual reality.  I have imagined this particular program into being.  I have assimilated x-religion’s VR and now live and think in it.

Certainly not all religions can be said to be ‘true’.  All these different religions are supposedly interpretations of reality or the human condition.  The mathematical likelihood of all religions being entirely true is zero, for, despite overlap, they contain different codes, perspectives, accounts, conclusions and so on.  They represent humanity’s endless struggle with the pressing matter of our shared circumstance; that circumstance being: existing, living, and dying in a vast, mysterious universe.  What all these religious interpretations share is that they are not at all dissimilar to virtual realities.  They are all self-contained little worlds.  However, the virtual reality metaphor doesn’t stop at religion.  Similarly, different cultures and civilizations are no more ‘true’ than any other.  They too are self-contained little worlds.  The virtual reality metaphor includes cultures, ideologies, and all other kinds of frameworks and belief systems.  Communism, atheism, scientism, Freudianism are as much cultural virtual realities as the perspectives of the world that come from say totalitarian North Korea, or American fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity.  They have different rules, but they are all bubble-like points of view that change what would otherwise be the raw experience of the world into their own code, their own vision of how things are or ought to be.

Take the concept of a nation.  A nation is really just a set of notions; their only extra active value is that the notions of a given nation are mandated.  Laws and legislation, orders, decrees, calendars, cycles, and taboos are each VR nation’s programming—their cultural code of conduct.  They represent what is permissible and accepted in this world or that.  A flag is a VR designating icon, a technology, that whips and colors our minds as much as it does the wind, the sky, and the otherwise uninterrupted terra firma.  Our navigational and national lines that crisscross the face of the earth are invisible, imaginary, virtual lines.  Where one nation begins and another ends marks the boundaries between separate sets of notions, separate virtual realities.  Kings, politicians, lawyers, judges, soldiers, police, executioners, and other “officials” represent an entire class of enforcers of the notions of a nation.  These are the rules and rulers of any given cultural VR world.  Guns, badges, robes, gavels, jumpsuits, chains and legalese have VR generating effects that make the processes of ‘officialdom’ appear as if they are legitimate, objective, incorruptible, and deep.

Since, like religions, societies seemingly can’t approach a more ‘true’ society; all that might be said about x-culture versus y-culture in terms of which is ‘better’ might be argued in terms of how well each nurtures the wellbeing and freedom for all the people, animals, plants, and other environmental factors in each.  So other than considering an across the board prosocial and ethical gauge, they are all nonetheless always already entirely self-contained relative virtual worlds—none more ‘true’ than any another.

The robustness of the virtual reality metaphor spans not just religions, cultures, nations, ideologies, and other belief systems, but actually goes straight down into the individual.  The individual perpetuates their own personal virtual reality—their reality tunnel as described by Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson.  Wilson states:

“Once you look down at your reality tunnel, whether your reality tunnel is Ohio Methodist or New York Jewish or Morin County hippie or Tokyo capitalist Zen Buddhist or Iranian Muslim fundamentalist, once you get to the level when you’re outside of your reality tunnel looking down at it you can compare reality tunnels and then you’re at a higher level of intelligence already because you are no longer a conditioned mechanism just following the reality tunnel that was accidentally imprinted or conditioned and you can start choosing between reality tunnels.”

Reality tunnel may be a new term for some, but its simplicity in conveying the altogether all too well known immediate experience in the differences between say ‘being American’ as opposed to be ‘being Vietnamese’ is unmatched.  Even phrases like “to have blinders on” or “tunnel vision” mean the inability to access or appreciate another point of view other than one’s own preferred cultural virtual reality, or VR programming.  One can’t look beyond it.  One can’t deeply consider other points of view as they are more or less glued into their favorite virtual reality; that being their culture, their belief system, its agenda, its definitions of classes, self, others, and so on.  Christians and capitalists alike read their given reinforcing texts, and critique the texts of those they deem outsiders or even enemies.  They then spam the world and their peers with the would-be revelations of their world, their reality tunnel.  And a reality tunnel is very much what is induced when you strap yourself into a VR headset!  As one might imagine, all this talk of reality tunnels puts the focus on the ego.

The ego is the first and final enforcer of a given cultural virtual reality, a given reality tunnel.  Part of the process of ego generation and calcification within a certain virtual reality gestates in private experience, with the phenomena of conscious and unconscious self-talk.  First, one is both physically and psychically immersed in a given cultural VR.  Then our minds chatter away, finding concepts, words, ideas, images, symbols, slogans, behaviors, rituals, billboards, logics, (dis)beliefs, fears, frameworks, memes, heroes, villains, and interpretations—all to either dismiss or indulge within that cultural VR.  The ones we’re most attracted to we cling onto, even if they are sadomasochistic or result in neuroses and pathologies, cognitive dissonance, unhappiness, violence—it doesn’t matter.  People are hard pressed to relinquish their reality tunnels and all the easy or favorite answers that they offer.  What human beings have proved over the centuries is that they can believe or disbelieve almost anything—reason is frequently moot.  This chatter, dismissal, comparison, and indulgence builds up the levels and dimensions of the waking ego.  Our thoughts grow our sense of self in this way.  Our conscious personality (and often what we ‘claim to be’ in terms of ideology, religion, philosophy, class, career, and so on) is what living in human-made virtual reality cultures and frameworks ultimately and inevitably creates.  We accept our roles, becoming projectors, filters, propagators, true believers, subscription customers, evangelists, defenders, critics, missionaries, ‘Romans’, and so on.  We are active players in our favorite cultural virtual reality super-drama and our playing, our indulging, keeps it all afloat.

In considering what we supposedly are and what we are not, it is interesting to mention that in gender and queer theory we find concepts that sexual identity is just as much a virtual reality as anything else we’ve been discussing.  Gender, in these interpretations, can be as non-fundamental and virtual as any religion is.  Judith Butler has explored a key concept here with performativity: gender is intimately tied with the performance of gender, which is irrelevant to biological sex.  “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls,” as The Kinks aptly observed.  Furthermore, the human body is (supposedly) the first filter of the ‘external’ information that we call ‘the world.’  If this is true, then the world can only ever reflect our own bodily senses.  So even the body itself could be viewed as a virtual reality bubble as well.  The body is the first filter taking in the input of the cosmos and all its manifestation.  On a physical level the funnel of our bodily organs receiving information from the universe always distorts the universe into the shape of our own senses.  This is why we can only physically see a few bands of colored light.  We are only directly privy to 0.0035% of the total electromagnetic spectrum.  In a human body you can’t see the whole spectrum; you can’t see all of reality as it truly is.  You only have access to a human-centric version of reality.  A version that amounts to a simulation of reality provided by the human body and mind.  In science and philosophy this has been called naïve realism—human bodily senses are deeply limited in their ability to accurately perceive the world as it truly is.  Anaïs Nin said; “We don’t see things as they are.  We see things as we are.”

Finally, there is the entire faculty of thought itself, and with it, imagining.  Recall Kevin Kelly’s comments on reading at the beginning of this paper: “[When reading a book] you’re imagining in your own mind, you’re creating a kind of version, a kind of virtual reality.”  In a similar line of reasoning, Blascovich and Bailenson write:

“'Virtual reality’ typically conjures up futuristic images […] But we believe that virtual reality really begins in the mind and requires no equipment whatsoever.  Have you ever spoken face-to-face with someone whose mind wandered off? […] Hungry people imagine what they’ll eat.  Overweight people imagine being skinny.” 

Imagining, and indeed thought itself is the first, most immediate form of virtual reality (alongside bodily sense data).  Similarly, the mind has often been referred to in both Eastern and Western literature as working from ‘images.’  Yet ‘images’ today implies something static, and thought is anything but static.  Our mental images move about chaotically, giving the impression of an animation.  Take this analogy one step further and we can easily substitute ‘animations’ with ‘simulations.’  Even ‘reasoning’ is very much the same as simulating.  And simulation, or simulating, quickly becomes analogous to virtual reality.  In the language of popular culture, thought and the mind is very much like the aforementioned holodeck from Star Trek.  Like the holodeck, the mind is like a room that will become anything you or others tell it to become.  Almost anything you tell it (program it) to become, the mind will oblige.  This can be achieved through words, grunts, language, and text but also through any and all forms of comprehensible media. You, the reader, have been playing out simulations in your own mental holodeck as you’ve read this paper.  This is how we manage to both imagine and participate in such a diverse ecosystem of vastly differing nations, religions, cultures, ideologies, opinions, reality tunnels and so on.  Virtual reality is how we’ve made our human world.

As we have seen, the virtual reality metaphor relates to many domains of human experience; from how our bodies take in information, to how our minds work, to the impact that cultures, nationalities, and religions make on our point of view.  This is the utter strength of the metaphor of virtual reality and why it is foundational to some philosophies and religions, though frequently presented using other language (i.e. māyā, skepticism).  There is likely no more singularly important consideration than the consideration of alternative worlds, illusory worlds, projected worlds, and manipulable worlds.  In the contemporary cinematic jazz mythology of The Matrix, Neo’s awakening to the presence of the Matrix is not so much a cyberpunk fantasia as much as it is a commentary on human civilization, culture, and consciousness as a whole.  This contemporary allegory retrieves sentiments found in Plato’s Cave, Shakespeare’s musing that “All the world’s a stage”, and much of philosophical and spiritual thought throughout the world.   Cornel West brings our attention to the dramatic nature of actually taking on whole and fully confronting this paramount philosophical consideration.  West states on the Philosopher’s Commentary track on The Matrix:

“What’s very interesting is the relation between awakening and danger. Once you begin to question you begin to constitute a threat to whatever authority is keeping track of you.”

And then:

“Socratic energy has to do with contesting authority, being deeply suspicious of authority, trying to undermine the assumptions and presuppositions upon which authority is predicated.  And this process, which is an endless process, it’s an incessant process, but it goes step-by-step and stage-by-stage.  And at the very beginning now we get the staging of what happens when one initiates a process of awakening in which you render various authorities relative.  You begin to contest and call into question those various authorities.”

This point of “render[ing] various authorities relative” is going to be more central as we move forward.

Our situation becomes more interesting when we consider the growing popularity of virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift.  Given the growing availability of VR gaming headsets to consumers, it's natural to begin conjuring with the psychological, sociological, and ontological auxiliary effects that they may end up engendering.   After all, they will be changing previous contexts even as they create new contexts.  It seems certain that the proliferation of virtual reality entertainment technology will have psychological effects that bleed out far beyond their intended use and into the thoughts of our daily lives, long after we’ve put our VR gear down.  When they do, they might inadvertently start rendering more and more aspects of authority outside them utterly relative and non-fundamental.  A VR gaming induced pan-queerification, if you will.  Sentiments may rise like: “This game outside is as virtual as that game inside.”  The VR headset could underscore an awakening to our already well in place, indeed pervasive, projected human virtual realities (our cultures, etc.) as they exist today.  Maybe we'll bump into the joke (or conundrum) that when we take off our VR video gaming visor we aren’t really re-entering the “real world” at all.  We are only ever re-entering the local fantasia, our own personal fantasia, and our responses to the fantasias of others—a place as constructed and limited by human ideas as the one we just left.  The ultimate irony becomes that the apex in spectacle entertainment, the immersive VR, may end up being the final panacea against all forms of ideological fundamentalism, extremism, and dogma, be they Western colonialism or North Korean totalitarian necrocracy.  That might be wishful thinking indeed but once you can fit a civilization into a VR, then we’ll quickly see that civilization is a VR already.

After all, does it not seem predictable that we are going to test-run different worlds in VR games?  Naturally some gamers will be so moved by their experiences there that they may even return to waking IRL culture and attempt to mold it in similar ways.  Does it not seem inevitable that we will also test out new forms of conditioning, indoctrination, brainwashing, and propaganda using VR?  What about when political parties begin having their national events in VR spaces?  Can’t you see the VR megachurch coming?  Do you think that once we’re in that VR megachurch we will realize that the churches were all already VRs to begin with?  That all that we can declare to be the ‘human world’ was always just one human-centric VR or another?

The VR metaphor reminds us that all of our institutions are fundamentally projections.  We give these projections (and the virtual worlds they create), power by participating, and most importantly, by indulging them as legitimate.  All cultures and civilizations are relative.  So much so, we might well remind ourselves through this VR metaphor if we are to remain steadfast in seeking whatever can be found and developed far beyond their assumed thresholds and limits of vision.  Perhaps the cultural apocalypse (‘apocalypse’ as in ‘unveiling’) we require in order to free ourselves from the bondage of our current ecocidal project can also be found with this metaphor.  Maybe VR will give us the psychic breathing room necessary to re-examine what are fundamentally our creations—currency for instance.  Breathing room for a new vision and a new culture to develop that doesn’t so breezily permit catastrophe upon catastrophe.  Indeed, culture wouldn’t be a problem if our current attempts at culture didn’t create so many problems (i.e. externalities and classism).

Ultimately, the speed, variety, liquidity, and accessibility of VR games will begin to challenge the ways of life outside them.  After all, if life is different or even better in an entertainment-based game VR, why shouldn’t our cultural virtual realities mutate to be equally as pleasant, if not better? 

Almost too simple to possibly be true, Jiddu Krishnamurti often repeated; “Thought is responsible for all of this.”  Thought is responsible for all of this.  It’s a comment that demands consideration, especially because we rarely think about what thought is (‘simulations’), let alone what it has unleashed upon the world.  We have projected this nightmare scenario and followed it through mercilessly and diligently.  It did not arrive in a vacuum.  We built this place and fostered these conditions.  We imagined it and made it, ad infinitum.  Every man-made disaster, intentional or otherwise, is largely thanks to one virtual reality or another.  Even industrial accidents that occur under the watch of multibillion-dollar corporations often occur because of a fixed perspective on profit, and a lax perspective on what seems to be almost anything else.  We caused these problems, or excused them, or permitted them, thanks to each cultural VR’s framework, that being their rules and values. 

Maybe VR will remind us that all of this is so.  We are living within cultures for sure, but really these cultures are made of thought, and both thought and culture are analogous to virtual reality.  They are projected simulated worlds and scenarios.  Such a universally relative perspective is really a radical embrace of subjectivity as being an obvious fundamental player in the human enterprise.  There is no objectivity in this regard.  There is no objectively ‘true’ civilization, nor a ‘true’ religion.  Any civilization is built and maintained by projected thoughts, associations, actions, images, behaviors, rules, and so on.  Admissions such as these frequently generate vertigo.  People generally don’t like the arguments for near total subjectivity—because they often give off an air that there is, as the saying goes, “Nothing to hang your hat on”.  Indeed the rendering of major icons of reality and authority as being relative is almost always characterized by an experience of extreme disorientation.  This is why Neo vomits at the feet of the revelation that the world he’s been living in is a total illusion.  (He repeats, “I don’t believe it!  I don’t believe it!”)  Our ever-diverse human worlds were always ever just our own minds creating virtual realities to play in. Chogyam Trunpa Rinpoche captured it well with the comment; “The bad news is you are falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute.  The good news is there is no ground.”

So if all we’ve made, and all we think, are deeply analogous to VR, the question should come: What is there that is not a VR, or even like a VR?  What isn’t our human-made VR masquerading as the real?  What is fundamental?  It may be better to suggest an approach, rather than claim any particular fundamental reality (although, I will do this later anyway).  Terrence McKenna has suggested one such approach.  He advocated; “[A] philosophy not made around the campfire.  But philosophy based on the acquisition of extreme experience.  That’s how you figure out what the world is.  Not by bicycling around in the ‘burbs but by forcing extreme experience.”  McKenna’s suggested approach is through the well-known cultural vaporizing effects of psychedelic experiences.  Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes has given presentations on the historic use of consciousness-altering compounds by philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to Aldous Huxley in the pursuit of knowledge gained from beyond one’s culture.  He even argues that Plato’s Cave is a perfect allegory for the benefits of the psychedelic experience.  Pioneers in the computer revolution like Steve Jobs, Douglas Engelbart, Kevin Herbert, as well as the founders of Google are known to have had important encounters with psychedelics.  Dr. Kary Banks Mullis won the Nobel Prize for his LSD-fueled DNA research leading to the invention of PCR.  Carl Sagan and John C. Lilly were also well-known fans of various psychedelics.  Artists of all stripes swear by the value of visionary intoxicants in their role of inspiring some of the most beloved masterpieces of all time.  In other words, literature suggests that there is a deep value in the compounds, plants, substances, and practices that help us human beings “break on through to the other side”—That “other side” being the domain beyond our familiar and pervasive human VRs and frameworks.

It is interesting to note that VR headsets and visors actually mirror the psychedelic experience in many ways.  They mirror it in that when you don the headset you enter a new world.  You put on the new head.  And when you do, you see another possible vision of how reality could be.  When you are done and take off the headset, you are hit with a second insight: the relativity of this world, this cultural virtual reality, or universe, to the headset-VR world you just exited.  Returning from your trip is as valuable as going on the trip in the first place, because now you have a more robust mechanism by which to compare worlds.  Suddenly they are both non-fundamental.  Suddenly they are relative.  If you've never left Sri Lanka or the Amish way of life for example, then that’s your threshold of knowledge and the height of your interpretive powers.  What we are left with after these encounters with cultural relativity (regardless of the means by which it is achieved) is that, to quote McKenna; “Most of reality is illusory. It's just we do each other the courtesy of not pointing this out.”  However it should be deeply appreciated that the VR headset experience at this time cannot rival the awesome panoply of titanic revelation that digesting certain plants and compounds can offer. VR offers a parallel to psychedelics (some, McKenna included, have argued that VR is the technological shadow of the psychedelic experience), but it is not at all the psychedelic experience proper in all its quaking, annihilating, and mind-expanding glory.

Beyond doing whatever you can to temporarily escape your local VR programming, an admission would be that consciousness itself is fundamental to all our virtual realities.  Consciousness is the media through which all our cultures, religions, civilizations, thoughts, and reality tunnels play out.  So although what we have created can be regarded as virtual realities, consciousness itself doesn’t necessary fit that criterion.  Consciousness is real, ‘Canada’ and ‘Canadian’ is imaginary, is virtual.  Consciousness plays within the framework of ‘Canada’ and ‘Canadian’ but it isn’t those constructs on a fundamental level.  Consciousness is not virtual reality, though it uses virtual realities to operate in.  What are we without our virtual realities?  We are alive and indeed life itself.  We are the end result of billions of years of cosmological evolution.  And we are consciousness.  One of the all-time best comments for underscoring the insidious depth of this virtual reality projecting faculty of the mind is found in a koan popularized by non-dualist author Adyashanti: “At the end of the day a real Buddhist realizes that there is no such thing as a real Buddhist.”  So it is not as Morpheus says; “As long as the Matrix exists the human race will never be free.”  We will always be building a Matrix to see, move, and operate through.  Instead it is that as long as the Matrix exists and remains deeply unacknowledged as a Matrix and ever-indulged as “true” the human race will never be free.  Consequently, nor will the global ecosystem likely survive; for as long as it remains a mere supporting character—or worse, has no role whatsoever—in our reality tunnels, the prominence it deserves in our decisions cannot be realized.

Let us not be like innocent, forgiving, or unassuming children in the face of our entirely relative, projected, cultural virtual realities.  For they more or less entirely dominate our lives and thoughts.  Nonconformity is frequently met with alienation at the very least.  At this point our virtual realities also make up a likely cause of death for the planetary ecosystem.  The capitalist VR is one such obvious culprit in terms of large-scale environmental and species devastation.  At one point in the past these forms of engagement seemed to have risen up organically alongside the evolution of our meaning-making neocortex.  Today however it would be naïve to assume that they are harmless—especially considering the expansion and proliferation of various forms of power centralization, and the violence that typifies them.  Our cultural virtual realities have values and institutions that clearly exist to keep the power status quo well maintained and far removed from the majority.  They also devastate every corner of the planet that is within reach, frequently in the pursuit of transforming it into altogether virtual “profit”.  McKenna pointed out:

“Someone rather intelligent once said, ‘Language was invented so that people could lie.’ In other words it gives you that fudge factor of obfuscation where someone says you know, ‘Why did you do that?’ Well the best approach is, ‘I didn’t do that!’  You know, ‘You thought I did that.  What you thought you saw you didn’t see!’ In other words I suppose that lawyers are probably the people who have done the finest work with language and behind them politicians.  And the true potential for language to elevate and unite the community was early on betrayed into the production of illusory and ideological goods which could then be marketed among the people and to spread confusion.”

This is as unsentimental, unflattering, and indeed honest as it gets.  The leaders, profiteers, true believers, indeed the leading-edge of the lie, are more than likely in on the con—for they execute undying efforts, regardless of how absurd or atrocious, to keep it all maintained. 

So, what’s the valuable or worthwhile course of action considering all we’ve covered?  Wilson suggested; "On a planet that increasingly resembles one huge Maximum Security prison, the only intelligent choice is to plan a jail break."

The only way out of any cultural VR is to first accept that you are more than likely always already on the user-end of one or another.  The first thing a fish must do if it is to escape the water is to identify that it is in fact in water.  That there exists both water and, not water.  After making that discovery, it can then begin the slow climb of exploring the hitherto before unknown environments and dimensions, as well as the accompanying new states of being necessary to participate in them—that’s legs, lungs, wings, and the like.  Step one is seeing your culture for the virtual reality that it is.  This is the essence of “awakening” as the colloquialism goes.  It is also the essence of becoming “hip”.  Simple enough: If you were born in another country and grew up in another culture, another VR, you’d like have a different opinion on a myriad of subjects.  But, like the fish before it discovered the land, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine prior to experience. 

Culture is a virtual reality with which we see and move through the world—and cultures are entirely of our own making.  As we have seen, these VRs exist in myriad domains and forms of human experience and behavior. Why is it so important to realize everything we've gone over is a virtual reality? So that you, dear reader, feel empowered to change it, to overcome it, to not accept it as "business as usual" or "the way things are." These are all virtual realities.  None of them are anchored to any transcendental wisdom or truth. How these VRs have informed us isn't fundamentally true.  Largely, they are arbitrary. They amount to convenient contrivances. Our game is just a game.  The rules are our own.  There is no need to indulge any culture or framework as being the final word on reality or social organization.  Indeed, we are the elephant in the room. When we discover that we are all responsible for the shadows dancing on the wall, we will realize that we are both the cause and the solution to all of our problems.  From here new frontiers shall open.  For, it is the goal of any system of intelligence to transcend itself. This is paramount in assessing the world we have created and the world we are leaving behind not just for our future ancestors, but for all lifeforms on this planet.  Ralph Waldo Emerson is credited with the remark; “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.”  If we bear in mind pollution, warfare, national or cultural tensions, and the unbridled excesses of capitalism, then Emerson’s comment on civilization is far from obscure.  Similarly, McKenna stressed; “It makes no sense whatsoever to speak of a human future. There is no human future. It's inconceivable, given where we are today, that to speak of the human world a thousand years from now or five hundred years from now, it is literally, it either doesn't exist, or it's beyond our power of imagining.”  Our world today has a few perilous demands: drop the old games (our projective filters and made-up rules), see through them, outgrow them entirely if necessary, and begin to imagine and participate in better ones.  As Mark Booth closed his seminal and endlessly peculiar book The Secret History of the World, “Imagination is the key”.

Just imagine virtual realities that are more meaningful, beautiful, ecumenical, compassionate, sustainable, efficient, and indeed more loving to play.  In a word: wiser.  The call upon the present generations is to radically shift gears and awaken to what we are really doing.  We will accept our responsibility for this crisis or we will go down in the history of the universe as another menagerie of pseudo-intelligent space bumpkins at the far end of the galactic arm who collapsed into dust under the weight of their own illusions.  This is the warning shot echoing through modernity fired by none other than Mary Shelley in Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.  We will end at the hands of none other than both our own psychic and physical creations—our virtual reality worlds—unless we evolve them.

Rendering these cultural VRs relative is an essential part of the process in transcending and evolving them.  Again, why do they demand to be transcended and transformed?  Because they simply aren’t up to snuff; they do not match the moral and ethical reasoning that is necessary to handle the pan-destructive forces that our fathers and grandfathers have already unleashed upon the surface of the earth.

It’s really that simple.

Our most powerful and influential cultures are far from benign.  Culture eats nature; our worst VRs eat the world.

The challenge and the gift that we have given ourselves is a whole planet on the brink—the ultimate narrative, the life or death game par excellence.  The creator’s creation now threatens the continuity of life itself, when its hope was always to uplift.  All in all, it’s a very exciting time to be alive.  You won’t get a better opening act to the primate’s next stage of awakening than the one where it has fallen into its own otherwise brilliant, multi-millennia in the making trap.  The question bubbling up as the Information Age gives birth to the Virtual one is; “What will end up being born out of our totally humanized enclosure when we push hard enough against the thresholds of our collective fantasy worlds?”  You will know where you truly are by the writing on the wall, coupled with the acidity index of the ocean.

Special thanks to Amber Case for introducing me to Cyborg Anthropology, to Adyashanti for his innumerable insights (including the disarmingly simple term “virtual reality mind”), and as always to Nikki Wyrd for her insightful edits.

Eliott Edge is an international lecturer, multidisciplinary artist, and author of ‘3 Essays on Virtual Reality: Overlords, Civilization, and Escape.’ Edge is on the advisory board at The Lifeboat Foundation, a member of Das Unbehagen, and the founder of EducatingEarth. You can find him through OddEdges.


Nice one. However since VR imposes itself on and into and over the imagination which is the fount of creativity one suspects this VR analogy is rather stretched.  The image of the sun degraded into the cross of a church full of lies is rather inept to this great article

About halfway through the article, it is mentioned that Socratic energy is about contesting authority.  As part of “awakening” is about contesting authority, and realizing it’s relativity.  Does it not include also the recognition of one’s own Authority?  That at some level we will all fall upon the phrase, “Because I said so”?  Questioning yes, but also enacting our own “echo chambers” (virtual realities).  We simply want others to play by our “rules”, but then we become the new “Authorities” to be challenged.  Is this the karma cycle, so often portrayed?

Now some doctrines claim that Self is illusion, and maybe so is Other.  As you said Ego has the first, and last say.  I can choose to participate in your fantasy by commenting upon your article, but at what level is my participation fulfilled?  At what level will the notion of questioning Authority relent?  Is this simply the notion of quid pro quo?  Will I ever be able to rest in my “echo chamber” unchallenged, and enjoy the pleasures that I dream of endlessly (whatever forms they take,...violence, sexuality, sociability,...Life)?  Does it come when one stops questioning authority?  That it may simply be better to pay homage to where it’s due, and take leave?

I mean it seems like you’re saying reality is all fiction, and one of the greatest tricks would be to convince an entity that they’re either “God, or they’re not” (a Pinnacle Authority).  Overall this may be moot, because as also said, “free fall with no ground.”  We’re always on the edge, and never in the cusp.


Authority should always be questioned because it is Authority (capital A) that assumes and enforces the auspicious of power.  Authority directs our social world, and we are social animals. 

SOCIAL reality is certainly largely fiction, however, I find the term ‘convenient contrivance’ to be personally attractive. 

In terms of one’s own personal authority, it should certainly be examined what your personal claims as to what reality is or is not, what social organization should and shouldn’t be, and what are you really perceiving as opposed to misperceiving.  However YOUR authority derives largely from the fact that you exist (or to be truly philosophically robust; you at least SEEM to exist, and that is indeed enough).  I tend to think that if you exist you’ve been invited to the party; and with that quip, personal authority is inherent.

The human game, as well as our own value system, will always be undergoing revision.  My thinking is adopting a metaphor like virtual reality will make this endless process of revision more fluid.
As to when will YOU be fulfilled, that’s entirely up to you to evaluate.  But as to when should you STOP questioning ANY Authority, as suggested above, I honestly suspect that the answer is NEVER.  There are many forms of false awakening, brother.

Personally a lot of this is fueled by the fact that I can’t stand blind conformity—my own or anyone else’s.


> “Since VR imposes itself on and into and over the imagination which is the fount of creativity one suspects this VR analogy is rather stretched.” 

I don’t really think so; but that may have to do with our personal beliefs about “creativity.”  As you can see I am very much outlining the general robustness of what I am loosely calling the ‘VR metaphor.’ For me creativity very much falls in line with being part of the metaphor insofar as when we are being creative we ‘think creative thoughts’.  Novel thoughts.  Nevertheless, those thoughts are still simulations—novel or not.  To me the fount would be consciousness, but what comes OUT of consciousness is seemingly always analogous to a simulation or a virtual reality—again, novel or not.

> “The image of the sun degraded into the cross of a church full of lies is rather inept to this great article.”

As to this line, I’d very much appreciate more on what you mean by this reading. 

The sun in Figure 1 here provided the light for the person in the church (VR headset church though it may be!) to project and thus imagine all the ideas and associations embedded in the stain-glass “visor”.  When we play a VR game, we don’t just straight play the game in a rote manner; imagination is THERE as well.


Is there such a thing as “awakened conformity”?  Take for instance Plato’s Cave Allegory, you know dwelling in a world of shadow/deceit/misrepresentation…etc until one breaks free (becomes awakened).  But by using his (Plato’s Allegory) one is subscribing to a model that has already been developed by some external authority.  In my point of view it creates a double bind.  Reside in ignorance by dwelling in the cave, leave the cave, and realize truth (not capital because is there “Objective Truth”....maybe, maybe not).  Plato’s model plays to both of them because if one comes back into their old cave with a revelation of truth.  They’d get “killed/decried as false” (another shadow in the cave).

So yes, blind conformity is bad, but isn’t the conformity to using philosophy/thoughts to defeat conformity also in turn conformity?  That one is stuck in the “Reality/Model Glue” until they do what?  Die?  But what is Death?  In this sense it may just be a discarding of mental models (nihilism) which is absurd because if one abides by logic.  Nihilism contradicts itself.  It is essentially the meaning that all things have no meaning, including this thought of Nihilism.  Thus why subscribe to those Nihilistic tendencies?  Other than trying to clear the field, or reinvent the wheel.

Furthermore there’s that quote of Carl Sagan’s; “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” which may, or may not be a problem (is it all virtual like you suggest).  In the virtual case, it’d imply that we’re all dreamers dreaming our own reality.  Thus our personal truths, may not be objective truths for others.  That conformity to anything simply happens because it is needed to an extent.  Ie; Do you conform to your thoughts/values/opinions, or do you discard them as unreliable when it’s convenient?

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