Post-VR: Society and Politics

(This text is an extended version of the lecture-performance text, that was presented at Futurice offices in London, UK.)

illustration by Denis Maksimov/AVENIR INSTITUTE

illustration by Denis Maksimov/AVENIR INSTITUTE

The advent of the Virtual Reality (VR) challenges the structures of the society and the political systems with new opportunities and risks. While the coefficients of happiness are posed to gradually replace the GDP per capita as the indicator of prosperity, chance has become an unacceptable notion in the society where we can supposedly have complete control over our “organic” lives. What role can the VR play in the design of futures?

‘Futures Cone’ (or vuvuzela if you like) is one of the benchmarks of the trans-disciplinary field of futures studies. There is no singular ‘future’ per se: futures are a combination of infinite probabilities that constitute scenarios of dynamic plausibilities. Out of all ‘possible’ scenarios, the ‘plausible’ constitute a smaller group, while ‘probable’ are the ones most likely to come to be. ‘Preferable’ futures, on the other hand, are the ones that we could identify as scenarios wishful thinking - however, reality more than often invalidates them. The strategic foresight mission is to develop the tools that would bridge ‘probable’ with ‘preferable’, making our vision for the destination closer to present, singular ‘reality’.

The vision of ‘preferable’ is changing over the time, depending on the resource and material bases on which the scenarios for futures are developing. Decades ago the idea of progress and purpose was built around the notion of ‘economic growth per capita’, following the philosophy of utilitarianism that was introduced a couple of centuries ago by the English scholar Jeremy Bentham. He assumed that happiness of the citizens can be calculated in material resources that they possess.

In recent times, with the advent of the post-industrial age, knowledge economy, neoliberal banking, digital and other characteristics of ‘the economy now’, the notion of ‘product’ has come under the pressure of re-definition. The Western economies are not growing at the rates they used to - and most likely would not reach new unimaginable heights. Even if they did, in the present socio-political structures the individual would not linearly benefit from it. This leaves the populations of the economies under the impression of an age of stagnation at the best, or that of a degradation at the worst.

Due to the absurdity of the concept of a continuous exponential economic growth, a shift in the mindset becomes necessary. In the last years the idea of ‘Gross Happiness Product’ (and ‘happiness’ as the product) is gradually replacing the traditional progress as a measure in the strategic planning papers of the leading Western world think tanks, such as the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development). As the accumulation of material goods becomes impractical due to the destructive nature of accelerating rates of consumption, this reformulation of value in post-material terms comes in to provide alternative routes for preferable futures.

But as the Western world struggles with post-material formation, the so-called developing world is catching up on the industrial grounds, challenging the perceived traditional geopolitical order and raising a conflict on the level of fundamental values. All of that is happening - in contrast to other historical periods - in a single ‘reality’. The reality, as we now know it, is a place of intersection in time and space that is shared by all of the actors simultaneously: via facebook lifestreams, internet news feeds, tweets, etc.

This single ’reality’ appears and feels overpopulated. It is competitive, since its entering in conflict ethical and value systems. It is polluted with ever-increasing amount of information about the world’s complexities from an infinite number of perspectives. The pressure of coexistence between the alternative visions of morals, ethics and politics is becoming more unbearable for the different actors. For example, a cleavage of American and British electorates between pro-nationalist, pro-liberal and those who choose to abstain, paints a picture of the fundamentally fractured visions of futures co-existing in the same time-space. What if the possibility to generate alternative realities will be offered for the situations where compromise is not obtainable? Imagine the VR fused with augmented reality set that can provide to both Israeli and Palestinian opportunity to see Jerusalem as their sole capital.

Deviation-based virtual worlds-realities can provide an alternative to frustrations within the singular worldview. Michel Foucault challenged the notion of normality on a theoretical basis and offered a political solution to the problem via abandoning ‘the normal’ and embracing otherness and deviation through the means of political empowerment. Fighting racial, religious, cultural and sexual biases as well as others had become the core struggle of the neoliberal world, and it seemed to be achievable through critical education and domination in the entertainment industry.

However, the continuous rise of the so-called ‘alt-right’ and other new conservatives forces has challenged the current generation of the critical school, led by Jurgen Habermas, as being out of touch with the overpopulated reality. Conciliatory, multicultural and poli-layered model for a contemporary democracy, in which all of the various groups of interest are able to find compromise through mutual respect of each other views, seem to have been crushed into the wall of desire to return back into the safe space of simpler versions of reality. The complexity of the socio-political structures, accumulation of technological risk and environmental challenges are some of the headaches of the contemporaneity, and they are being escaped from through the democratic process of voting for the simple and the unrealistic solutions of making everything understandable again. Needless to say, it is leading to self deception as the complexity is not removed, but merely avoided until it cannot be ignored. Being unattended, it might lead to an utter dystopian collapse. The entertainment industry has already outlined many variations of its possible coming through sci-fi movies, TV shows, books and the likes.

Moving away from the probable scenarios to the preferable - and at the same time plausible - virtual and augmented realities can provide the bridge to cover the wide gaps between where we are now and where we want to be. A complete replacement of the complex reality with a simpler one provided by a VR set is perhaps not possible due to the presence of the prior memory of the complexity as the ‘really real’: the sense of dissatisfaction of self deception is similar to the destructiveness of a drug-addict realising that the moments of joy are only temporary ‘ups’ on the overall downhill road. Just like in the aftermath of visiting a theme park or watching a movie, the return to the empirical ‘real’ seems like the inevitable end for the escape from the clouding complexity of the present.

Sensations of psychological remedy gained by diving into high-quality immersive worlds (alternate realities) can ease tensions in the competitive and complex structures of the contemporary world. This can allow for a new post-democratic form of delegation of power in the ‘really real’, where the complexity is handled dynamically, and provide a path for futures full of opportunities to further realise the human potential in the quest of proving or disproving the hypothesis of its limitlessness.