Toward the end of "Virtual Reality," author Howard Rheingold peers into the world of tomorrow and offers the following report: "(T)here is no reason to believe you won't be able to map your genital effectors to your manual sensors and have direct genital contact by shaking hands." Then he asks: "What will happen to social touching when nobody knows where anybody else's erogenous zones are located?"
I must admit that this question had never occurred to me. On the other hand, it didn't come entirely out of the blue. There is something about the infant technology known as virtual reality that sends people's thoughts drifting in the general direction of sex. If you describe the technology to someone who's never heard of it, and then watch his eyes closely for 10 or 15 seconds, you may be able to sense the point at which the carnal implications are silently grasped.
Perhaps, before further elaboration, some technical details are in order.
Virtual reality (VR for short) refers to the increasingly realistic artificial worlds into which people can be electronically immersed. The most common point of entry is the "head-mounted display": A pair of goggles presents your eyes with a computer-generated image of a fake world--or, more precisely, presents each eye with a slightly different slant on this world, imparting the illusion of a third dimension.
But this is more than a 3-D movie, because you can shape it. Turn your head to the right, and the computer adjusts your visual field accordingly. Look down, and you see a virtual floor. Point your finger at the other side of the virtual room, and you "fly" there. Your hand is clothed in a DataGlove that, like the eyeware, continually transmits its location and orientation to the governing computer, or "reality engine." The DataGlove also allows you to grasp an object in this virtual world and move it--and to see your virtual hand in action. It's even possible to "feel" the object, in a rudimentary way, if the DataGlove is equipped with fingertip vibrators. And if you release the object, you can see--and hear--it hit the virtual floor.
Significantly, a virtual world can accommodate more than one person. Your partner could be miles away (comparably outfitted, and connected to your reality engine by fiber optics); but his image--or an image of Mickey Mouse, or Betty Boop, or whatever virtual identity he adopted--could appear before your eyes, within reach of your virtual hand. The two of you could even "touch" each other. If you were wearing DataSuits, you could virtually dance. And so on.
At the moment, the technology is expensive and primitive. Setting up a virtual world takes a few hundred thousand dollars. And that buys only a surrealistically smooth, almost cartoonish environment; none of the "people" look real. But surely virtual worlds, like other microelectronic things, will get better and cheaper, fast. The quantity and quality of available adventures will grow, and the conduits will become more inviting, as lightweight glasses, or opaque contact lenses, replace the oppressive head-mounted display, and dataclothing gets more sleek and sensitive from head to toe. Cyberspace, as they call it, will be accessible from the living room.
So, however futuristic all this sounds, at some point a book that astutely and engagingly explores the promise and perils of VR will come in handy. Which isn't to say that now is that point, or that "Virtual Reality" is that book.
The author seems to have done his research energetically enough, traveling across the United States and to Europe and Japan, palling around with VR luminaries, reading their research papers and sampling their wares. The result is enough raw information to attract anyone (a curious venture capitalist, say) who has a burning desire to survey the "reality-industrial complex." But Rheingold hasn't much streamlined his amorphous databank for dramatic effect, and less determined readers may be stymied by an overwhelming number of underdeveloped characters and ideas.
Most of the book consists of a history of various technological roots of VR and an overview of current academic and commercial hubs of VR research. Only near the end does Rheingold, as promised in the book's subtitle, turn from tour guide to social forecaster. And here he often exhibits a frustrating fascination with the peripheral.
The quotation at the outset of this review is a good example. To be sure, there may be the occasional adolescent prankster who, through some crafty rewiring, will trick the girl next door into virtually shaking his actual penis. (What a card! You can bet he's got a virtual Whoopee Cushion, too.) But I suspect more adolescents, and adults, will be seduced by a more obvious attraction: In virtual reality, you will be able to design your own sex partner, and make him or her as compliant (or as resistant, even unpredictable) as you like. And if you would rather have some flesh and blood lurking back there somewhere, your partner, like you, will be able to preserve complete anonymity. Utterly impersonal sex between consenting adults will be possible (virtually, at least) for the first time in human history. Shouldn't these plausible scenarios get a markedly deeper exploration than the possibility that a few cranks will secretly wear their genitals on their sleeves? In this book, core and penumbra get equal time--a few sentences.
There are two questions that underlie this "cybersex" issue but go well beyond it and figure centrally in the eventual social meaning of VR. First, will the new technology typically be used to reach out and touch someone, or to avoid nearly everyone? Will it be a richer form of telephone or a more self-absorbing kind of TV? Second, regardless of whether VR becomes more a medium for socializing or for solipsism, will it serve mainly cerebral pursuits or more visceral impulses, such as sex and violence?
Rheingold isn't oblivious to these issues, and he does obliquely shed light on them. But he is generally not inclined to locate key questions, state them explicitly and systematically seek answers, so his visions of the future often are either unclear or unpersuasive. He does make the valid point that there's nothing inherently wrong with an "ecstasy machine," that periodic escape from the workaday mind set can be healthy. He even ventures that virtual reality might "become the first wholesome, integrating, nonpathological form of ecstasy capable of liberating safely the long-repressed Dionysian energies of our heavily Apollonian civilization." But he provides no particular reason for optimism on this front, and he ignores some glaringly relevant factors.
For example, in suggesting that VR could replace drugs as a way to escape, he never asks whether drugs will sometimes supplement VR. Anyone who has indulged even mildly in the recreational legacy of the 1960s knows that the answer is yes. Marijuana has helped millions immerse themselves more deeply into such crude virtual worlds as 2-D video games and visually engrossing movies. (Remember "Yellow Submarine"? No? That's because marijuana impairs memory.) As virtual reality more closely approaches actual reality, chemicals will for some people further close the gap. Will the result be a generation of dope-addled teens so withdrawn as to make the much-publicized Dungeons-and-Dragons zombies look like class presidents by comparison? I don't know. But if I were going to write a 400-page book on virtual reality, I would at least raise the question.
Rheingold seems a bit uncomfortable with the whole issue of recreational virtual thrill-seeking. The chapter containing the steamy sex scene I've quoted ("Teledildonics and Beyond") has a perfunctory feel, as if he knew he had to touch on the ecstasy angle, but didn't want to really confront it. After only a few pages, he's insisting that we drop the subject and focus on less titillating topics.
Most of these topics fall into two groups. First are those that, arguably, don't belong in this book. When firefighters send a camera-equipped, hose-wielding robot into a burning house, view the flames through its eyes and control its actions, that isn't virtual reality; it's actual reality, remotely perceived and influenced.
Second are those topics that do deserve the VR label but are confined to particular professions. Thus, architects can conjure up and explore envisioned buildings. Chemists can design new compounds by virtually fiddling with molecules. Financial analysts can reach out and grab their data, and perhaps even virtually implement the decisions these data suggest.
(How exactly would this last scenario work? Rheingold, again exhibiting his preference for loopy speculation over common-sense extrapolation, writes: "Cruising through a forest and catching a lizard and eating it might be the way corporate raiders of the future will play out their games of merger and takeover." There's no elaboration; he doesn't explain how this exercise would serve as a useful proxy for data-analysis or decision-making.)
The problem with Rheingold's emphasis isn't just that architecture and financial planning are more boring than orgies, auto-racing, joining a flock of virtual sea gulls, and various other recreational uses of VR; it's that they're less distinctively consequential. With or without VR, new buildings will get built, and corporations will get taken over. To the average person, how these things happen won't matter. What will matter is how VR hits home: how it changes the nature of entertainment (broadly construed), for example, or what new educational media it offers children as well as adults (a topic Rheingold does discuss, but only vaguely).
One reason, perhaps, that Rheingold gives short shrift to the more self-indulgent uses of VR is his proud disdain for sensationalism. While he was working on his book, VR captured the fancy of numerous journalists, and articles appeared in major newspapers with phrases like "electronic LSD" in the headlines. Rheingold, eager to distinguish himself from this pack of yellow journalists, chastises them for not stressing more prosaic applications. But it is only because the average American cares more about cybersex and electronic LSD than about new architectural tools that reporters have dwelt on these things. What journalists do, after all, is give the people what they want. And that is also, by definition, what virtual reality will do.