The Amputation of Reality
Exploring the Trade-Offs of VR Headsets in a Digital Age
As someone deeply interested in technology, watching the news recently about Apple’s launch of the Vision Pro (coming in 2023) was a bit expected. The rumor mill has been churning about it for a while now, and everyone had concluded that now was the time they would release it. So when Tim Cook said the infamous “there’s one more thing” line, everyone knew what to expect next.
A critical moment that has captured much attention online is around the two-minute mark in that video. Here’s a sample tweet calling it out:
True to form, L. M Sacasas over at the Convival Society called out this moment, noting, “in short, it suggested the possibility that the worst thing about the age of digital media will turn out to be how hard it became to look one another in the eye.”
The Vision Pro, and other VR headsets like it, remind us of the words of Marshall McLuhan from the 1960s. Writing at the dawn of the television age, McLuhan looked forward and pondered about the future that would be brought about by “electric” technology. McLuhan viewed all technology as extensions—radio as an extension of the ear, TV as an extension of the eye, etc. With electric technologies in general, he looked forward and saw what he called the global village, or what we might call the internet. But he saw those extensions as coming with trade-offs:
In this electric age, we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving towards the technological extension of consciousness… we can translate more and more of ourselves into other forms of expression that exceed ourselves…
By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls–all such extensions of our bodies, including cities–will be translated into information systems. Electromagnetic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of mediation such as benefits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must service his electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all other extensions of his physical organs. But there is this difference, that previous technologies were partial and fragmentary, and the electric is total and inclusive. An external consensus or conscience is now as necessary as a private consciousness.1
As we’ve discussed, a key part of understanding McLuhan is that all media (extensions in McLuhan’s terms) are paired with what McLuhan calls amputations. When we use technology to gain a function, we are losing something else. When we use a car to speed things up, we are “amputating” our legs.
What these VR/AR headsets may represent, if used unintentionally, is a world where we amputate ourselves from reality. We are amputating ourselves from our physical location and “placing ourselves” in a virtual space. I’m reminded of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a world in which reality is so meh that everyone lives their lives in these virtual spaces.
But I can’t get past the feeling that the amputation–the trade-off of these technologies–should at least be significantly contemplated before fully embracing them. If seeing and being seen in the world is such a core part of our humanity, then an all-encompassing headset can’t help but dehumanize us a little bit, regardless of its “ease” and functionality.
This brought back to mind my reading of Andy Crouch’s book The Life We’re Looking For last summer. This has been one of my favorite reads over the past few years, and it starts with this story.
Recognition is the first human quest.
After an ordinary delivery, after the first few startled cries, newborn infants typically spend an hour or so in the stage doctors call ‘quiet alert’. Though they can only focus their vision roughly eight to twelve inches away, their eyes are wide open. They are searching, with an instinct far deeper than intention. They are looking for a face, and when they find one–especially a face that gazes back at them–they fix their eyes on it, having found what they were most urgently looking for.2
Crouch goes on to discuss in that first chapter the “loneliness of a personalized world” and goes on in the rest of the book to discuss how the life we’re looking for is not achieved by all-encompassing devices but by tools that allow us to act on the world in specific ways. Croch’s devices extend our consciousness in McLuhan’s terms, while tools extend just one part of our body.
So the question becomes, can an all-encompassing VR headset be used as a tool rather than a device? Can we use it to extend just one part of us without accidentally amputating ourselves from our physicality? It’s too early to tell, but I do think it’s something we should be mindful of as we move forward.
All media has tradeoffs; the question is, how much are we willing to trade, and can we be mindful enough of it to have an informed answer to that question before it’s thrust upon us?
And with that, thanks for reading. See you again soon.
You can read Sacasas’ short post here.
You can read more about amputations in our previous post here: