Virtual “reality”?

by Yule Heibel on April 23, 2007

MIT Technology Review blogger Simson Garfinkel just posted an interview with Brian Shuster, CEO of Red Light Center, a virtual reality site for, well, red light type activities (or what a homogenised and American-centric perspective believes to be red light reality). I watched the introduction (which you can view without having to open an account or download the software), and it struck me that Barbie-doll babes are alive and well in computer-land.

Anyway, Garfinkel’s blog interview asks Are Virtual Drugs a Gateway to the Real Thing?, because — yup, that’s right — you can now indulge in virtual ecstacy, marijuana, or “even munch on some virtual mushrooms” online.

I must be hopelessly beyond the pale, but I don’t “get” how or why a virtual “drug experience” could possibly approximate even remotely a real drug experience — just as I don’t get how a virtual sex experience with the hopelessly “perfected” tits-at-attention (but flaccid penises) of these virtual “bodies” could ever come close to the surround-sound and immersive experience of a real sexual encounter between real bodies. Those online “bodies” look only slightly less less-convincing than the plastic blow-up dolls that men used to purchase for their solitary delectation.

It seems to me that Shuster is striking a pseudo-pedagogical pose when he says:

By separating the social pressure from the real-world application, users have a totally revolutionary mechanism to deal with peer pressure, and actually to give in to peer pressure, without the negative consequences.

Huh. So, we’re supposed to learn something here?

But what, exactly?

Shuster elaborates:

Just as with the sexual experimentation within Red Light Center, users will have the ability to decide for themselves whether using drugs is an enhancement or detriment to their life experience, even before ever using drugs in the real world. Armed with that information, they can then make more-rational decisions if they are confronted with that choice in the real world because they will have already gone through it virtually.

That said, it is critical to recognize that users who develop a full social circle within Red Light Center will have an online support structure of friends. Being accepted into a social community and having genuine friends are defenses that can be called on to prevent substance abuse in the real world. There is no reason to believe that this wouldn’t hold true for online users, and thus provide them with additional deterrence to ongoing real-world drug use.

Have we, collectively, come to this: a con not by real drug pushers, but by their virtual kin? Are we so bereft of biological, full-body feeling that a virtual high would convince us of anything? Are consequences only that which can be calculated by the mind, but not experienced viscerally?

Here’s a question: if virtual drug experiences were possible, how come no one has yet introduced a virtual wine-tasting club? (Hint: the answer has something to do with your body, and that you have taste buds.)

The key word is perhaps “hopeless,” whether it’s those “hopelessly ‘perfected’ tits-at-attention” I referenced above or the hopelessness of real people looking for a “full social circle within Red Light Center” and thinking they’ll have “genuine friends” there.

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