VR Addiction Post 3

Oculus, one of the two largest virtual reality platforms, is owned and controlled by the largest social media company on the planet, Facebook.  In my last two blogs, I write about how social media addiction is a growing problem, driven by society’s desire for distraction. VR has been proven to be a distraction that is more powerful than drugs and alcohol, and potentially more addicting. Society is on a collision course with technology that could literally change the way we exist in the world.

It’s been said that if you are using a free service on the web, then YOU are the product, because you are being sold to advertisers.  Facebook is a purely ad-supported service. 100% of their revenue is from advertisers. Over $50 billion a year. You are their product.

That’s why they work so hard at making social media addictive. Their revenue, and therefore existence, depends on it. Facebook has built algorithms to make sure we see content that aligns with our beliefs, so we are constantly surprised and delighted, which is how compulsion loops in video games and gambling drive addiction.

When Justin Rosenstein—one of the four designers of Facebook’s ‘Like’ Button—came up with the idea for it, he did not think it would turn into a cultural phenomenon.

“The main intention I had was to make positivity the path of least resistance, and I think it succeeded in its goals, but it also created large unintended negative side effects. In a way, it was too successful.”

If the distraction of virtual reality is so effective it can block pain as effectively as drugs, it’s easy to see how it will become the most addictive media ever. And that’s without designing features in to make it more so. In the hands of Facebook, Google and other advertising platforms, once the algorithms and compulsion loops are integrated, VR will become the most powerful drug mankind has ever invented.

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VR comes with no prescriptions, no doctor visits, and no stigma, because the ad companies control it. They’ll make sure that we all feel good about wasting our lives away in the virtual realities they create for us. Think I’m being paranoid?

Just walk down the street in any crowded city and watch people with their faces buried in their smartphones. Everyone is constantly distracted. It’s an epidemic.  And when VR hits the masses, it will tip over. People will be spending the majority of their time inside a virtual reality. Considering we spend 11 hours a day consuming and interacting with media, maybe we already are.

When I talk about this in my keynote speech, the most common question I get is “what can we do about it?” This question insinuates we can, and should, intervene.

As Justin Rosenstein said about the Like Button, there are always unintended consequences. Change one thing and a million other little things change. It’s called the butterfly effect. You cannot predict them all.  Trying to reign in VR and social media at this point is unrealistic.  The horses have left the barn.

There are all kinds of dystopian futures based upon on humans being under control by some evil force. From George Orwell’s 1984 to the Wachowski sister’s The Matrix, we are fascinated by seeing a future worse than how we view our present circumstances. It makes us feel better about where we are today.  So is all hope lost? Would a future where we spend all our waking time in a virtual reality be so bad?

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Let’s look at where we are now.  We spend 2 hours a day on social media, mostly pretending to be someone we aren’t. We watch our Instagram heroes and YouTube streamers show us places we may never get to see. We die from the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) a little bit every day.

What if instead of watching with envy all the things others brag about, we could actually feel like we were experiencing those things for ourselves, or better, with them. What if VR became so convincing that it felt almost as good as being in real life? If we can already use VR to fool amputees into believing they have limbs, to mitigate phantom pain, is it so far-fetched to think that in the future we can fool ourselves into believing we are cruising with a loved one down a canal in Venice being serenaded by a handsome gondolier?

Or could it be even better? Flying coach on a crowded flight with crying babies and bad food to ride a gondola in Venice might not be worth effort.  Donning a headset to almost feel like you are might be.

Virtual reality will change everything.  The way we work, the way we play, the way we interact with others, and the way we learn. It’s going to be one of several disrupters that are now upon us.

Forecasting the future is incredibly complex when you layer in artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, drones, and blockchain.  The impact of every one of these emerging technologies is potentially as big or bigger than the internet, and look at how that changed everything.

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If we don’t have the conversations now, we abdicate our future to the media, technology and social networking companies designing it. You don’t want Mark Zuckerberg, or an AI-enabled robot to decide without your input, do you?