Virtual Reality, Distraction, and Addiction

Last week I wrote about how VR can be a pain mitigation treatment in hospitals. We’ve long known distraction is a useful treatment methodology for pain. The mind has trouble processing stimuli outside out of the field of attention, and VR provides powerful means of distraction.

We all seek distractions. Television has been so ingrained in our culture for generations that we no longer see it as a distraction. If we don’t keep up on the latest episode of Game of Thrones, Stranger Things or Black Mirror, we feel left out of the conversation. Alcohol is another that’s so mainstream we ignore it until it becomes dysfunctional. How many of us have come home from work after a long day, plop on the couch with a beer, wine or cocktail, turn on Netflix and turn off from reality? I know I did that daily for years. I just needed to distract myself from all the shit I was thinking.

Often the need to distract is subconscious. It’s not like we say, “I’m not feeling good about myself right now, I think I will pour a glass of bourbon and binge on West Wing.” But typically that’s what is happening.

In his best-selling book Recovery, actor and comedian Russel Brand writes about the 5-point cycle of addiction. It’s a fascinating and hilarious read, and highly if you think you might be suffering from addiction (hint: we all are). He writes:

  1. We experience pain (this can be physical, but more often emotional or even existential)
  2. We use an addictive agent, like alcohol, food, sex, work, or social media to distract ourselves
  3. The distraction temporarily anesthetizes us
  4. We suffer the consequences, like lost sleep, missed deadlines, hangovers, the wrath of a partner, etc.
  5. We feel shame and guilt, which causes more pain, and we repeat the cycle.
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We are addicted to distraction, and it is getting more prevalent. There has been lots of research on the addicting nature of social media. One early study suggested it’s harder to resist than alcohol or cigarettes. The average person spends over 2 hours PER DAY on social media. And since social media is ad-supported, the platforms monetizing our usage work hard to increase our time spent engaging with their content. Facebook has mastered this, keeping us coming back multiple times per day to check out likes, comments, and shares. Their algorithm has been refined to make sure we keep seeing content that will engage (addict) us. It works great for advertisers and keeps us in the distraction zone.

In “The History of the Future” author Blake Harris tells us Mark Zuckerberg worried that relying on third-party mobile platforms like Android and iOS was an existential threat. At any moment, Google or Apple could block Facebook from accessing their customers. I’m sure that’s one reason. If VR will be the next big computing platform, Facebook wants to own it to control their destiny. That makes sense.

But what if the real reason for their purchase of Oculus is that Zuck wants to keep us in his platform longer to sell more ads? What if he wants to make us all slaves to a VR future that looks like the Matrix? Next week I will dive into that and explain why it could be the biggest threat to our society and way of life since the atomic bomb.

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