It seems like all anyone talks about when discussing the future of technology and media is the Oculus Rift and virtual reality. I’ve been to demos, and while it’s not a perfect immersive experience, it is really darn cool. However, as the technology grows and expands, I can’t help but be reminded of The Veldt – and that terrifies me.
I first read the The Veldt in 8th grade as a sort of introduction to Ray Bradbury before reading Fahrenheit 451. Years later, I came back to it in The Illustrated Man and found the future depicted in it just as menacing as my initial read. The story follows the Hadley family after their move into an automated “Happy Life Home,” filled with machines that do literally everything for them, from cooking, to cleaning, to tying their shoes and bathing them. While the parents begin to feel directionless, the children, Peter and Wendy, become dependent on “the nursery,” a virtual reality room which telepathically links to the user’s desire to form immersive worlds. When their parents discover the nursery is stuck playing the sinister African veldt, full of heat, feeding lions, and death, they decide to move out of their home for a month to detox the family of technology. In response, Peter and Wendy lock their parents into the nursery, where they are devoured by the veldt’s lions, made real out of the strength of the children’s desire for their parents’ death.
What scares me about this story are the effects of virtual reality on children. I remember crying once as a child when I missed an episode of my favorite TV show because my parents wanted me to do yard work – imagine how kids will react to their virtual realities being taken away when grounded. I recently had a conversation with a friend who lamented how much time he spends on Facebook and texting, and how he craved more person-to-person interaction. Though he sounded earnest enough, it was hard to take him seriously as he quite literally spent the entirety of our person-to-person interaction texting and checking Facebook even as he complained about becoming dependent on his phone. Imagine how much more detached we’ll become when we can browse the internet on Google Glass while interacting with others. Will kids ever think to pay attention to their parents when they can be immersed in technology? Though I doubt the semi-magical idea of virtual realities coming to life through sheer willpower will be possible, the possible psychological impact technologies like the Oculus Rift could have on children is frightening. As the mother in The Veldt notes, how can any parent compete with an entire world? How could reality compete with a virtual world of their choosing?
What’s almost scarier to me is how even though the idea of virtual reality is almost universally portrayed as negative in the media, we’re still trying to make it happen. Famously THE MATRIX shows people trapped in a fantasy world as a form of oppression and recently THE CONGRESS shows how real society has nearly fallen apart as a result of people fleeing to a virtual world. You would think with so much of popular culture telling society that virtual reality is to be feared, Google Glass wouldn’t be rising in popularity.
Bradbury famously said, “I don't think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don't take the toys out of their hands, we're fools.” He also said, “I was not predicting the future. I was trying to prevent it.” It seems despite his best efforts, Bradbury was better at understanding the trajectory of human ambition than he was at warning us away from it.