Virtual Reality and Black Futurity
Updated: Feb 15
Virtual reality (VR) is a three-dimensional environment created via computer-generated simulation. It is engaged in virtually but experienced by users as real. VR requires technological gadgets such as helmets, goggles, and headsets with screens set up inside, as well as gloves fitted with sensors (Google; Wikipedia). The simulations can be similar to the real world, or vastly different from it (Wikipedia). Think of gamers who communicate in real time while playing against one another virtually, only you wear the technology and become the character!
In 2016, Oculus Rift, HTC, Sony, Samsung, and LG (among others), released VR headsets commercially (Gray, 2017). They were marketed for entertainment and educational purposes. Fast Company recently published the “10 Most Innovative Virtual and Augmented Reality Companies of 2020”, among them are SNAP, Microsoft, and The Dallas Cowboys.
VR has been known to reduce pain in those living with chronic phantom limb pain, and academics like University of Toronto professor of East Asian cinema Elizabeth Wijaya are utilizing VR in their classroom to enhance the learning experience.
Through VR, I imagine myself entering carefully curated rooms similar to coffee shops, with space and distance between us of course (cause, COVID). The mellowing sounds of jazz music can be heard playing through the headset, simulating some sort of virtual community.
Or, VR could make for more interactive online courses and webinars that I already partake in. Instead of reaching out to you via the chat, I could ask for your consent and we can pretend to step out of the room and buck up together on a street somewhere. Maybe we find a park and sit together on a virtual bench like Dre and Syd do in Brown Sugar. We ask each other our questions, spill our juicy comments, and still look in on the webinar presentation from afar. Can you imagine? I can.
I can see myself using VR for future therapy sessions, making new friends online, creating art, or exploring new cities I currently cannot afford to visit in real life. With COVID-19, tourism has already changed as some walking tours are now provided online. But with VR, we could even visit space! I can finally fulfill all my childhood NASA dreams! Virtually of course because I already time-travel through space and time via ancient and indigenous technologies vis-a-vis my intuition and dream work. VR would just provide a different outlet (and outlook).
I find these possibilities wild and exhilarating and terrifying. I’ve personally only tried VR a couple of times, and each time, I could barely get the goggles over my afro. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure I’m already addicted. Which leaves me asking: what would it mean for VR to become more popular, more accessible, and more affordable? Black speculative and science-fiction writer Octavia Butler already reached into the future for us, taking the guess work out of answering these questions.
In 1998 Butler published The Parable of the Talents, a dystopian sequel to The Parable of the Sowers. The story is set in the future, 2032-2090. In it, Butler predicts a fascist America rife with violence, illiteracy and exploitation. Slavery of Black and other people of colour re-emergence in 2032 and the President (a spinning image of Trump), wants to “Make America Great Again” (literally, verbatim). See Hephzibah Anderson on Why Octavia Butler's novel's are so relevant today.
(Spoiler Alert). The protagonist, a Black disabled organizer named Lauren, is an obvious threat to the right-winged Christian extremist group called Christian America (CA). Encouraged by the President, CA take control of Lauren and her husband’s land and the community they have built on it. They kill her husband Bankole and turn her Northern California home into a modern-day slave plantation. Lauren and others are mined for their free labour, beaten, starved and raped. All the children, including her only child (her daughter Larkin) are kidnapped and put into foster care, much like Indigenous children in Canada were during the Sixties Scoop. After she escapes slavery and after being kept prisoner on her own land, Lauren sets off to find her daughter.
It is Sunday, June 17, 2035 and Lauren and another runaway Len are cooking. Len was raised in a wealthy family with lots of privilege and is unable to cook because her mother never taught her how. Before she was abducted, servants cleaned up after her and did the cooking while her mother was swept away into VR worlds.
“Len shrugged. “She lived in her virtual room-her own private fantasy universe. That room could take her anywhere, so why should she ever come out? She was getting fat and losing her physical and mental health, but her v-room was all she cared about.” (345) Lauren frowned. “I’ve heard of that kind of thing-people being hooked on Dreamasks or on virtual-world fantasies. I don’t know anything about it, though.” (345)
Len continues, “In that room she could go anywhere, be anyone, be with anyone. It was like a womb with an imagination. She could visit fourteenth-century China, present-day Argentina, Greenland in any imagined distant future, or one of the distant worlds circling Alpha Centauri. You name it, she could create some version of it. Or she could visit her friends, real and imaginary. Her real friends were other wealthy, idle people-mostly women and children. They were as addicted to their v-rooms as she was to hers. If her real friends didn’t indulge her as much as she wanted them to, she just created more obliging versions of them. By the time I was abducted, I didn’t know whether she really had contact with any flesh-and-blood people anymore. She couldn’t stand real people with real egos of their own.” (345)
“What about food?” Lauren asked. “What about bathing or just going to the bathroom?” “She used to come out for meals. She had her own bathroom. All by herself, it was big as my bedroom. Then she began to have all her meals sent in. After that, there were whole months when I didn’t see her. Even when I took her meals in myself, I had to just leave them. She was in the v-bubble inside the room, and I couldn’t even see her. If I went into the bubble, she would scream at me. I wasn’t part of the perfect fantasy life. My brother on the other hand, was. He got to visit her once or twice a week and share in her fantasies. Nice isn’t it?” She hesitated. “Do I seem normal to you?” (345-6)
As Octavia Butler illustrates, the possibilities of VR are endless. In this regard, there are some productive uses to VR. COVID-19 for instance, presents some new possibilities. Would NBA fans be okay with watching live games through VR as if they were at the stadium. I’m sure LeBron still won’t buy into, unless maybe if he actually bought into it financially, but COVID-19 scares do create more opportunities to approach certain aspects of life creativity. I’m thinking particularly of what it would mean for more employers to purchase VR for their workplaces.
Employees could enter virtual workspaces from home or sit in virtual conference rooms as if they were physically present in meetings. This wouldn’t disrupt productivity (as much), appeasing employers and employees alike. HR could curate these environments and create or update policies to include these virtual spaces. In a recent Forbes article titled, “How Virtual Reality is Impacting Enterprise Training”, author Lorne Fade shares how VR has already been found to lower the cost of travel and training expenses, connecting teams remotely and with more efficiency, it also reduces carbon footprints.
But Octavia Butler also depicted potential downfalls that are very much in line with most technological advancements, such as addiction.
In March of 2017 more than 3.7 billion people worldwide accessed the Internet via computers, smartphones, and or tablets of some sort, representing a 933.8% increase since 2000 (Anthony and Anthony, 2017). More than 2 billion people globally play video games via computers or game consoles such as Sony Playstation, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo, or on their mobile device. And another study shows that 5-10% of internet users and 30 million adults in the US are addicted to the internet (Prajapati, 2018).
Some common terms associated with social media and video game addiction include internet addiction; problematic or pathological use; compulsive use; dependency; or gaming disorder (Anthony and Anthony, 2017).
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines addiction as, “the compulsive use of a substance despite its harmful consequences” (Prajapati, 2018). Addictive behaviours disrupt lifestyle and they include gambling, virtual gaming, and virtual pornography (Anthony and Anthony, 2017). Compulsive gambling disorder for example, first appeared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5) in 1998 via Kimberly Young (Anthony and Anthony, 2017). Since then, research has been conducted to investigate the origins and mechanisms necessary for addiction, as well as the prevalence rates according to other geographic regions and demographics (Anthony and Anthony, 2017). These addictions extend beyond North America. Countries such as China and South Korea have identified internet and video game addiction as significant public health issues (Anthony and Anthony, 2017). But it wasn't always meant to be this way, this destructive.
We have to remember that the Internet, social media, and video games were created as innovative social solutions.
Feminist gamer Anita Sarkeesian shares that the internet was born out of a desire for “ultimate democracy” (Valenti, 2015). Sarkeesian quotes professor Alice Marwick who states, “the promise of the early internet was that it would liberate us from our bodies, and all the oppressions associated with prejudice. We’d communicate soul to soul, and get to know each other as people, rather than judging each other based on gender or race.” Marwick adds, “But because the default assumed identity was white and male, anyone who brought up their race or gender or dared to complain about bias-was seen as disturbing that dream.” Some of these limitations that rise out of idealist utopic visions are already playing out as unconscious bias in algorithms. As Sarkeesian reflects, “we didn’t build up this technology [while] understanding the power dynamics and the very real systems of oppression that were just going to follow us online.”
Technology can also become more accessible but not necessarily more affordable. There are class disparities at play that determine who has access to what. It is true that most gadgets eventually become more financially affordable overtime, but by the time most can finally afford something, another new version has already come out.
While some have never known a first-generation iPhone, period, I have an iPhone but I’m still all the way back at 6 and my phone screen has been cracked for so many years, I now pretend it's art, a stained glass mosaic to be exact (cause, imagination and delusion helps mitigate life's shitty realities). People still only have access to virtual worlds because of public libraries, while others pay at internet cafes globally. There are those who still only own a PC computer and dream of their first laptop. Personally, I cannot justify buying an iPad or tablet and have never been able to afford one, not ever, not even in 2020, I just don't own a tablet, period. I see small children living their best lives with them, but grown ass me, never. Even Siri has never talked back to me (cause, Big Brother), let alone Google or Alexa. It’s complicated.
Furthermore, if VR is to become a thing in the future, we have to know that it is already traumatizing and violently so. Technology is always weaponized at some point and women typically bear the brunt of this violence, specifically, Black, Indigenous, and other racialized women, including those who identify as trans.
Feminist writer Jessica Valenti shares that women are more likely to be severely harassed online compared to their male counterparts, adding that the abuse is more likely to be sexually violent in nature. Valenti goes on to share a study out of the University of Maryland that suggests that when women reveal their gender identity online, they are 25 times more likely to experience harassment.
Even having a female sounding name was enough to up the frequency of harassment online (Valenti, 2015). Jessica Valenti introduces readers to Anita Sarkeesian, a notable face of online abuse. Sarkeesian has been victim of death and bomb threats. She was stalked and intimated, her accounts hacked, and her and her family’s information leaked. Men have created video games simulating her rape, reported her to the IRS and the FBI, and produced whole documentaries in an attempt to destroy her reputation and discredit her work. Sarkeesian attributes this online violence to toxic masculinities and misogyny toward women and feminists. Unfortunately, VR will be no different. In this way, nothing beats in-person human connection.
In a You Tube post by astrologist True Brilliance titled, The End of the Age of CLOUT| Why Social Media Popularity Is Dying Out, the influencer talks about Saturn moving into Aquarius and opposing Leo, which according to True means that more people will begin to see through the well-curated performative nature of social media, and eventually shift out of these virtual spaces, moving to more real life in-person interactions. Connecting in real life, is the future, according to True. I do not disagree.
And also, social networking in person is a vulnerable experience, especially so for those of us living with some form of mental illness or neurodiversity.
As someone who is not well connected on social media and who still does not socialize much in real life, I think that most people just aren’t ready to dive in headfirst into regular and consistent in-person human contact if they have no need or incentive to. Many of us do not trust other people, do not feel safe with them, nor can we financially afford to meet with them regularly. Which is why I think VR will be a transition platform. It could be a space where we test the waters and feel people out, but from a safe distance.
But it should remain just that, a transition. It is not the best alternative, nor can it be our final destination.
I look forward to a future where healthy and pleasant interactions are a thing. Where we consider each other’s accessibility needs more frequently. When accommodating circumstances and others is not an inconvenience, last thought, or alt, but the norm. Let’s start meeting each other on terms that work for more of us. Maybe then we will feel more inclined to interact with each other in meaningful ways that reduce loneliness. VR cannot and will not cure viruses. But thinking about how to manage these public health scares more creatively can create whole new worlds.
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Until next time, in solidarity.
Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
Image Description: A black and white photo of a Black girl and her afro, looking into the future like...