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Our brave new Brexit future, virtually

Essay | 20 minute read
Is virtual reality taking us further away from being compassionate humans or can it be harnessed to break through barriers, cross borders and liberate our minds?

‘Order should proceed from love.’  (Jeanette Winterson)

I live in New Cross and it has become a kind of home for me. It’s been solidly Labour since 1974 and is haunted by an intense political past. It’s at the bottom of a valley that flattens out towards Elephant and Castle, Peckham and Lewisham, revealing this huge common sky. There’s a cemetery that people recommend as a park. There are few tall structures, so if you stand on the bridge at New Cross Gate, at various times of the day, you can see peach-mould, black, rose, buttercup, seawater, royal blue. Sainsbury’s, needy and overstated, encroaches on the view. I get the Overground from there almost every day and I notice the other people on it, particularly the people asking for money. I have moved back and forth from New Cross over the last year (I was living in a filthy shared house when Brexit was announced) and the frequency with which people step into the carriage and begin their story has increased. So has the intensity with which I scrutinise other passengers. The Overground is one of the few places where I feel like a member of the public. If we could look through a pair of glasses, we might see cumulative layers of back/arse/thigh prints on the upholstery. These days, I love that I am sitting in someone else.

I was taught by an expert in literature that you should write flowingly, so that your ideas connect. But as Brexit said, we have had enough of experts, and I feel that a simple joining of the dots would not honour each of the howling mental fragments I – maybe we – daily suppress. So I am going to hold three seemingly unrelated things together, like a contradiction: our imminent exit from the European Union, the (re)emergence of immersive technology such as virtual reality, and poetry.

The promise of immersive experiences right at the moment we are facing spiritual and political crises feels (too) serendipitous, convenient and neat; the hype around it feels too much like the mistakes of the past. As the sparkle of social media wanes, and the spectres of terrorism, Nazism, fascism and economic stagnation wax, there is another star on the horizon: new realities. Not this one. I ask myself whether we could approach the subject differently, ask something else of the technology and ourselves.

The gulf between my reality and yours has become the question of our time. It’s a question that has always been asked, but post-black-blue dress/white-gold dress, and more significantly post-EU referendum, it is accompanied by a different kind of zeitgeisty alienation. Different even, from the kind caused by scrolling through the doctored simulacra of your friends’ fascinating lives. It is the thing we are currently haunted by – the ghost that once upon a time we would have called culture – a people’s shared characteristic activities. But now it’s weird to talk about anything so unifying. The story we have told ourselves, that we can make Britain great again, is beginning to feel false. Like when you show up for a party and even before you approach, you sense the venue is closed. You go back through your own thoughts. Did you suspect as much? To talk about a ghost feels fitting because it’s about the shared thing we are all losing sleep, friends, jobs and (in some cases) lives over, and the shared thing we are all losing. The ghost is uncertain. Strange. Angry and otherworldly. And doing poltergeist-y things like removing us from the European Union.

But here I am on the train. A woman gets on. ‘Hello ladies and gentlemen, I’m homeless and I’m looking–‘ She suddenly stops short. Down the carriageway a police officer is watching from beneath his helmet. ‘–For a pen,’ she says, making a scribbling motion in the air. ‘Anyone got a pen?’ Later I can hear another woman coming closer, when suddenly she says ‘Oh God, here comes preacher man. Gets on my nerves he does.’ In the time it takes for me to root some change from my pocket, another voice begins floating through the carriage. ‘Jesus is coming. Are you ready for Jesus? Are you ready to meet Jesus?’ A middle-aged Asian man, in trainers white as polo mints, a red duffel coat with a fur hood, white headphones around his neck. He stops in front of a couple whose fingers are knotted on their knees. He takes a whiff of their love. ‘Jesus is coming, so why are you waiting?’ Nearly everyone is staring into their phone, wrapped up in a world that is part candy crush, part dopamine hit, part anywhere-but-here. Even Jesus Man, theatrical as he is, holds a large Samsung Galaxy to his chest and glances down at it as he preaches.

In 1997, after a wave of failed VR technologies, Anthony Smith wrote Software of the Self, noting that ‘The moving image in its cinematic guise emerged from a fusion of two strands of technical evolution, at a point of conjunction between a theatrical tradition that yearned for verisimilitude – a technical search for ways of recording, reproducing, ‘conserving the experience of the world’ (telephone, phonograph, camera) – and the cultural desire of late romanticism to achieve intense enthralment, a by-passing of the intellect in the attempt to seize the emotions.’

We might be in a similar moment. Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Pygmalion’s Spectacles (1937), one of the first stories to elucidate the power and potential of virtual reality begins, ‘”But what is reality?” asked the gnomelike man…’ The protagonist, Dan Burke, ‘struggling for clarity of thought through fumes of liquor’, eventually agrees to try the gnome-like man’s invention. The interesting thing is how the vision is created: ‘first, my liquid positive, then my magic spectacles … I photograph the story in a liquid with light-sensitive chromates.’ There is something about this mingling of illusion and fluid. Puck’s eye drops in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lady Macbeth: ‘that which hath made them drunk hath made me bold’. The murder of Duncan means Macbeth is King; he waits in gloomy deathlessness – wholly immersed in the unlovely reality of his ambition – before finally being murdered himself. Macduff strikes in revenge. He had been watching. Smith, again, notes that the film theorist ‘Andre Bazin [thought] the whole purpose of photography was to recreate, to embalm, the perfect solution.’ Lawnmower Man (1992), shows Jobe, the social outcast who gains prodigious intelligence via VR, injecting nootropics to aid the neuroplastic effects of the machine.

But the most pertinent example is that of Robert MacFarlane, writing about the English eerie. He cites ‘A View from a Hill’ by M. R. James, a short story in which a man, Fanshawe, visits a friend who gives him a pair of unusually heavy binoculars. Through them, he is able to see things that aren’t there – a gallows on a hill, an old tower – and to experience the unpleasant re-presence of the murders that took place. The glasses, it turns out, were filled with the boiled fluid of executed men, allowing Fanshawe to look back into the past violence haunting the landscape. ‘Prospect was a form of retrospect,’ MacFarlane writes. ‘Baxter’s macabre optics revealed the skull beneath the skin of the English countryside … that form of fear that is felt first as unease, then as dread, and which is incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack.’ The fluid in all cases seems to be the true portal into the illusion. The mechanical must be yoked to the biological. Some substance or organic function that is already of us is necessary for the full immersive experience, and each story seems to grapple with those who find themselves being watched, waited out.

This kind of inscrutable surveillance, unconfirmed and undeniable, was always figured as eerie; it remains so, but the condition in which we experience it has changed. ‘What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism,’ MacFarlane notes. We are standing in the shadow of history; what might have been has changed course towards something that speaks below a certain frequency, is latent, full of dog whistles and revenge. Nobody quite knows who that revenge will be exacted upon. Nobody is sure who the enemy is, or quite who the victim is, but everybody, leave or remain, is sure it will be them. We’ve been divided (more than ever) into two arbitrary camps that, until a few years ago, bore no resemblance to reality. Now, the yellow remainers and the blue leavers find themselves in a strange, virtual game, with terrible weather and an unstable referee. There is nothing homely or reassuring about our allies because there is nothing recognisably good about the choice we have had to make. In ‘The Cricket Test’, the poet Kayo Chigonyi writes of a school cricket match in which the teams are divided whites against blacks. It is not in the blacks or whites that we find the crux of the issue, but in the division:

We lost to a one-handed catch. After the match
our changing room was a shrine to apartheid.
When I crossed the threshold, Danny asked me why
I’d stand here when I could be there, with my kind.

What’s unsettling is how easily those differences are called upon. How we are made to feel dutiful towards this difference, how it is always somehow there, how we can never know which of our friends will be tempted by it, how the pain of the loss seems stacked against us, how there is no correspondent model of reconciliation – no easy, familiar way to settle the division once it has been split. It becomes plainer everyday: whatever the problem is, Brexit (if we follow through) will not solve it, but it will create – exacerbate – the condition that, as Pankaj Mishra writes in Age of Anger, ‘nourishes in the soul a dislike of one’s own self while stoking impotent hatred of others […] whereby an individual feels acknowledged only by being preferred over others, and by rejoicing in their abjection.’

A young guy comes onto the train – about twenty, with a poppy dangling from his rucksack. ‘Sorry to bother you ladies and gentlemen. I’ve been homeless for ninety-seven days.’ He explains that he was in prison at one point and got out with nowhere to go. ‘I was selling lighters but someone stole my box of lighters. So I’m asking you for any change. I feel terrible asking. I hate myself for doing it and I’m so ashamed.’ The question of whether he is telling the truth feels like the wrong one to ask, but it’s there in everyone’s faces. Is this for real? It feels embarrassingly, luxuriously, irrelevant, but this kind of question – about the real – is what bothers me about some aspects of VR.

Žižek says ‘virtual reality’ is a rather miserable term – simply the reproduction of what we already have. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, editor at Gal Dem magazine, makes the same point: ‘We don’t need VR to care about each other’s feelings – we just need to empathise.’ Commercially, yes. There is also a lot of talk about connection, presence, and many available experiences appeal to us on a charitable level, hope that immersion might lead to generosity. But for many practitioners, I don’t think this is quite true in terms of their artistic practice. The creators of Neurospeculative Afrofeminism, for instance describe their project as ‘A love-letter to black women, their own cathedral’ and cite black women as the pioneers of optimisation (the same genius-inducing technology seen in Lawnmower Man.) This optimisation comes from necessity – having to think differently, to think cleverly, because the society you belong to (still) doesn’t quite recognise you as human. This danger is also explored in Auto, a (beautiful) 360º film about the future of driverless cars and the alienation they might engender. An Ethiopian man who has driven cars all his life is suddenly told he is only there for ‘safety’ and that the car will drive itself. Both pieces signal and long for other methods, other modes of enquiry, other lives, shaping the course of this new technology. The hope – my hope – is that we might able to adopt this technology and this form critically. In 2002, shortly after the burst of the dot.com bubble, Saskia Sassen asked for something similar in Mute Magazine: ‘There is too much talk simply about “access” to technology, there is another kind of work which needs to be done which consists of understanding how the multiplicity of localised efforts and organisation can use the new media.’ The most pressing thing is not the technology itself, but our use pattern: how we let it into our lives, how we take ownership, how we transform reality.

Though mind-bendingly interesting, the history of VR is pretty white, pretty male, pretty western, and that history – that bias – is embedded in the approaches to VR that we see today. We can point to 1929 as the beginning, with the link trainer, a flight simulator that had no visual element, but got pilots to understand flight using their minds. In the 1950s, Morton Heilig invented the Sensorama – a machine the user leaned into, that was supposed to produce smells, sounds and sights. It didn’t work out. Ivan Sutherland came next, in the 1960s, with the ‘Ultimate Display’ – he wanted to design a graphic interface through which he could not only draw directly into a computer, but view a mathematical reality.  His machine had to be suspended from a pole from the ceiling and became known as the ‘Sword of Damocles’. Sutherland imagined being able to actually improvise reality, create solid things that could be physically engaged.

By the late eighties and early nineties, the technology had advanced again: British company, Virtuality Group, built VR experiences that came in the form of a car or a kind of tiny rubberised arena you could step into (I have unreliable memories of experiencing something like this at the Trocadero in London). Ultimately, it was too expensive and shared the fate of later initiatives like the Sega VR in 1993 – which never retailed – and the Virtual Boy by Nintendo – which had no truly immersive element, could not be strapped to your head, and featured an ill-starred red and black display. But there were people like Jaron Lanier of VPL research, a VR overlord, who came up with the ‘Eye Phone’ in 1989 before there was the iPhone (though his book You are Not a Gadget backtracks on some of the more utopian ideas of the nineties.) Things kicked off again with a 2012 Kickstarter for Oculus Rift; this was later bought by Facebook for something like 2 billion USD – enriching the young founder, Palmer Lucky – and helped engender a fresh round for the technology, largely by getting rid of two of its biggest problems: latency, the lag between a person’s actions and the environment’s reactions, which made people feel sick, and expense.

But here’s what’s interesting. Palmer Lucky holds ideas of connection in one hand, while building border control technology with the other. VR is the next frontier in a brave new world in which most people in this carriage think nothing of tapping in with their debit cards, which means their journey can be followed from A to B. Most probably don’t remember the four-week trial TFL conducted in 2016, gathering data on everyone who used the new, free, Virgin wifi. Above ground, most do not know that their gmail accounts are scanned and read; that our every move is tracked across the internet; that thanks to the Investigatory Powers Act of 2017 the government now keeps a record of every page we visit for twelve months (unless, that is, you use a VPN); that we now have laws against the broadcasting and distribution of queer, kinky, female-centric pornography (porn always being the canary in the goldmine) but normative, male-centric porn is still okay; that new age verification systems will shortly be in force, run by dominant, unaccountable companies; do not realise that on December 14th this year, the US will vote on net neutrality; that if they strike it down, bigger companies will have access to ‘fast lanes’ on the internet – and this sets a dangerous precedent.

We recognise but don’t quite know what to do about the fact that it is now legal in some countries for immigration control to demand your electronics and all your passwords; we don’t quite comprehend a world where Brexit campaigners – already associated with the shadow data company Cambridge Analytica – are being investigated for fraud, much like the president of the United States.

Most of us don’t realise, as Jaron Lanier noted, that the internet has destroyed more than it has created. But even if we don’t know the precise algorithms, we have a sense of this encroachment, and of being watched, noted, judged, surveilled. The result is resentment, self-loathing hypocrisy, helplessness, exaltation of the imagined and distrust for the real. Andrew Smith again makes a pointed observation that ‘the grand project of verisimilitude is turning back upon itself. We see through images more than we see of them. We have begun to sense that the living realities are shaped by processes and conventions … remember the jury who were repeatedly made to watch the beating of Rodney King and who yet refused to convict the policemen; were they not an extreme example of new scepticism, a dethronement of the moving image, a delegitimisation of the image as evidence?’

That tape was released in 1991, but it is essentially on loop, not on VHS, but on YouTube. Maybe we are right to dethrone the moving image: the technology behind it progresses but history does not. We know all this. We’ve always known it. But what can we do?

It’s not the technology that’s a problem. It’s how we use it and how it uses us; it’s what power we have over it, and what power it has over us; whether we can admit our limitations and whether it will obey the limitations we enforce. And that’s lucky, because increasingly, this social shift seems unlikely to come from any mass movement or any mass defection from the technologies that have become embedded in our lives – as anyone who has ever faced the defensive frothing and hissing that comes from questioning Facebook will know. Moreover, the vast majority who cannot give it up never will and will hate you for the suggestion. It would be like taking away electricity. Surely by now even the universe has warmed to our street-lit planet, and reconciled itself to the fact that the very glow we emit is the same burning tail of the environmental catastrophe set to snuff us out.

This seems to be our condition. It’s hard to ignore the constant creeping concern about the world, Brexit, the tiny screen in our hands. What everything means. Why everything seems to be happening now. It’s a difficult question to answer on the Overground at 10 p.m. But you don’t always have to answer questions. You can come at them slant, play with them, turn them inside out. Indeed that might be the only way. A question isn’t always a problem as such, and many problems don’t need solutions so much as the approach of a poet – a kind of negative capability. The wider implications of VR technology are fraught, but as a form it’s fascinating; the limbo between this world and the next is Disneyland for writers, with all of the attendant questions on the real and imaginary that this comparison invokes. It’s at this formal level that things begin to open up, make some kind of sense, albeit a kind we do not like: the kind of sense poetry makes and how this is connected to the kind of methods we must consciously use if we are to understand and transform reality.

Smith writes that ‘one theoretical possibility is that virtual reality might initiate a new form of visual poetry…’ Poetry, perhaps, as Audre Lorde described it: ‘the revelation or distillation of experience’. As the world transforms around us we all swing perilously close to believing that we can help neither others nor ourselves. The tools for division are everywhere, the tools for moving past this point harder to recognise and harder to use. Lorde continues: ‘[Poetry] lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.’ And – poetry is difficult. It asks a lot of its reader and is therefore difficult to sell. Its demand that you read others, that you inhabit and understand other minds in order to better understand this one chimes with what feminist writer Sandra Harding asserts about objectivity being something we must not disregard but actually salvage and re-enforce. The way to do that is not to attempt to obliterate our social position – remainer, leaver – but to assert it more fully, to recognise that true objectivity is actually a plurality of social positions, not an absence. Isn’t this the practice that will take immersive technology – and politics – in the direction it needs to go? That will get at the thorny question of why it has failed so often, why it feels so removed from reality even as it tries to mimic it. The power, as Harding puts it, is with ‘the thinker whose consciousness is bifurcated, the outsider within, the marginal person now located at the centre, the person who is committed to two agendas that are by their nature at least partially in conflict…’

A poet gets on board. If things had gone differently we might still have been on this train together, but as friends coming back from a gig. Or I might be up there with him. He recites his poem – it’s barely audible – then thanks us and asks for change saying, ‘It’s nice to be nice.’ His demeanour is different from the first time I saw him a few months ago. Like Preacher Man he is looking people straight in the face. ‘Do you have a pound?’ No, sorry. ‘But you’re not sorry, are you?’ Up and down the carriage, like that, in his long coat, not giving a shit. ‘Are you sorry or are you just trying to get rid of me?’

Most visions of the future involve devices designed to show us films, point out a good cafe, give us an incredible experience. I wonder if there will be anything for a guy like the poet. I imagine he’d like a headset showing the bank balances of everyone in the carriage. Or, on the flip side, an immersive experience that takes seriously something Lorde urged us all to do: ‘to reach down into that deep place of knowledge … and touch the terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears.’

I wonder whether there will be an immersive experience that makes you something you do not wish to be. Maybe we already have it. Immersion that makes you permanently sick and scared of death, or bedridden, or the foster kid in a school of pitiless parented children. The kind of immersion where you can’t take the headset off. Endurance art. Immersion that alienates, angers and haunts us, and then forces us to cross the bridge of fears. Immersion that doesn’t give you advanced neurotypical intelligence but makes you dyslexic and deaf and autistic, that makes you invent the tools of reconciliation before the tools of war. Immersion that gives you the strength to watch people feeling through the coins in their pocket, so that as we come to their stop and they get up to leave, they don’t give something too valuable, like a pound.

Jay Bernard