The Politics of Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality

The Politics of Virtual Reality

With inexpensive immersive media about to hit the market, we need to ask: How will they affect us? And can they be put to good use?

July 12, 2015

This article appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

In March 2014, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg paid $2 billion to acquire a tiny, two-year-old Silicon Valley start-up called Oculus. The company has one major product: the Rift, a virtual reality headset the size of a pair of ski goggles. Like all such headsets, the Rift covers the eyes and, with the aid of earphones, generates sounds and images that users perceive as three-dimensional and concrete, as if they were reality. What makes the Rift special is its size. Earlier headsets were as big as brass diving helmets. They had to be worn in special rooms where they could be tethered by heavy cables to banks of computers. The Rift, which is about to enter the mass market, promises to be the equivalent of an individual scuba tank. Wearing it, users should soon be able to swim freely through formerly two-dimensional media in the comfort of their own homes.

Readers of a certain age could be forgiven for thinking that Oculus has simply been hawking the latest in 3D glasses. But the Zuckerbergs of America’s media industries are betting that a new medium is coming into being. In the year since Facebook bought Oculus, Silicon Valley and Hollywood have become obsessed with the potential of virtual reality and its sibling, augmented reality. Samsung and Sony are developing their own virtual reality systems, each designed to fully immerse users in a digitally generated media environment. Google has sought to help users augment their experience of the web by promulgating design specs for something called Google Cardboard, a cluster of lenses, magnets, and digital tags that can be mounted on a sheet of cardboard and laid over a cell phone to produce an illusion of three-dimensional imagery. And Microsoft is seeking to help users augment their everyday reality by promoting the company’s new HoloLens, a wearable computer that allows you to see the world and at the same time, to see and work with computer-generated holograms that appear to exist within it.

These new devices have triggered a quiet gold rush among media makers. In southern California, as well as New York and London, a slew of design shops, film studios, and advertising agencies are scrambling to figure out how to take advantage of these new devices. How, they wonder, can they script stories in media that audiences experience with all their senses simultaneously? Can they repurpose expressive techniques honed for generations in the cinema, the press, or even classroom teaching? Or do they need to invent something new? And how can they profit from the ability of immersive media to cut viewers’ senses off from the rest of the world, if only temporarily?

No one has quite figured out the answers to these questions, but most everyone seems to agree with Dave Smith, a reporter for Business Insider: “Virtual reality is going to be huge. Monumental. It’s going to change the way we live.”

If Smith is even a little bit right, we’re going to need to find some new ways to think about how media and politics interact. To date, most approaches to the issue derive from the century-old insights of Walter Lippmann. In 1922, reacting in part to the role of the media in World War I propaganda, Lippmann had become increasingly afraid for American democracy. Media, wrote Lippmann, put “pictures in our heads.” These pictures become all we know of the world beyond what we see in person, with our own eyes, or touch with our own fingers. They provide the grounds on which we decide whom to vote for, and more generally, what kinds of issues and people we see as important. In Lippmann’s view, those who have the power to paint and circulate the pictures, and to exclude alternative worldviews, also have an unlegislated power to shape our politics.

Lippmann built his critique around one-to-many broadcast media such as radio and two-dimensional representational media such as newspapers and film. In that technological context, his emphasis on the transmission of pictures into our heads made sense. But virtual and augmented reality do much more than simply send pictures. In the case of virtual reality, they promise to build whole worlds. In the case of augmented reality, they aim to integrate our encounters with mediated and material objects into a single experience. As the marketers of Microsoft’s HoloLens optimistically explain, “Holograms mixed with your real world will unlock all-new ways to create, communicate, work, and play.” As advertisers and a handful of academics already know, and as political leaders may soon find out, they will also unlock new ways to persuade.

As the Oculus Rift and other devices come to market, we need to ask what it might mean to not simply see pictures in our heads, but to feel them, to live with and within them, moment by moment. Some of the more predictable answers have already begun to emerge. The military is busily simulating combat; the NFL has begun modeling gameplay; and many people are surely developing immersive pornography. But these particular uses still leave us with a general question: What will become of our abilities to know the world beyond the enclosures of immersive media? And how might the ways we interact with these new media technologies change the way we imagine and practice democracy?

Back to the Future

Some might argue that we already live in a world so suffused with electronic media that putting on a headset and immersing ourselves in virtual reality will make little difference to our civic imaginations. But an influential and long-forgotten generation of anthropologists, psychologists, and artists would almost certainly disagree. For all the claims to epochal novelty that surround virtual reality today, Americans have wrestled with the fear of immersive media before. At the start of World War II, many of America’s leading thinkers believed that mass media had the ability to submerge individual minds in a collective fantasy and so had helped pave the way for fascism. Together with a small group of refugee Bauhaus artists, some went on to design alternative, multimedia environments explicitly aimed at instilling a democratic sensibility in their audiences. Those “democratic surrounds,” as I’ve called them in a recent book, ultimately shaped both America’s Cold War propaganda efforts and the efflorescence of “happenings” and “be-ins” in the 1960s. Today, as we rush headlong toward digital immersion, the debates that shaped those surrounds remind us of the political stakes not only of the pictures our media show us, but of the ways our eyes and ears and bodies encounter them.

To see how, we need to wind back the clock to a moment just before the fighting in Europe began in 1939. To American intellectuals who had long admired German high culture, the rise of Adolf Hitler posed a problem: How was it that one of the most intellectually and culturally sophisticated nations in Europe had fallen under the sway of a short, mustachioed former clerk? From our own time, it might seem easy to see how the chaos of the Weimar Republic could have generated a craving for order, or how the Treaty of Versailles could have sparked cries for national revenge. But in the 1930s, many Americans pinned Hitler’s success on his mastery of the mass media. As a writer for The New York Times put it in 1933, German citizens had lost their ability to think for themselves: “With coordinated newspaper headlines overpowering him, with radio voices beseeching him, with news reels and feature pictures arousing him … the individual German has been unable to salvage his identity and has been engulfed in a brown wave.”

For many critics, it was the one-to-many nature of the media technologies in use that drowned the individual. Such technologies enabled a leader such as Hitler to broadcast a single message to all the members of German society and control the pictures in their heads. Mass media also seemed to have a distinct psychological effect, subverting the reason and stirring up the recently discovered Freudian unconscious. In short, mass media threatened to erase the ability to think for oneself on which democracy depends.

AP Photo

Poet Carl Sandburg, left, and Lieutenant Commander Edward Steichen, director of U.S. Naval Combat Photography during World War II, talk over a model at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City on May 13, 1942, where they are arranging the huge exhibition entitled "Road to Victory."

As the fighting in Europe got under way, the power of mass media presented American intellectuals and policy-makers with a challenge. German morale seemed extraordinarily high, thanks in large part to mass propaganda that had turned the Germans into unthinking, goose-stepping automata. How could Americans help build American morale without turning their fellow citizens into fascists at the same time?

In the summer of 1940, 60 of America’s leading social scientists came together in New York as the Committee for National Morale in order to answer this question. Their members included anthropologists Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson, psychologists Gordon Allport and Kurt Lewin, and then-prominent journalists Edmund Taylor and Ladislas Farago. Though largely forgotten today, the committee was extremely influential in the first years of the war. Between 1940 and 1942, committee members advised President Franklin D. Roosevelt on questions of morale, published reports on German propaganda strategy, and wrote widely on related issues for the popular press.

Two ideas drove the committee’s work. The anthropologists Benedict and Mead believed that individual personalities reflected the cultures in which they came of age and that every culture had a modal personality type. Allport, Lewin, and the other psychologists emphasized that individual personalities could and did change over time through the influence of the family in childhood and other interactions and institutions over a lifetime. Though commonplace today, their view stood in stark contrast to Nazi race theory (and for that matter, American racism), which stressed the inability of individuals to escape their biological inheritance.

On the committee, psychological and anthropological approaches to personality and culture came together to produce a plan for a new media genre, the democratic surround. If America was to remain a free, democratic nation, its citizens would need to have free, democratic personalities. They would need to be psychologically whole, able to move and reason freely, and able to collaborate voluntarily. To figures such as Allport and Mead, the one-to-many structures of mass media were uniquely well-suited to producing the authoritarian personality that seemed to have emerged in Germany. To build morale appropriate to a democracy, they reasoned, America would need forms of media that promoted individual choice, tolerance of diversity, psychological independence, and at the same time an appreciation for the unity of American society.

For Mead and her colleagues, museums could be ideal venues for such work. In the movies and listening to the radio, spectators spend time “learning passivity,” wrote Mead. But in a museum, they could take charge of their own interactions with the images and sounds around them. In 1941, the committee urged the Museum of Modern Art in New York to create an exhibition to promote democratic morale. Though MOMA never followed through on the committee’s proposal, it did mount such a show a year later, with one of the most successful propaganda exhibitions of the war, “Road to Victory.”

Designed by photographer Edward Steichen and Bauhaus refugee Herbert Bayer, “Road to Victory” presented visitors with a pathway that wound through a series of images—of the American landscape, of ordinary citizens, of the attack on Pearl Harbor—until at the end they arrived at a wall-sized mural of marching American troops punctuated by large, pull-out portraits of individual citizens. Although the pictures were not new, the design of the show was. In a traditional exhibition, viewers would likely have entered an open, square room, to find identically sized photographs mounted in sequence at eye level. In “Road to Victory,” they found images towering over their heads, tucked down by their feet, colliding with one another at strange angles. There was no white-walled gallery to be seen, only a twisting pathway through a world of pictures.

Ten thousand people a week made their way down that path across the summer of 1942. According to newspaper reviewers, what excited them most was the show’s design. As they moved from image to image, looking high, looking low, clustering for a moment where two images met, pausing in a gap between pictures, audiences could experience themselves as independent individuals, choosing where to put their attention, making meaning of the world around them in their own terms. As one critic put it, the exhibition did not “mold” visitors’ opinions, “for that word smacks of the Fascist concept of dominating men’s minds.”               

The show’s design felt so liberating to artists and designers of that era that it went on to become a model for some of the most influential exhibitions and performances of the next several decades. In 1955, Steichen borrowed many of its key features for “The Family of Man,” an exhibition of 500 images aimed at revealing the commonality of human experience that almost certainly remains the most widely seen photography exhibition of all time. In the 1960s, Bayer and Steichen’s design principles also set the stage for happenings and be-ins, immersive performances and gatherings that defined the 1960s counterculture.

Yet “Road to Victory” was hardly a wide-open aesthetic space. Steichen had carefully selected every image in the show. Visitors could surround themselves with that reality and they could feel as though they were in charge of their experiences—but were they?

AP Photo/Eric Risberg

In this March 26, 2015 photo, a woman demonstrates the Oculus virtual reality headset at the Facebook F8 Developers Conference in San Francisco. 

The Politics of Immersion Today

This question hints at some new ways we might think about immersive media today. Though no self-respecting contemporary scholar would still argue that a single personality type defines American culture, few would disagree that media shape our lives and our ability to act as democratic citizens. Lippmann is still right: The media do put pictures in our heads and we still make political decisions based on those pictures. And as Mead and her circle intuited, our interactions with media as audiences influence our interactions with each other as citizens.

If we wanted to ascertain the democratic potential of today’s immersive media, we might ask something like this: What patterns of interaction—with images and sounds, and with other people—do they promote? In virtual reality, the answer would certainly frighten Margaret Mead. In its contemporary configuration, the Oculus Rift creates a completely closed semiotic environment. It is a roller-coaster ride, a completely consuming eye-ear-mind-body experience. For the moment, it is also one that viewers generally have alone. Zuckerberg and his team at Facebook believe that virtual reality technologies will soon make it possible for many people to enter a single virtual reality space and interact. And so they might. But for now, Rift users find themselves isolated in private worlds. So far at least, in virtual reality it remains impossible to be wholly individuated and at the same time, wholly collaborative with others.

Even after collaboration becomes possible, virtual reality worlds may suffer from a degree of closure that the designers of mid-century democratic surrounds would have abjured. Surrealists, Russian Constructivists, and fascists all designed multimedia environments that aimed to melt away the individuality of viewers. To that end, their multimedia environments tended to stress continuous, uninterrupted imagery, often of faceless crowds or abstract forms. In contrast, for Bayer and Steichen and those who took up the democratic surround thereafter, it was up to the audience to put the different pieces of the expressive puzzle together. By doing so, they could put themselves together, and experience a kind of democratic self-realization in the process.

Today, however, immersive media makers who want to promote a democratic sensibility are embracing the all-encompassing nature of the new technologies. Where analysts of the 1940s feared mass media’s ability to overpower reason, an emerging generation of scholars, journalists, and technologists are working to turn that power toward the creation of empathy. Jeremy Bailenson, a professor at Stanford University (and my colleague), began exploring this issue a decade ago in his Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory. Over the years, he has enabled viewers to look into virtual mirrors and to see themselves reflected as members of races, ages, and physical abilities other than their own. In each case, his work has shown that virtual reality’s power to surround and trick the senses allows users to identify with others unlike themselves strongly enough to change their beliefs and behavior, at least in the short run and potentially longer.

In 2012, journalist Nonny de la Peña put that same principle to work in an early and widely acclaimed example of immersive journalism called “Hunger in Los Angeles.” First, she recorded the sounds of impoverished Angelenos waiting on a sidewalk to be admitted to a food bank. Then, she married that soundtrack to a virtual reality simulation of the scene and invited viewers to experience both together. Not long after, Bailenson teamed up with journalist Barbara Allen to build a virtual reality simulation of Hurricane Katrina in which users found themselves on a rooftop while the wind howled and the floodwaters rose around them. Recently, the United Nations worked with filmmaker Chris Milk to take this process one step further. In September 2014, Milk and his team traveled to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, where they met a 12-year-old girl named Sidra and filmed her on her daily rounds with a 360-degree camera system. The result is an affecting piece of three-dimensional storytelling in which the viewer is surrounded not by digital avatars, but by photographic images of people—the kinds of pictures and people we’re used to seeing on the TV news and so already recognize as “real.”

Milk has called virtual reality an “empathy machine,” and he may be right. Such claims have been made before at the birth of other media, especially documentary photography, and they have rarely panned out. Even so, if Milk is right, immersive media may become tools for re-humanizing the media landscape.

New Bottles, Old Thirsts

Immersive media may also dramatically amplify the power of corporations and their brands. In mid-century America, anti-authoritarian surrounds encouraged audiences to become democratic individuals in terms that were consonant with American expansionism and the rise of consumer culture. Today, digital technologies and international conglomerates work together at a global scale that mid-century social scientists could hardly have imagined. As media scholar Henry Jenkins has pointed out, ours is an era of multi-platform storytelling. For that reason, media conglomerates tend not to think of immersive media as sites of stand-alone experience.

Many firms are already working to integrate immersion into multi-platform media strategies and so to tighten the ties between immersion and consumption. The French advertising giant Havas, for instance, has developed a multi-platform advertising campaign for the beer brand Dos Equis. In 2007, they created a tongue-in-cheek character called “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” a silver-haired, globetrotting Don Juan, to promote their beer to young males. They told stories about The Man online, created the usual 30-second TV spots, and every year, around Halloween, staged a massive party at which invited customers could meet an actor playing The Man in his native environment. In January of this year, Havas brought 21 early Oculus Rift headsets to bars around America. From there, individual drinkers of Dos Equis could enter a fantastic party hosted by The Most Interesting Man and peopled by acrobats, medicine men, and a variety of other characters. Among all of these playful beings, and thanks to the Oculus Rift and the graciousness of The Man himself, the Dos Equis drinkers were the guests of honor.

In the Dos Equis case, the virtual environment is not only all-encompassing and so, in mid-century terms at least, potentially anti-democratic. It is also a sort of one-way mirror. At the party, the visitor sees his own, aggrandized reflection amid other guests. But behind the images, only partially visible to him, the executives of Dos Equis and Havas are struggling mightily to monitor and monetize his desires. In the world of commercial multi-platform storytelling, and for that matter, in for-profit social media, return on investment is king.

Here we’ve arrived at a problem that neither the makers of mid-century surrounds nor the marketers of virtual and augmented reality have ever acknowledged. Media that offer no respite between images and no access to the world beyond the images, however temporarily, may encourage audiences to submit themselves to an overwhelming experience. And such submission in and of itself is rarely good for democracy, as Mead and the Committee for National Morale well knew. But at the same time, the political and economic context of immersion matters enormously. The same technology that we might use to fight racism can just as easily help a beer company fight global thirst. And it can potentially undertake both missions more effectively thanks to corporate integration, media interlinking, and multi-platform storytelling.

What, then, might make an immersive medium democratic? For the mid-century designers of democratic surrounds, the answer lay in creating an open, interactive framework within which to stage our encounters with media and each other. In their view, no medium should so suffuse the senses as to disable the individual reason. Audiences should always be free to move their bodies, to gather and disperse, to identify with or ignore whatever images they saw.

By these criteria, we should celebrate augmented reality and hope virtual reality improves. For all its portability, the Oculus Rift does not so much let us be individuals together as it lets us be “alone together,” in Sherry Turkle’s potent phrase. Zuckerberg and many others are betting that we will soon enter shared spaces in virtual reality. If we do, perhaps immersion will promote a democratic sensibility in a way that Mead and her colleagues might have recognized.

Even then, however, the democratic potential of immersive media will still face a threat from the same forces that threaten mass and social media today: large corporations, militarized states, and the needs of the technology firms that increasingly serve them. In many cases, to enter virtual reality will no doubt soon be to enter something closer to a mall than an agora. And who will provide the holograms that will augment our daily lives? Content providers are already racing to find out. What’s perhaps worse is the fact that like all digital technologies, virtual and augmented reality generate reams of data—in fact, they have to track your movements minutely in order to provide the illusion of immersion. The data they generate will be as personal as the way we sit and walk, as intimate and local as our living rooms. States and corporations will certainly pay dearly for that information.

The question of whether or not immersion itself models anti-democratic ways of interaction remains open. But the campaign to use immersive media to make us feel more at home in closely monitored, thoroughly commercialized environments is already under way. If immersive media are to truly serve democratic ends, we will need to confront not only the new psychological power of virtual environments, but the persistent political and economic powers of the world outside the headset.  

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