Infinite Reality: A book review by Bob Morris

Infinite RealityInfinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives
Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson
William Morrow/An Imprint of HaroerCollins (2011)

How and why virtual reality is changing human nature, societies and cultures as we know them…for better or worse

According to Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, “The brain often fails to differentiate between virtual experiences and real ones. The patterns of neurons that fire when one watches a three-dimensional digital re-creation of a supermodel, such as Giselle or Fabio, are very similar — if not identical — to those who fire in the actual presence of models.” I am immediately reminded of several films during which the differences between what is virtual and what is real seem (key word) insignificant, if at all. This suggested in films such as Wag the Dog, for example, as well as The Truman Show and Avatar. Blascovich and Bailenson suggest that “the brain doesn’t much care if an experience is real or virtual; however, there is a “hidden blueprint” of our virtual lives that we need to recognize and understand and “there are consequences to people occupying idealized digital world” just as there are consequences for others that do not.

I agree with them that virtual reality and what may well be perhaps (just perhaps) a virtual perspective on virtual reality can change human nature, societies, and cultures as we once knew them. “Disruptive as it may seem, the shift to an ever more virtual world — of which the Internet was only one step — may be something close to inevitable, given how humans are wired neurophysiologically. Driven by imaginations that have long sought to defy the sensory and physical constraints of physical reality, humans continuously search for new varieties and modes of existence, only this timer we’re doing it via the supposedly cold machinery of digital space.”

In this book, Blascovich and Bailenson provide a wealth of information, insights, and counsel that can help their reader gain a better understanding of what all this means in terms of the nature and extent of causes, impact, and implication. These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of their coverage.

o The Principle of “Psychological Reality” (Pages 15-18)
o Afterlife: The Ultimate Destination (22-23)
o 11 “Exhibits” of Communication Technologies (24-35)
o The Virtual Pit (38-42)
o Seeing Is Believing (50-53)
o Of Agents and Avatars (59-64)
o Sleight of Hand: A General Theory of Virtual Behavior (71-82)
o The Hidden Pressures of Conformity, and Social Inhibition (88-92)
o The Self-Perception Effect (98-102)
o Virtual Doppelgängers (114-119)
o Bending Distance (135-137)
o Infinite Replicability (151-153)
o Digital “Footprints” (154-159)
o Virtual-Reality Addictions (183-190)
o MILITARY: Flight Simulators, Recruitment, Cultural Boot Camp, and Virtual Baghdad (211-218)
o The Future of Social Institutions (254-255)

Here are Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson’s concluding observations: “In sum, the brain has evolved to respond to avatars in very human ways, but avatars can be ‘more human than human.’ Is this a no-win situation? Certainly as virtual reality becomes ubiquitous, there will be winners and losers. Avatars, like any dual-use technology, will be used for good or evil. Society has always adjusted to new technology. How the world turns as avatars become more and more integrated into our daily lives will continue to fascinate us.”

After first reading this book, I took some time out and reflected on what had interested me most. My tentative conclusion was later confirmed by a second reading: the nature and extent of an avatar’s simulation are determined almost entirely by the nature and extent of what the human mind perceives, including interaction with an avatar. That is an advantage for the human race that can be — on occasion — compromised but never replaced.

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