It is certainly true that advancements in technology are often accompanied by a host of possibilities and dangers, along with serious ethical considerations. Unfortunately, our ability to cope with ethical questions tends to lag behind commercial uses of these same technologies. Darvasi writes, “technology is advancing faster than legal systems and legislation can keep up, and pervasive VR use will only widen the gap” (np). And so, it was with some sense of horror that I read about the virtual reality experience of 9/11, as well as the immersive experience of pigs in a factory farm in the Bailenson et al. piece. Though it’s easy to dismiss such worries as akin to those of the poor old-fashioned people who believed that television would mark the end of outdoor play for good, my real concern is that we will end up exposing young people to immersive situations that they are not prepared to handle, and we will do it without any sense of the possible long-term physical and psychological effects. As any parent who has struggled to navigate YouTube with a four-year-old can attest, our children encounter images, sounds, and experiences that they are not prepared to handle far younger than my generation did (and I swear that I’m not that old, despite how I sound in this post). It is hard for me to imagine how it might be helpful for someone to experience the horror of 9/11 from a first-person perspective. Surely we can feel empathy without that experience, without gamifying it, without turning it into a spectacle? Must I experience the holocaust from a first-person perspective in order to understand the magnitude of that horror or was it enough that, as a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse of an old photograph of human bones at Auschwitz, and then learned more when I was older and more prepared to process the information. Darvasi addresses these concerns when he writes that parents must be “involved, mindful and informed of their children’s media use, encouraging critical thinking and frequently dialoguing about their experiences” (n.p.). Of course, I agree, but what of those unwatched moments that happen to even the most attentive of parents? Images, once consumed, cannot be unseen and their impact can be enormous and long-lasting.
Being able to immerse yourself in a first-”person” experience of pigs at a factory farm, while I happen to agree with the angle taken on that particular social justice issue, rings alarm bells for me. Last week, a Texas senator put forth legislation to deny abortions to all women in that state, including rape and incest victims. He believes that women should be more responsible when it comes to sex, claiming that he is adamantly “pro-life”. What would that Texas senator think of the potential for a VR first-person experience of the unborn child? Would that experience be in any way objective? Could it be? Or are we into some dangerous territory in terms of – as Darvasi calls it – engineering our emotions?
As usual, there were so many interesting ideas to process from this week’s readings. In addition to my concerns outlined above, I am excited about many of the possibilities indicated by developments in VR research. I also hope that we get a chance to discuss questions around what is real in relation to the notion of “the illusion of embodiment” and I hope we can talk about how so many of the ideas, especially for DTP, in the Dede article struck me as simply facilitating what is already good teaching. In some ways, for example, teaching science through a sophisticated and multifaceted computer program still threatens to take away from the messiness and joys of real-world experiences. I’d also like to address what struck me as a very important idea expressed by Dede, that “anybody can appear gifted in some contexts and disabled in others, depending on the particular skills to be learned and the instructional methods and media to which they have access” (Dede, pg. 20).