We’re Virtually There: Ethics and Digital Technology in the Coming Years

Rami el Ali, assistant professor of Philosophy and director of the Lebanese American University’s (LAU) philosophy program, is pointing out opportunities, risks and ethical questions behind virtual reality. Leading to the questions about the debate in the Arab world.

Video Games have become a lucrative business, a smart career choice, and a form of art. But for many, it remains hard to shake off an early impression of the technology. Video games are at best entertainment, and at worst a menace, so the thought went in the ’70’s. In the ’80s, children were warned that video games were an idle indulgence, and many young people at the time just did not find them “cool.” Things changed in the ’90’s when Sony’s PlayStation gained the attention of many previously dismissive consumers. The decades that followed have seen a steady rise in the popularity of video games among consumers, businesses, and academics. Today video games are so well entrenched in culture (just think about Minecraft or Roblox) that it is hard to recall their rough beginnings. Despite these changes, it is not clear that the original objection to video games   that they are a waste of time, a menace, or an indulgence   has been altogether disarmed. Constrained to the digital screen and mostly occurring in fictional contexts, video games remain a diversion, even if a particularly successful one.

I think that in the coming years, this original impression will undergo a massive upheaval. In the 21st century, we will see that video games, far from being a mere diversion, were the seeds and training grounds for something much bigger. Their initially circumscribed reality will expand up to the point of engulfing almost every domain of human life. Not because everything will become a game, but because the virtual worlds and acts that have largely been constrained to video games will become the worlds and acts of everyday life. It is an open question whether society at large will be ready for this upheaval. Much of this turns on taking the issue seriously enough, and part of my aim here is to convince you that this should be taken seriously. Only in this way can we begin raising social awareness, implementing appropriate legislation, and thinking about the many dangers and opportunities the future will provide.

A good starting point for thinking about our digital future is a recent philosophical puzzle. In 2009, Morgan Luck presented a dilemma for video game enthusiasts, “the gamer’s dilemma.” Luck pointed out that in video games involving a single human player, gamers regularly commit acts of virtual murder   acts which would have been considered murder had they been performed in a real rather than a virtual environment   and take these to be morally permissible. Plausibly, this is because unlike actual murder, no one is harmed in performing such virtual acts. Their only “victims” are characters controlled by artificial intelligence (AI), and those are not subject to moral consideration. What Luck points out is that this justification   that there are no victims   equally applies to virtual acts we are less inclined to accept. Specifically, consider a hypothetical videogame that allowed virtual child molestation. Like virtual murder, virtual child molestation is victimless. But unlike virtual murder, we are not inclined to think the act morally permissible. Intuitively, the gamer performing virtual killings is not doing something wrong, but the gamer performing virtual child molestation is. Hence the dilemma: if there are no morally relevant differences in performing virtual murder and virtual child molestation, then on pain of inconsistency, gamers must either reject acts of virtual murder as morally impermissible, or accept acts of virtual child molestation as morally permissible. Neither is a happy outcome.

Whatever one thinks of the argument or its conclusion, one thing that should catch our attention is the dilemma’s focus on the moral evaluation of virtual rather than “real” acts. What are virtual acts? Consider a particular virtual act, say virtually jumping. To perform a virtual jump, I (the player) press a button on my game controller. By doing this, I cause my in game avatar to jump. My avatar performs an act of jumping in its world, and I perform an act of button pressing in mine. Where is the virtual jump? The virtual jump, and more generally, the virtual act, is an act that bridges these two contexts. I perform a virtual jump when, in the “real” world, I act in such a way as to make my in game avatar jump in their world.

            It is hard to motivate interest in the gamer’s dilemma, and take seriously the idea of virtual acts having moral status, if video games are just a way of passing time. The focus of the dilemma seems at best marginal in the moral world. But this impression couldn’t be more mistaken. Virtual acts are a new type of act, and a type of act that we should expect to see more and more of in the near future. To see why, let’s turn to a brief picture of our technological present.

            One of the new emerging technologies expected to have a widespread impact on everyday human life is virtual reality technology. Early forms of this technology have started becoming available to consumers in devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Oculus Go, and Google Daydream. Upon using a device, users experience a virtual reality (henceforth, VR). It is not easy to describe VR without first hand experience, but two images help. One is that VR is like entering a TV. If you found yourself inside a TV show, seeing, hearing, and interacting with its world, this would be something like the experience of VR. Another image comes from the long running series, Dr. Who. Dr. Who uses a narrow, phonebooth shaped, spaceship. On entering the booth, visitors are typically surprised at the spacious surroundings, leading them to exclaim, “It’s bigger on the inside!” Something similarly surprising is true of VR. Current devices occupy a small corner of a room. Users wear a headset that looks as restrictive as blindfolds, and heavier. But rather than resulting in a claustrophobic experience, the person in VR experiences herself as being in virtual spaces that can far exceed the physical dimensions of the surrounding room. In a small room, one can experience being in a jungle at sunset, with sun and cloudy skies on the distant horizon. This virtual space is perceptible, manipulatable, and indefinitely expansive, all while fitting into a limited physical space. Moreover, it is a space that can be private to its user, it can be occupied alone, or with AI powered substitutes in place of others.

Nor is VR technology constrained to the world inside the headset, a purely virtual world separate from the “real” world. With head mounted augmented reality devices, which we should expect to see in the coming five years, virtual items can be superimposed on our real surroundings (for some good demonstrations, see Leap Motion’s YouTube channel). At this technology’s limit, augmented reality glasses or even lenses can allow users to see two cups side by side   one ‘real’, the other virtual   without being able to tell the difference. Maybe touching the cup will help, but this is not guaranteed. Today there are active research programs focused on extending movement, touch, and smell to VR, because everyone wants to feel more of these new virtual worlds. These projects are not only seeking to bring the “real” world into the virtual world, but also taking the virtual world out into the “real” world (of the latter, a good example is the Nintendo Labo).

            The possibilities for using VR are vast, and alarming. Recently, news reports have projected that VR technology will be increasingly central to medicine, governance, business, military, education, sports, architecture, design, art, robotics, pornography, psychology, philosophy, and entertainment, amongst others.[1] A recent article titled, “Virtual Reality Experts Warn of Oncoming “Moral Panic’” warns that along with its many uses, VR will bring diverse risks, including new forms of sexual infidelity, psychological depersonalization, manipulation, and torture.[2]

            The projected social impact of virtual reality should reframe the significance of thinking about virtual acts. It may be easy to dismiss virtual acts when they are only animation on a screen. But as the dilemma shows, this is not always the case. And if we add to this that the act is now performed in a virtual context, when the virtual context surrounds you, and is of significance, it will be even less clear that being “merely virtual” matters. I may have only pressed a button, but a button press can lead to a lot, like the launch of a real missile. Is it “only virtual” if walking down the street you are startled by an AI controlled character, shaped like a human, falling to its virtual death on the “real” street? Presumably the urgency of shielding your child’s eyes in this situation would exceed the urgency felt when viewing a similar image on a TV screen. Will you really have to do that? Maybe. Virtual and augmented reality will provide many new ways of doing things, and many of these are going to become as indispensable as the functions of a smartphone or the internet. Most probably, the headset will contain your phone, and be your primary access to the internet. In the near future, you may not want your child to leave the house without their headset.

            Of course in one way this is nothing new. We live in a public world, where other people’s actions can intrude on our private worlds. We sometimes hear the neighbors, even at home. Now we might also catch glimpses of their virtual worlds, and the virtual acts they perform. But note the difference: ordinary acts have a circumscribed moral, social, and legal status. Virtual acts, by contrast, are on much murkier grounds because of how different they can be from “real world” acts. Virtual items are not constrained by real world physics in the way normal items are, and the same is true of virtual acts. What should our stance be towards someone embodying a human skeleton for an avatar in public? Or what should we think of a neighbor who keeps a virtual harem at home? Should we allow VR for children’s education? Will it be okay to make them witness virtually reconstructed scenarios from say, WWII or the war in Syria, to get a better sense of why we should avoid violence? What about religious education that involves witnessing virtually reconstructed scenes from the holy books?

            The point is not to raise alarm. The point is that if we begin by thinking about virtual acts and their significance today, we may be in a position to reap the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of a new world. It’s easy to let fear obscure the incredible achievements that will be possible with VR. Anyone who has watched educational tutorials in VR, or witnessed first hand the possible emotional and empathic impact of VR art, will have a sense of how much more this technology enables. I have observed hypothetical four dimensional objects, been to the moon and back with Apollo 11, admired different parts of Nefertari’s tomb, and embodied a black sanitation worker in the 1968 worker’s strike preceding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all in VR. But like any impactful tool, everything turns on handling it the right way. Just as VR can provide widespread, hands on education to millions for free, it can also create an inequality gap where the richest and the poorest can literally occupy different worlds.

            Today, in the Middle East, we have had minimal interaction with VR. There is little public awareness of the technology's presence, and no Arabic VR content to speak of. And this should be surprising, on many different levels. First, there are many social issues here that could benefit from VR's capacity to produce empathic experiences. For instance, women are wronged on a regular basis, and just one VR film captured from a woman's perspective as she walks down an Egyptian, Saudi, or Lebanese street can go a long way towards showing what exactly is so problematic in the way men here comport themselves. Similarly, a single VR film that showed you the insides of a Christian and a Muslim household in Lebanon would do much to undermine the imagined differences produced by the sectarian system. And finally, a well made VR experience of the Israeli Palestinian border would do much to reveal the facts as they are, whatever they are.

Second, there is much content that only we are in a position to produce. Consider the long heritage of Arabic poetry, food, calligraphy or Islamic architecture. Any of these can be rendered in the first person perspective using VR. And each would not only help the person here connect to and better understand times past in this region, but also help those outside understand where we are coming from. In some cases, these might also be a way of preserving what will otherwise be lost, and much is being lost, for instance, in Syria and Yemen.

Third, there are many challenges Arabs face along with everyone else on earth. Today the whole planet is in danger because of global warming, poor recycling practices, and obsessive consumerism. Many people in the region remain unaware of how pressing these issues are. And it's no wonder. The majority of online content is not in Arabic, and the majority of Arabic content, like all internet content, is not focused. How beneficial would it be to witness first hand the current destruction of our planet, and be shown first hand the small actions we can take to alleviate this?

            Let’s end with one last analogy. Most, if not all of us, know that we can change the background wallpaper on a personal computer. But imagine we didn’t. Until now, humanity has been in this position. The material world around us has been assumed to be the default and only condition for human society. Right now we are on the verge of discovering that the background world can be anything we like, provided we can imagine it, and code it. Playing games in virtual contexts was a first step, but the journey has only just begun. And because the value of things depends on us, which designs we keep and cast off is also determined by us.

[1] A helpful place to start is https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual reality applications/ but google will also present plenty of search results.

[2] See https://www.techworld.com/apps wearables/virtual reality experts warn of oncoming moral panic 3659331/