To Disappear in Dreams

An article in Wired says: The future of virtual reality is far more than just video games. Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?

and quotes John Carmack,  Doom co-creator and the former CTO of Oculus:

People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.

Actually, I doubt that there is any kind of tech-industry-wide conspiracy to cool the people out and keep them from revolting by enmeshing them into virtual worlds…mostly, this is just about making money and doing cool technical stuff…on the supply side that is.  On the demand site, it should be of more than a little concern that escapism is so important to so many.

I’m reminded of some of the reactions when the movie Avatar came out.  CNN reported at the time:

James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.

According to the article, there were more than 1000 posts to a forum for people trying to cope from the depression they experienced after seeing this film..and not being able to stay within it permanantly.

Neptunus Lex responded: “Some folks don’t get the point. You have to come home when it’s over.”

But we seem to have an increasing number of people who don’t want to come home when it’s over…who don’t want it to ever be over…but want to stay in that virtual world permanently.

And, relatedly, there is also pharmaceutical-based escapism, legal or illegal.  Various forms of addiction, already at concerning levels, have risen considerably over the last year.  And, apparently, it has long been true that considerable numbers of people find an ordinary trip on an ordinary commercial airliner to be so stressful that they medicate themselves beforehand.

In my 2010 post on the Avatar reactions, I said:

I immediately thought of the old Chinese opium dens…which were largely inhabited by people whose lives were so miserable that their desire to disappear in dreams was entirely understandable.

But what misery or bleakness are the would-be permanant habitués of the Avatar den seeking to escape?

And this question can be extended to other types of addiction-dens, as well.

The title of this post was inspired by a line in Tom Russell’s song Ambrose Larsen and another song on the same album, The Dreamin’.

29 thoughts on “To Disappear in Dreams”

  1. Bill Gates appears to have Aspergers or mild autism, Zuckerberg has an obviously severe case, and a world built and shaped by people with such strange social dysfunctions is not going to be one designed for the average person to thrive.
    Drugs of all sorts are being legalized, prostitution is about to be, and complete social collapse appears inevitable because this Brave New World is entirely unsustainable.

  2. Or the number of people who can’t bear to see the end of Covid because it gives their lives meaning (and drama) that those lives don’t have in a normal world.

  3. Fiona has it, I think. I never saw Avatar, but I gather that it was immersive, but more than that, it had a narrative and a meaning. Some people’s lives don’t. I can think of a handful. I suspect there are many more.

  4. The world we live in is easy but it isn’t uplifting.
    We worry that in the near future it is not likely to be easy, and that is sensible. We can’t support 1.9 trillion dollars of pork and expect all to stay stable and productive.
    But in the present, our schools are hardly generative – we’ve spent generations emphasizing much that diminishes and little that enlarges us. Why, for instance, would the rather charming and empowering story of Clarence Thomas be banned? Why were the charming, idiosyncratic, and empowering tales from Walk Away taken down? Both of these emphasized that we are not primarily nameless pawns in identity power battles but are individuals with interesting and complex pasts and futures, choices and wills, passions and reasons.

  5. The trope of a dreamer lost in a fantasy world existed long before anyone noticed a virtual component to reality. I’ve closed more than one book with a pang of regret that reality was pale and rather uninteresting by comparison.

    At the same time, my impression has been that alcoholism didn’t take on society challenging magnitude before the industrialization of alcohol distillation made high proof spirits cheap and easily available. The Greeks and Romans normally watered their wine and considered anyone that didn’t suspect of profligacy at least.

    The poison is in the dose as the saying goes. Will the high proof computer enhanced VR turn us into lotus eaters? That’s a fairly venerable trope as well.

    I’m bemused where Carmack talks about delivering “value” in a virtual sense. Isn’t this just a pretentious way of talking about entertainment? As far a human needs, it sure won’t work for calories or shelter or anything besides distraction. There seems to be a significant market of people watching others play video games, I wonder when the developers will start to collect performance royalties if they aren’t already? Is this meta virtual reality? Is this any different from watching a football game instead of playing?

  6. I saw “Avatar” but did not like it at all. It was stupid. However, it was a CGI-fest, so there was that.

    It also came with a very preachy message that was basically: “White man bad – all others good and oppressed by white man! Bad, white man!” (At the end of it, I found myself rooting for all those evil white men and was really hoping that they would come back and nuke that entire planet from orbit.)

    Now, about escapism. Isn’t all entertainment a form of escapism? And entertainment takes many forms, not just movies and immersive video games. (Sports come immediately to my mind.)

    But in my opinion, there really is nothing wrong with a bit of escapism every now and then.

  7. Look at the Star Trek fans. Don’t know if that is an apt analogy but learning Kingon?

    There is nothing wrong with escapism as Roy says, but as Neptunus Lex said you have to realize that you must go home.

  8. At the last place I worked, we lost a formerly productive tech when he figured out that he could play computer games into the wee hours every night and falsify his time record so he could sleep during the day and collect pay. With GPS tracking, it turned out not to be very hard to catch him and bye-bye. Last I heard, he had a job more in line with his actual abilities and was making about twice what he had been. He was a Sys-Admin by inclination and had been doing hardware.

  9. Some related thoughts here:

    I am convinced that declining labor demand is part of the story for why employment rates for lower-skilled workers have fallen so sharply and persistently during the last 15 years. I am also confident that changing technology has played a role in this decline.

    However, in my current research, I have been thinking about the role of technology on labor supply. This line of inquiry has received less attention from academics. Individuals make decisions about whether to work or not. Most people—including you . . . and me—do not like working for free. (I like to stress that point when talking in front of the deans.) That is why we have to pay people a wage to get them to work. When making our work decisions, we compare the benefit of work—the wage—against the cost of working. What is the cost of working? We give up leisure. The more attractive our leisure time, the less we’ll want to work, holding wages fixed.

  10. As did the other Roy, I saw Avatar. My dislike hinged on recognizing it as a rip-off of “Dances with Wolves” (which had as its central theme the other Roy’s comment, “white man bad”). It also pushed “humans bad because they vilely exploit and pillage critters, plants, and planets, which are inherently good and best left alone”, a thesis close to the heart of the Greenie paradigm. (I confess I have to check my revulsion for that thesis driving me to become anti-green. It would mean giving up practicing any kind of stewardship of resources, from leaving a campsite cleaner than I found it to doing recycling.) Nonetheless, I enjoyed the technical triumph of the 3D version of the movie. Lately, however, upon seeing “Dust” on late-night t.v., I have recognized that the tech breakthrough is great enough that even low budget indy writers and producers can do pretty much what Avatar did. Takes the shine off the movie.

    Escapism? I have a great deal of sympathy for Will Smith’s character in Independence Day when he said, “I gotta get me one of these!”

    With another Roy commenting, guess I’ll go back to including a last name so folks will have a hint about who is commenting.

  11. Why, for instance, would the rather charming and empowering story of Clarence Thomas be banned? Why were the charming, idiosyncratic, and empowering tales from Walk Away taken down?

    An excellent question. We saw the movie in a theater in Tucson.

    This line of inquiry has received less attention from academics. Individuals make decisions about whether to work or not.</i

    My partner in surgical practice quipped one day, “I hope they never find out I would do this for free.”

    Jerry Brown, when governor and in one of his moods, proposed that jobs that people hate should pay more. He was probably thinking of garbage men and not Governors.

    I never saw “Avatar” and hated “Dances with Wolves” for the distortion of reality. Among other things, the Lakota were not native to the area portrayed as theirs. The Amerindians were in constant tribal war. Even the Navajo originated in Canada and moved south to evict the native Hopi and Zuni.

  12. Well, don’t use Lofquist. It’s taken.

    The “multiverse” seems to be a hot topic. Strange because it was never meant to be taken seriously. Another interpretation of the quantum enigma is called “many minds”. Per this theory there are approximately 6 billion universes because without an observer nothing happens. Each of us lives in his own personal universe. Please don’t presume to tell me how to run my world. Invitation only. “You can be in my dream is I can be in yours” – Bob Dylan.

  13. And what about funding that leisure? Funding living? You have to come home.

    It sounds like the ideal for a person to aspire to is trust baby. Know any of those who are well adjusted, productive or happy? I can’t think of any, but maybe it’s possible. It seems to me that achievement that produces value for others beyond self pleasure provides the meaning to a life well lived that leisure adds little but distraction, which help keep balance.

    Some of our technocrats are dreaming of an AI enabled society in the near to mid term where human labor of the technically challenged will no longer be needed so they will be provided a guaranteed income and be free to pursue their pleasures. Virtual reality would be a valued part of keeping them entertained in lieu of living to create something of value for others. Of course the brave new technocrats will have plenty of challenges in enabling AI to perform all functions including ultimately setting its own purposes and reproducing itself. Could have some very interesting unintended consequences which I will miss appreciating.


  14. From David F’s link to “Video killed the radio star”:
    “Since 2000, the US economy has lost more than 8 million manufacturing jobs, despite manufacturing output going up.”

    Automation is clearly part of the story. As is the hiring of illegal aliens “off the books” — let’s not assume that official statistics are any more meaningful in the US than in China. But probably the largest part of the story is the thousands of factories — numbers like 60,000 to 80,000 get thrown around — which have been offshored under the mantra that “Free Trade makes us all richer”. Well, it makes the guys who do the offshoring temporarily richer … which is what counts.

    And there is this interesting comment from a taxpayer-supported academic addressing graduate students:
    “The patterns for higher-skilled workers—those with a bachelor’s degree or more—have been much more muted. This group includes most of us in this room, and our labor market has been relatively strong relative to that of those with less schooling.”

    Part of the story there is that the big growth industry of the last half century has been — Government. Something like 1 worker in 6 in the US now works for Government. Lots of them have Bachelor’s degrees or better. And some of them are even productive. But all of them benefit from politically-driven stability of employment and above free-market rates of pay. At least for now.

    Professor Hurst’s piece is well-written and interesting. However, he may be making the mistake of extrapolating the past into the future, without recognizing that an unproductive import-dependent cargo-cult economy of well-paid government bureaucrats and unemployed young men is unsustainable. Money printing and trade deficits cannot go on forever. I suspect that in the not-too-distant future, a “higher-skilled worker” will not refer to a person with an academic credential and a student debt; it will refer to someone who has physical skills — a person who can make things and fix things when they break down.

  15. Avatar was a silly movie.

    If you can travel in space why not simply mine asteroids? No worries about upsetting indigenous folks. Any ecological ‘damage’ is far, far away from any living thing. Give the mined ore a nice big push and it can get to wherever it’s needed without any more effort.

  16. well because the element in question, is critical to most technologies, see vibranium, or heck koltan which is controlled by warlords in the congo,

  17. Games are fun. Video games are fun too and can be very immersive indeed. I have been playing them since the 90s, when Doom was my game. With a collection of almost 1000 wads, written for that game, I explored its possibilities for several years. My son and I learned about shooters together, with Doom, and we did have a lot of fun. After developing some chops playing Doom, we both started playing Quake, Carmack’s next effort, and that was taken online to create the first of the multiplayer shooters. As there were only a few thousand of us then, we got to know each other. The competition then became who could type in the chat and still get kills. ;)

    Then I discovered RPGs where you actually create a fairly complex character who’s characteristics became part of what you could do. This can be very entertaining as you can make a brutal killer, with emphasis on power, accuracy and endurance. Or you might find the opposite does just as well using charisma, intelligence and luck. Games like this can allow you to explore many different ways to accomplish your quest objectives.

    Now I play an MMO based on the Elder Scrolls universe. A large and very well fleshed out universe with extensive lore. Kinda makes the Lord of the Rings look a bit small and unfinished in comparison. Anyway Elder Scrolls Online, the MMO, hosts millions of people at a time and has 17 mill+ subscribers. I will log on shortly and spend an hour doing chores and accomplishing a few personal goals. That will make me 20,000 gold or so and allow purchases like the 72,000g I spent yesterday on a plan for a Elyswer Sugar Pipe, a bejewelled hookah maybe 4′ high. ;)

    Gloria The Red at home with her new pipe she just made.

    Oh yeah, Avatar sucked. ;)

  18. well i think humans are not machines, they have emotions, thoughts and life. So an imaginary world isn’t the solution to the problems they are facing right now.
    Instead of working to alleviate poverty, thinking about the prosperity of the world, saving the environment, the idea is just to give a device.

    In other words, no cure but just a pain killer!.

  19. We do believe that much contemporary anomie (“disorientation”) and its accompanying accedia (biblical “sloth”, the Memento Mori sense that nothing matters because all things end) is at root a spiritual crisis brought on by historical ignorance plus narcissistic obsession with material superficiality (see Christopher Lasch, 1979).

    “Times are tough”… yet Gen Xers born 1969 – ’74 have seen no major war, no years-long Depression, only a socio-cultural descent-to-ruin characteristic of ossified caste-and-class structures since Greco-Roman eras.

    All but invariably, this ends with an authoritarian coup d’oeuvre (“artful subversion” over time), followed by a “Warring States” period leaving naught but devastation in its train.

    “If America is lost, the world is lost” (Civil War evangelist, 1863).

  20. The Avatar phenomenon is true, but look to the Bruce Willis 2009 movie, Surrogates for where it goes and how it works out. Though it’s not entirely virtual, it’s a very cogent look at how humans want to escape who they are and live as someone more beautiful, more bad-a**, more fabulous. (Then there are all of the cinematic works over the last 50 years where people practically live their lives in some sort of matrix or online world. We really are into this escapism.)
    Surrogates is actually a decent movie, too, that never really got much visibility.

  21. Shanzy Luke Says:

    In other words, no cure but just a pain killer!.

    The ‘soma’ doesn’t have to be chemical.

  22. was I the only other person that saw that film, indeed, it’s a dystopian existance, that james cromwell, the founder endeavors to end, he was the designer of the nexus androids in i robot two,

  23. The government(s) locked people in their homes and left them with nothing but virtual connections. It has gone on so long now that not only is that what people know now, but in their fear they also prefer. And this is above and beyond those who are desperate to legalize societally-toxic substances because they either a) can’t face facing reality, b) don’t like being told they can’t do something after 2 generations of being told they can do whatever they like, or c) some combination of the two.

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