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Escapism And Virtual Reality Essay, Research Paper

Escapism and Virtual Reality


The use of computers in society provides obvious benefits and some drawbacks.

`Virtual Reality’, a new method of interacting with any computer, is presented

and its advantages and disadvantages are considered. The human aspect of

computing and computers as a form of escapism are developed, with especial

reference to possible future technological developments. The consequences of a

weakening of the sense of reality based upon the physical world are also

considered. Finally, some ways to reduce the unpleasant aspects of this

potential dislocation are examined. A glossary of computing terms is also


Computers as Machines

The progression of the machine into all aspects of human life has continued

unabated since the medieval watchmakers of Europe and the Renaissance study of

science that followed Clocks . Whilst this change has been exceedingly rapid

from a historical perspective, it can nevertheless be divided into distinct

periods, though rather arbitrarily, by some criteria such as how people

travelled or how information was transferred over long distances. However these

periods are defined, their lengths have become increasingly shorter, with each

new technological breakthrough now taking less than ten years to become accepted

(recent examples include facsimile machines, video recorders and microwave


One of the most recent, and hence most rapidly absorbed periods, has been that

of the computer. The Age of Computing began with Charles Babbage in the late

19th century Babbage , grew in the calculating machines between the wars

EarlyIBM , continued during the cryptanalysis efforts of World War II

Turing,Bletchley and finally blossomed in the late 1970’s with mass market

applications in the developed countries (e.g. JapanSord ). Computers have

gone through several `generations’ of development in the last fifty years and

their rate of change fits neatly to exponential curves Graphs , suggesting that

the length of each generation will become shorter and shorter, decreasing until

some unforeseen limit is reached. This pattern agrees with the more general

decrease of length between other technological periods.

The great strength of computers whether viewed as complex machines, or more

abstractly as merely another type of tool, lies in their enormous flexibility.

This flexibility is designed into a computer from the moment of its conception

and accounts for much of the remarkable complexity that is inherent in each

design. For this very reason, the uses of computers are now too many to ever

consider listing exhaustively and so only a representative selection are

considered below.

Computers are now used to control any other machine that is subject to a varying

environment, (e.g. washing machines, electric drills and car engines).

Artificial environments such as hotels, offices and homes are maintained in pre-

determined states of comfort by computers in the thermostats and lighting

circuits. Within a high street shop or major business, every financial or

stockkeeping transaction will be recorded and acknowledged using some form of


The small number of applications suggested above are so common to our

experiences in developed countries that we rarely consider the element which

permits them to function as a computer. The word `microprocessor’ is used to

refer to a `stand-alone’ computer that operates within these sorts of

applications. Microprocessors are chips at the heart of every computer, but

without the ability to modify the way they are configured, only a tiny

proportion of their flexibility is actually used. The word `computer’ is now

defined as machines with a microprocessor, a keyboard and a visual display unit

(VDU), which permit modification by the user of the way that the microprocessor

is used.

Computers in this sense are used to handle more complex information than that

with which microprocessors deal, for example, text, pictures and large amounts

of information in databases. They are almost as widespread as the

microprocessors described above, having displaced the typewriter as the standard

writing tool in many offices and supplanted company books as the most reliably

current form of accountancy information. In both these examples, a computer

permits a larger amount of information to be stored and modified in a less time-

consuming fashion than any other method used previously.

Another less often considered application is that of communication. Telephone

networks are today controlled almost entirely by computers, unseen by the

customer, but actively involved in every telephone call phones . The linking of

computers themselves by telephone and other networks has led people to

communicate with each other by using the computer to both write the text (a

word-processor) and to send it to its destination. This is known as electronic

mail, or `email’.

The all pervasive nature of the computer and its obvious benefits have not

prevented a growing number of people who are vociferously concerned with the

risks of widespread application of what is still an undeniably novel technology

comp.risks,ACMrisks . Far from being reactionary prophets of doom, such people

are often employed within the computer industry itself and yet have become wary

of the pace of change. They are not opposed to the use of computers in

appropriate environments, but worry deeply when critical areas of inherently

dangerous operations are performed entirely by computers. Examples of such

operations include correctly delivering small but regular doses of drugs into a

human body and automatically correcting (and hence preventing) aerodynamic

stability problems in an aircraft plane1,plane2 . Both operations are typical

`risky’ environments for a computer since they contain elements that are tedious

(and therefore error-prone) for a human being to perform, yet require the human

capacity to intervene rapidly when the unexpected occurs. Another instance of

the application of computers to a problem actually increasing the risks attached

is the gathering of statistical information about patients in a hospital. Whilst

the overall information about standards of health care is relatively insensitive,

the comparative costs of treatment by different physicians is obviously highly

sensitive information. Restricting the `flow ‘of such information is a complex

and time-consuming business.

Predictions for future developments in computing applications are notoriously

difficult to cast with any accuracy, since the technology which is driving the

developments changes so rapidly. Interestingly, much of what has been developed

so far has its conceptual roots in science fiction stories of the late 1950’s.

Pocket televisions, lightning fast calculating machines and weapons of pin-point

accuracy were all first considered in fanciful fiction. Whilst such a source of

fruitful ideas has yet to be fully mined out, and indeed, Virtual Reality (see

below) has been used extensively

Neuromancer and others, many more concepts that are now appearing that have no

fictional precursors.

Some such future concepts, in which computers would be of vital importance,

might be the performance of delicate surgical procedures by robot, controlled by

a computer, guided in turn by a human surgeon; the control of the flow of

traffic in a large city according to information gathered by remote sensors;

prediction of earthquakes and national weather changes using large computers to

simulate likely progressions from a known current state weather ; the

development of cheap, fast and secure coding machines to permit guaranteed

security in international communications; automatic translation from one

language to another as quickly as the words are spoken; the simulation of new

drugs’ chemical reactions

with the human body. These are a small fraction of the possible future

applications of computers, taken from a recent prediction of likely developments

JapanFuture . One current development which has relevance to all the above, is

the concept known as `Virtual Reality’ and is discussed further below.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality, or VR, is a concept that was first formally proposed in the

early Seventies by Ted Nelson ComputerDreams , though this work appears to be

in part a summary of the current thinking at that time. The basic idea is that

human beings should design machines that can be operated in a manner that is as

natural as possible, for the human beings, not the computers.

For instance, the standard QWERTY keyboard is a moderately good instrument for

entering exactly the letters which have been chosen to make up a word and hence

to construct sentences. Human communication, however, is often most fluent in

speech, and so a computer that could understand spoken words (preferably of all

languages) and display them in a standard format such as printed characters,

would be far easier to use, especially since the skills of speech exist from an

early age, but typing has to be learnt, often painfully.

All other human senses have similar analogies when considering their use with

tools. Pictures are easier than words for us to digest quickly. A full range of

sounds provides more useful information than beeps and bells do. It is easier

to point at an item that we can see than to specify it by name. All of these

ideas had to wait until the technology had advanced sufficiently to permit their

implementation in an efficient manner, that is, both fast enough not to

irritate the user and cheap enough for mass production.

The `state of the art’ in VR consists of the following. A pair of rather bulky

goggles, which when worn display two images of a computer-generated picture. The

two images differ slightly, one for each eye, and provide stereo vision and

hence a sense of depth. They change at least fifty times per second, providing

the brain with the illusion of continuous motion (just as with television).

Attached to the goggles are a pair of conventional high-quality headphones, fed

from a computer-generated sound source. Different delays in the same sound

reaching each ear provide a sense of aural depth. There is also a pair of

cumbersome gloves, rather like padded ice-hockey gloves, which permit limited

flexing in all natural directions and feed information about the current

position of each hand and finger to a computer.

All information from the VR equipment is passed to the controlling computer and,

most importantly, all information perceived by the user is generated by the

computer. The last distinction is the essence of the reality that is `virtual’,

or computer-created, in VR.

The second critical feature is that the computer should be able to modify the


sent to the user according to the information that it received from the user.

In a typical situation this might involve drawing a picture of a room on the

screens in the goggles and superimposing upon it a picture of a hand, which

moves and changes shape just as the user’s hand moves and changes shape. Thus,

the user moves his hand and sees something that looks like a hand move in front

of him.

The power of VR again lies in the flexibility of the computer. Since the

picture that is displayed need not be a hand, but could in fact be any created

object at all, one of the first uses of VR might be to permit complex objects to

be manipulated on the screen as though they existed in a tangible form.

Representations of large molecules might be grasped, examined from all sides and

fitted to other molecules. A building could be constructed from virtual

architectural components and then lit from differing angles to consider how

different rooms are illuminated. It could even be populated with imaginary

occupants and the human traffic bottlenecks displayed as `hot spots’ within the


One long-standing area of interest in VR has been the simulation of military

conflicts in the most realistic form possible.

The flight simulator trainers of the 1970’s had basic visual displays and large

hydraulic rams to actually move the trainee pilot as the real aeroplane would

have moved. This has been largely replaced in more modern simulators by a

massive increase in the amount of information displayed on the screen, leading

to the mind convincing itself that the physical movements are occurring, with

reduced emphasis on attempts to provide the actual movements. Such an approach

is both cheaper in equipment and more flexible in configuration, since changing

the the aeroplane from a fighter to a commercial airliner need only involve

changing the simulator’s program, not the hydraulics.


Escapism can be rather loosely defined as the desire to be in a more pleasant

mental and physical state than the present one. It is universal to human

experience across all cultures, ages and also across historical periods. Perhaps

for this reason, little quantitative data exists on how much time is spent

practicing some form of escapism and only speculation as to why it should feel

so important to be able to do so.

One line of thought would suggest that all conscious thought is a form of

escapism and that in fact any activity that involves concentration on sensations

from the external world is a denial of our ability to escape completely.

This hypothesis might imply that all thought is practice, in some sense, for

situations that might occur in the future. Thoughts about the past are only of

use for extrapolation into possible future scenarios.

However, this hypothesis fails to include the pleasurable parts of escapist

thinking, which may either be recalling past experiences or, more importantly

for this study, the sense of security and safety that can exist within

situations that exist only in our minds. A more general hypothesis would note

the separate concepts of pleasure and necessity as equally valid reasons for any


Can particular traits in a person’s character be identified with a tendency to

escapist thoughts that lead to patterns of behaviour that are considered extreme

by their society? It seems unlikely that a combination of hereditary

intelligence and social or emotional deprivation can be the only causes of such

behaviour, but they are certainly not unusual ones, judging by the common

stereotypes of such people.

The line of thinking that will be pursued throughout this essay is the idea that

a person who enjoys extreme forms of escapist thoughts will often feel most

comfortable with machines in general and with computers in particular.

Certainly, excessive escapist tendencies have existed in all societies and have

been tolerated or more crucially, made use of, in many different ways. For

instance, apparent absent-mindedness would be acceptable in a hunter/gatherer

society in the gatherers but not for a hunter. A society with a wide-spread

network of bartering would value a combination of both the ability to plan a

large exchange and the interpersonal skills necessary to conclude a barter,

which are not particularly abstract. In a society with complex military

struggles, the need to plan and imagine victories becomes an essential skill

(for a fraction of the combatants).

Moving from the need for abstract thought to its use, there is a scale of

thought required to use the various levels of machines that have been mentioned

earlier. A tool that has no electronics usually has a function that is easy to

perceive (for example, a paperclip). A machine with a microprocessor often has

a larger range of possible uses and may require an instruction manual telling

the operator how to use it (e.g. a modern washing machine or a television). Both

of these examples can be used without abstract thought, merely trusting that

they will do what they either obviously do, or have been assured by the manual

that they will do.

The next level is the use of computers as tools, for example, for word-

processing. Now a manual becomes essential and some time will have to be spent

before use of the tool is habitual. Even then, many operations will remain

difficult and require some while to consider how to perform them. A `feel’ for

the tool has to acquired before it can be used effectively.

The top level of complexity on this scale is the use of computers as flexible

tools and the construction of the series of instructions known as programs to

control the operation of the computer. Escapist thoughts begin when the

operations of the programs have to be understood. In many cases, it is either

too risky or time-consuming to set the programs into action without considering

their likely consequences (in minute detail) first. Such detailed comprehension

of the action of a program often requires the person constructing the lists of

instructions (the programmer) to enter a separate world, where the symbols and

values of the program have their physical counterparts. Variables take on

emotional significance and routines have their purpose described in graphic

`action’ language. A cursory examination of most programmers’ programs will

reveal this in the comments that are left to help them understand each program’s

purpose. Interestingly, even apparently unemotional people visualise their

programs in this anthropomorphic manner Weizenbaum76,Catt73 .

Without this ability to trace the action of a program before it is performed in

real life, the computing industry would cease to exist. This ability is so

closely related to what we do naturally and call `escapism’, that the two have

begun to merge for many people involved in the construction of programs. For

some, what began as work has become what is done for pleasurable relaxation,

which is a fortunate discovery for large computer-related businesses. The need

for time-clocks and foremen has been largely eliminated, since the workers look

forward to coming to work, often to escape the mundane aspect of reality.

There are problems associated with this form of work motivation. One major

discovery is that it can be difficult to work as a team in this kind of activity.

Assigning each programmer a section of the project is the usual solution, but

maintaining a coherent grasp of the project’s state then becomes increasingly

difficult. Indeed, this problem means that there are now computers whose design

cannot be completely understood by one person. Misunderstandings that result

from this problem and the inherent ambiguities of human languages are often the

cause of long delays in completion of projects involving computers. (The current

statistics are that cost over-runs of 300 are not uncommon, especially for

larger projects and time over-runs of 50 are common SWEng ).

Another common problem is that of developed social inadequacy amongst groups of

programmers and their businesses. The awkwardness of communicating complex ideas

to other (especially non-technical) members of the group can lead them to avoid

other people in person and to communicate solely by messages and manuals

(whether electronic or paper).

Up to now, most absorption of the information necessary to `escape’ in this

fashion has been from a small number of sources located in an environment full

of other distractions. The introduction of Virtual Reality, especially with

regard to the construction of programs, will eliminate many of these external

distractions. In return, it will provide a `concentrated’ version of the world

in which the programmer is working. The flexible nature of VR means that

abstract objects such as programs can be viewed in reality (on the goggles’

screens) in any format at all. Most likely, they will be viewed in a manner that

is significant for each individual programmer, corresponding to how he or she

views programs when they have escaped into the world that contains them. Thus,

what were originally only abstract thoughts in one human mind can now be made

real and repeatable and may be distributed in a form that has meaning for other

people. The difference between this and books or paintings is the amount of

information that can be conveyed and the flexibility with which it can be


The Dangers of Virtual Reality

As implied above, the uses of Virtual Reality can be understood in two ways.

Firstly, VR can be viewed as a more effective way of communicating concepts,

abstract or concrete, to other people. For example, as a teaching tool, a VR

interface to a database of operation techniques would permit a surgeon to try

out different approaches on the same simulated patient or to teach a junior

basic techniques. An architect might use a VR interface to allow clients to

walk around a building that exists only in the design stage ArchieMag .

Secondly, VR can be used as a visualisation tool for each individual. Our own

preferences could be added to a VR system to such an extent that anyone else

using it would be baffled by the range of personalised symbols and concepts. An

analogy to this would be redefining all the keys on a typewriter for each typist.

This would be a direct extension of our ability to conceive objects, since the

machine would deal with much of the tedious notation and the many symbols

currently necessary in complex subjects such as nuclear physics. In this form,

VR would provide artificial support for a human mind’s native abilities of

construct building and imagination.

It is the second view of VR, and derivations from it, that are of concern to

many experts. On a smaller scale, the artificial support of mental activities

has shown that once support is available, the mind tends to become lazy about

developing what is already present. The classic case of this is, of course,

electronic calculators. The basic tedious arithmetic that is necessary to solve

a complicated problem in physics or mathematics is the same whether performed by

machine or human, and in fact plays very little part in understanding (or

discovering) the concepts that lie behind the problem. However, if the ability

to perform basic arithmetic at the lowest level is neglected, then the ability

to cope with more complex problems does seem to be impaired in some fashion.

Another example is the ability to spell words correctly. A mis-spelt word only

rarely alters the semantic content of a piece of writing, yet obvious idleness

or inability in correct use of the small words used to construct larger concepts

often leaves the reader with a sense of unease as to the validity of the larger


Extending the examples, a worrying prediction is that the extensive use of VR to

support our own internal visualisations of concepts would reduce our ability to

perform abstract and escapist thoughts without the machine’s presence. This

would be evident in a massive upsurge in computer-related entertainment, both in

games and interactive entertainment and would be accompanied by a reduction of

the appreciation and study of written literature, since the effort required to

imagine the contents would be more than was considered now reasonable.

Another danger of VR is its potential medical applications. If a convincing set

of images and sound can be collected, it might become possible to treat victims

of trauma or brain-injured people by providing a `safe’ VR environment for them

to recover in. As noted Whalley , there are several difficult ethical

decisions associated with this sort of work. Firstly, the decision to disconnect

a chronically disturbed patient from VR would become analogous to removing pain-

killers from a patient in chronic pain. Another problem is that since much of

what we perceive as ourselves is due to the way that we react to stimuli,

whatever the VR creator defines as the available stimuli become the limiting

extent of our reactions. Our individuality would be reduced and our innate human

flexibility with it. To quote Whalley

Whalley directly,

“virtual reality devices may possess the potential to

distort substantially [those] patients’ own perceptions of

themselves and how others see them. Such distortions may persist

and may not necessarily be universally welcomed. In our present

ignorance about the lasting effects of these devices, it is

certainly impossible to advise anyone, not only mental

patients, of the likely hazards of their use.”

Following on from these thoughts, one can imagine many other abuses of VR.

`Mental anaesthesia’ or `permanent calming’ could be used to control long-term

inmates of mental institutions. A horrendous form of torture by deprivation of

reality could be imagined, with a victim being forced to perceive only what the

torturers choose as reality. Users who experienced VR at work as a tool may

chose to use it as a recreational drug, much as television is sometimes used

today, and just as foreseen in the `feelies’ of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.


Computers are now an accepted part of many peoples’ working lives and yet still

retain an aura of mystery for many who use them. Perhaps the commonest

misapprehension is to perceive them as an inflexible tool; once a machine is

viewed as a word processor, it can be awkward to have to redefine it in our

minds as a database, full of information ordered in a different fashion. Some

of what people find difficult to use about today’s machines will hopefully be

alleviated by the introduction of Virtual Reality interfaces. These should allow

us to deal with computers in a more intuitive manner.

If there ever comes a time when it is necessary to construct a list of tests to

distinguish VR from reality, some of the following observations might be of use.

The most difficult sense to deceive over a long period of time will probably be

that of vision. The part of the human brain that deals with vision processing

uses depth of focus as one of its mechanisms to interpret distances. Flat

screens cannot provide this without a massive amount of processing to

deliberately bring the object that the eyes are focussed upon into a sharper

relief than its surroundings. Since this is unlikely to be economical in the

near future, the uniform appearance of VR will remain an indication of its


Another sign may be the lack of tactile feedback all over the body. Whilst most

tactile information, such as the sensation of wearing a watch on one’s wrist, is

ignored by the brain, a conscious effort of detection will usually reveal its

presence. Even the most sophisticated feedback mechanisms will be hard-pressed

to duplicate such sensations or the exact sensations of an egg being crushed or

walking barefoot on pebbles, for example.

The sense of smell may prove to be yet another tell-tale sign of reality. The

human sense of smell is so subtle (compared to our present ability to recreate

odours) and is interpreted constantly, though we are often unaware of it, that

to mimic the myriad smells of life may be too complex to ever achieve


The computer industry will continue to depend upon employees who satisfy some

part of their escapist needs by programming for pleasure. In the near future,

the need for increased efficiency and better estimates of the duration of

projects may demand that those who spend their hours escaping are organised by

those who do not. This would lead to yet another form of stratification within a

society, namely, the dreamers (who are in fact now the direct labour force) and

their `minders’. It should also encourage societies to value the power of

abstract thought more highly, since direct reward will be seen to come from it.

Virtual Reality is yet another significant shift in the way that we can

understand both what is around us and what exists only in our minds. A

considerable risk associated with VR is that our flexibility as human beings

means that we may adapt our thoughts to our tool, instead of the other way round.

Though computers and our interaction with them by VR is highly flexible, this

flexibility is as nothing compared to the potential human range of actions.

Acknowledgements: My thanks go to Glenford Mapp of Cambridge University

Computer Laboratory and Olivetti Research Laboratory, Dr. Alan Macfarlane of

the Department of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University, Dr. John Doar and

Alan Finch for many useful discussions. Their comments have been fertile

starting grounds for many of the above ideas.

This essay contains approximately 4,500 words, excluding Abstract, Glossary and



Chip – for microchip, the small black tile-like objects that make

electronic machines. Computer – machine with a microprocessor and an

interface that

permits by the user. Database – collection of information stored on a

computer which permits.

to the information in several ways, rather like having multiple

in a book. Email – mail. Text typed into one machine can be transferred

to another remote machine. Microprocessor – stand-alone computer, with

little option for change by the user. Program – series of instructions to

control the operation of a microprocessor. Risk – often unforeseen dangers of

applying computer-related technology new applications. Stand-alone – to the

rest of the electronic world. User – human who uses the machine or computer.

VDU – Display Unit. The television-like screen attached to a computer. Virtual

- to mean `imaginary’ or `existing only inside a computer’ VR – Reality.

Loosely, an interface to any computer that

the user to use the computer in a more `involved’ fashion. Word processor

application of a computer to editing and printing text.


L. Mumford, Technics and Civilisation, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,

New York, 1963, pp.13–15.

Babbage J.M. Dubbey, The Mathematical Work of Charles Babbage,

Cambridge University Press, 1978.


William Aspray, Computing Before Computers, Iowa State University

press, 1990.

Turing B.E. Carpenter and R.W. Doras (Editors), A.M. Turing’s

ACE report of 1946 and other papers, The MIT Press, 1980.


David Kahn, The Codebreakers, London, Sphere, 1978


Takeo Miyauchi, The Flame from Japan, SORD Computer Systems Inc., 1982.


J.L. Hennessy and D.A. Patterson, Computer Architecture : A

Quantitative Approach, Morgan Kaufmann, California, 1990.


Amos E. Joel, Electronic Switching : Digital Central Office Systems

of the World, Wiley, 1982.


comp.risks , a moderated bulletin board available world-wide on computer

networks. Its purpose is the discussion of computer-related risks.

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