Hugo Rifkind

In our virtual future, why would anyone work?

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

7 January 2017

9:00 AM

A flash of the future, over the holidays, that felt like a flash of the past. It happened on Christmas Day, just after lunch, when my father-in-law gave me a virtual reality headset. It looks like a pair of ski goggles. They used to be fearsomely expensive, but recently some bright spark came up with the idea of replacing the screen and the computing power with a slot into which you pop your phone. All you need now is a frame and a couple of lenses, and you’re off into a virtual world. You can get a cardboard one for a tenner.

They’re amazing. We all had a go. First, I went up Mount Everest. Then I put my mother into a shark tank. My wife went on a rollercoaster. For my kids, who are small, I called up Google Street View and put them outside their own house, even though they were inside another one. ‘Wuhhhh…?’ they said. As the grown-ups passed it around, and I watched the children watching us, I imagined them remembering this moment, decades hence. ‘For them,’ I thought, fondly, ‘this could be like it was for us when we got the SodaStream.’

Then I started to feel afraid. Perhaps I’d had too much cheese. Watching that mask go around the room, though, I suddenly realised what the nuclear family could look like at Christmas, a generation from now. It would be four silent people in goggles, side by side on a sofa, wouldn’t it? And today we think it’s bad when people are glued to phones. We haven’t seen the half of it.

I’m a firm believer in the idea that there’s a generational schism developing, right now, of the sort unseen since the days fathers in cardigan waistcoats and thin ties simply couldn’t fathom why their hippy sons wore such stupid trousers. I had my first email address when I went to university, and my first mobile phone the week I graduated. That makes me too old to ever truly comprehend what it feels like to be bullied online, or to have your first-ever dates via Tinder, or to take a selfie that feels like it matters. Through books and computer games, I have escaped into other worlds. Yet, for me, those words required oodles of my own imagination, too. Whereas now on the horizon are other worlds which require almost none. I will never know how it feels to grow up making a daily choice whether to live in them or not.

Porn is an obvious trailblazer here. There will come a time soon when your mask can be augmented by a whole host of clammy and presumably washable devices. Probably your father-in-law will not buy you them as a Christmas present. Should they work, and become the future equivalent of the dirty magazine a teenage boy keeps hidden under his mattress, then what gets that teenage boy out of the house and on to an actual date with an actual person?

Go further. Ask yourself: what proportion of our economic activity, at least in our early lives, is motivated by a desire to make the right people want to have sex with us? An evolutionary biologist would say most of it. So what happens to our economy when a truly realistic simulation of Olympic–standard banging is a fingerclick away for everybody, at minimal economic cost?

Hugo Rifkind talks about the joys and pitfalls of a virtual reality

Or perhaps you just want to be a cowboy. HBO’s Westworld did a decent job of highlighting the moral dilemmas of a future of wish fulfilment, but at least there the need for an actual, corporeal arena full of robots still preserved the notion that this was an experience that only a lucky few would be able to afford, and for limited periods of time. Not so when you get there in your own armchair. So the question becomes, when you can live any life you want, all the time, why would anybody ever settle for one in which they work in an abattoir, or empty the bins?

Of course, I’m being ridiculous. You’ll still need to pay for your food, and your kit, and your internet connection and a roof over your head. Probably I’m also misunderstanding everything on account of being, at the venerable age of 39, far too old. No doubt there were also worried dads back in the days of the last great generational schism, who thought to themselves, ‘Oh no! Why will little Timmy and his friends ever get jobs when they can spend their time smoking reefer and having threesomes in tipis?’ Whereas actually little Timmy and his friends packed it all in the first time they got crabs, and then turned into the baby-boomer generation, which learned to satisfy its yen for bohemia by merely getting divorced quite a lot and perhaps playing the saxophone.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts, though. The first is a study from Princeton from last year, which found that more than a fifth of American men without degrees between the ages of 21 and 30 worked not one day in 2014, often because they were playing computer games instead. This being double the rate in 2000.

The second is a glimpse of the Netflix app from my new headset. It’s just a room, but a massive, dreamy one, with high ceilings, faraway walls and a vast, cinema-style TV. Out the window, you see distant snowy peaks. Had Leonardo DiCaprio watched telly in the film Inception, he would have watched it here. Right now, to be honest, it gives you a bit of a headache. Still, if you are without a living room of your own, it gives you a choice. Should you wish to watch a film, you could curl up on your tiny rented sofa, in your tiny crumbling rented flat, and balance your tablet against a mug. Or you could come here…

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