How will virtual reality change your mind's consciousness?

You are who you are because of your environment. What happens in a virtual world in an environment created by another mind?

Over a half-century ago, Canadian professor and philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote one of the most influential books on media theory ever. Understanding Media introduced a number of ideas and phrases that now seem commonplace: “hot” and “cool” media; global village; and, of course, “the medium is the message.” He is credited with predicting the emergence of the World Wide Web three decades before its invention. 


In McLuhan’s understanding, the terms medium, technology, and media are interchangeable. The subtitle of his book, The Extensions of Man, posits that any technology (and therefore medium and media) is effectively an extension of our bodies and consciousness. When I’m driving, the car is an extension of myself: its boundaries are now my own; my awareness must now take its full size and power into consideration.

This also includes smartphones, in which people walk around unaware of their environmental boundaries because their consciousness has been subsumed by a device. Where the technology ends and “I” begin becomes hazy. According to McLuhan, there is essentially no such distance. The content of the medium is not nearly as important as the medium itself, for it is the medium that changes societies, much more so than any specific content.

In some ways, the content can even distract us. Facebook is a fitting example. As McLuhan writes, “the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.” We might assume technology is always progressing, but that’s not necessarily the case. Notice the other term he assigns to our creations:

Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body.

GPS is a wonderful technology, but it comes at a cost. Its long-term effect on our memory and visual systems force us to confront its true value. Studies have shown that the more you use maps, the smaller your hippocampus, your brain’s memory center. You are now the only landmark, which is quite useless if you have no idea where you actually are. Don’t misunderstand: using GPS to find your way around new territories is a wonderful advancement. Continual reliance on it in the same neighborhoods is another story.

You are already a cyborg

Technologies don’t necessarily make us useless, however. If anything, the opposite: philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark believes we are all cyborgs, “in the most natural way.” We are what we are as animals thanks to our environment and the technologies we’ve created to engage with it. This is as true for the Uber driver and GPS as the wheelchair-bound and ramps. Our technologies define our realities, as Clark expressed when co-writing a famous paper (with Australian philosopher Dave Chalmers) that expanded the definition of “mind” beyond the body. 


A gamer wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles plays a game at a newly-opened VR park at The Dubai Mall on March 6, 2018. (Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

While Clark appears more optimistic about mediums than McLuhan, he recognizes the dark side of, say, algorithms, and the invasion of privacy. Yet overall he feels that such “radical honesty” promotes liberalism and democracy—a theory being tested in the age of social media. Essentially, he’s saying you should be able to defend the reality you’ve constructed. The problem is, at least in digital space, we’re not always engaging with an environment whose boundaries we understand, making us vulnerable in a way we’ve never quite experienced.

Clark’s theory of “extended mind” and McLuhan’s media extensions remind us that consciousness is not confined to the body. There need not be any mysticism to this. As journalist Michael Pollan argues in his forthcoming book on psychedelics, if any of us were to experience another person’s mental state it would likely feel like a psychedelic trip, given how foreign the sensations and observations would be. 

How will virtual reality change this?

In a sense, we’ve been living in virtual reality as long as we’ve been human beings. The constructs of consciousness demand that our observations and memories inform the reality we create. I can empathize with ideas foreign to me, but I can’t truly understand them. It’s unlikely I’ll consider their potential for inclusion in my comprehension of reality. Debates over facts or “fake news” aside, I live in a very different construct than a Trump supporter. Our ideas on a great many things are divergent.

Yet I share a great many ideas with the Trump supporters I am friends with. When together we rarely discuss politics, but even when we do, our conversations are never belligerent. When occupying the same physical space we are bound together by a shared experience of environment. Trump supporters (or trolls) that have commented on my social media handles are not nearly so kind. With no shared environment, it’s easy to forgo humanity because at that moment your only environment is you.

You need not be physically removed from someone to understand how important environment is. Simply observe the next person you follow that's staring at their phone. They never walk in straight lines; their cadence is off; they often stop randomly and bump into objects or people. When reality—the shared reality we occupy in a social space—snaps them back to attention, you can recognize the attentional lag in their eyes, at least for the brief moment before they return to their phones.

The society we inhabit affords certain luxuries, such as not having to always pay attention, but is this really a valuable trade-off? As of now, the virtual realities we enter are constructed by other minds. The experience might feel personal, but the contours of the environment are completely new. The 1.0 versions—phones; video games—already hint at the attentional lag between technology and reality. What happens when we truly enter new worlds, ones in which we have no free will because the environment was never shared to begin with?


A young gamer wearing virtual reality (VR) goggles plays in a mock city set-up at a newly opened VR park at The Dubai Mall on March 6, 2018. (Photo by Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

Recently a close friend bought a new gaming system. At one point, when we were walking around outside, he started laughing. For a moment he thought he noticed a mushroom that would give him a few points. He even took a step in its direction to pick it. The simulated world became part of his direct experience even though his immediate environment did not offer what he believed to be part of it. The more immersive our technologies become, the harder it will be to pull ourselves out of them.

In Understanding Media, McLuhan quotes the poet, W.B. Yeats: “The visible world is no longer a reality and the unseen world is no longer a dream.” This idea might seem new as we approach a world dominated by A.I. and virtual reality, yet it’s long been part of our experience. Our imagination has long offered new and strange worlds, yet in some way we are always in control. As other minds construct our environments, what will be left of us?

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What was it like to live in a Japanese concentration camp?

During World War II, the U.S. incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps throughout the West.

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
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  • Now that the issue of concentration camps in the U.S. has once again reared its head, it can be beneficial to recall the last time such camps were employed in the U.S.
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  • In truth, the incarceration was primarily motivated by racism. What was life like in the U.S.'s concentration camps?

On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized and directed military commanders "to prescribe military areas … from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion." Under the authority of this executive order, roughly 112,000 men, women, and children of Japanese descent — nearly two-thirds of which were American citizens — were detained in concentration camps.

How did the camps get their start?

With the benefit of a nearly 80-year perspective, it's clear that the internment of Japanese Americans was racially motivated. In response to Japan's growing military power in the buildup to World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned two reports to determine whether it would be necessary to intern Japanese Americans should conflict break out between Japan and the U.S. Neither's conclusions supported the plan, with one even going so far as to "certify a remarkable, even extraordinary degree of loyalty among this generally suspect ethnic group." But of course, the Pearl Harbor attacks proved to be far more persuasive than these reports.

Pearl Harbor turned simmering resentment against the Japanese to a full boil, putting pressure on the Roosevelt administration to intern Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John DeWitt, who would become the administrator of the internment program, testified to Congress

"I don't want any of them here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty... It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty... But we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map."

DeWitt's position was backed up by a number of pre-existing anti-immigrant groups based out of the West Coast, such as the Joint Immigration Committee and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West. For many, the war simply served as an excuse to get rid of Japanese Americans. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Austin Anson, the managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Administration, said:

"We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the White man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. ... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks because the White farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either."

Ironically for Anson, the mass deportation of Japanese Americans under Executive Order 9066 meant there was a significant shortage of agricultural labor. Many Caucasians left to fight the war, so the U.S. signed an agreement with Mexico to permit the immigration of several million Mexicans agricultural workers under the so-called bracero program.

Life in the camps

Japanese American concentration camp

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Circa 1943: Aerial view of a Japanese American relocation center in Amache, Colorado, during World War II. Each family was provided with a space 20 by 25 ft. The barracks were set in blocks and each block was provided with a community bath house and mess hall.

For the most part, Japanese Americans remained stoic in the face of their incarceration. The phrase shikata ga nai was frequently invoked — the phrase roughly translates to "it cannot be helped," which, for many, represents the perceived attitude of the Japanese people to withstand suffering that's out of their control.

Initially, most Japanese Americans were sent to temporary assembly centers, typically located at fairgrounds or racetracks. These were hastily constructed barracks, where prisoners were often packed into tight quarters and made to use toilets that were little more than pits in the ground. From here, they were relocated to more permanent camps — replete with barbed wire and armed guards — in remote, isolated places across the seven states of California, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Arkansas.

Many of these camps, also known as War Relocation Centers, were little better than the temporary assembly centers. One report described the buildings as "tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind." Again, overcrowding was common.

As a result, disease became a major concern, including dysentery, malaria, and tuberculosis. This was problematic due to the chronic shortage of medical professionals and supplies, an issue that was not helped by the War Relocation Authority's decision to cap Japanese American medical professional's pay at $20 a month (about $315 in 2019 dollars), while Caucasian workers had no such restriction. As a comparison, Caucasian nurses earned $150 ($2,361) a month in one camp.

The U.S. government also administered loyalty questionnaires to incarcerated Japanese Americans with the ultimate goal of seeing whether they could be used as soldiers and to segregate "loyal" citizens from "disloyal" ones. The questionnaires often asked whether they would be willing to join the military and if they would completely renounce their loyalty to Japan. Due to fears of being drafted, general confusion, and justified anger at the U.S. government, thousands of Japanese Americans "failed" the loyalty questionnaire and were sent to the concentration camp at Tule Lake. When Roosevelt later signed a bill that would permit Japanese Americans to renounce their citizenship, 98 percent of the 5,589 who did were located at Tule Lake. Some apologists cite this an example of genuine disloyalty towards the U.S., but this argument clearly ignores the gross violation of Japanese Americans' rights. Later, it became clear that many of these renunciations had been made under duress, and nearly all of those who had renounced their citizenship sought to gain it back.

Since many children lived in the camps, they came equipped with schools. Of course, these schools weren't ideal — student-teacher ratios reached as high as 48:1, and supplies were limited. The irony of learning about American history and ideals was not lost on the students, one of whom wrote in an essay --

"They, the first generation [of Japanese immigrants], without the least knowledge of the English language nor the new surroundings, came to this land with the American pioneering spirit of resettling. ...Though undergoing many hardships, they did reach their goal only to be resettled by the order of evacuation under the emergency for our protection and public security."

Potentially the best part of life in the camps — and the best way for determined prisoners to demonstrate their fundamental American-ness — was playing baseball. One camp even featured nearly 100 baseball teams. Former prisoner Herb Kurima recalled the importance of baseball in their lives in an interview with Christian Science Monitor. "I wanted our fathers, who worked so hard, to have a chance to see a ball game," he said. "Over half the camp used to come out to watch. It was the only enjoyment in the camps."

The aftermath

When the camps finally closed in 1945, the lives of the incarcerated Japanese Americans had been totally upended. Some were repatriated to Japan, while others settled in whichever part of the country they had been arbitrarily placed in. Those who wished to return to the West Coast were given $25 and a train ticket, but few had anything to return to. Many had sold their property to predatory buyers prior to being incarcerated, while theft had wiped out whatever else they had left behind. Many, many years later, the 1988 Civil Liberties Act mandated that each surviving victim be paid $20,000, though that seems like a small fine to pay for irrevocably changing the courses of more than 100,000 lives.