What Appalachian Culture Teaches Us about Technology

The immersive nature of virtual reality is worrying. We need to fully understand the path we’re headed down as new technologies are seemingly recreating our physical, kinetic lives.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the pleasure of using the Samsung Gear VR headset. Built on the Oculus platform and using a Samsung Galaxy S6 mobile phone, the device creates a 360-degree virtual reality (VR) experience. I can watch 3D movies, stream Netflix, and play VR games through the device.

I have to confess that I’m impressed by the technology. It recreates real life in virtual space. Indeed, it’s so good that I find that I have to sit down to use it because if I’m standing, I experience vertigo. If I have headphones plugged in while using the technology, I become unplugged from real life. I lose track of time, absorbed into the virtual environment of the device. The immersive nature of VR is worrying. I’m not sure we shouldn’t step back for a bit in order to fully understand the path we’re headed down as new virtual reality technologies are seemingly recreating our physical, kinetic lives.

In October 2015, Scottish technology company Tesla Studios announced it had transmitted the first “virtual” hug in history. Applying a mixture of tech from the Xbox Kinect, Oculus, and the new tactile suit the company had developed — called the Teslasuit — it simulated bodily contact through virtual reality between two people who weren’t touching one another. As the company describes it, the Teslasuit “is a tactile suit for virtual reality, based on electro-muscle stimulation technology, that performs a dual role as a motion-capture system and tactile smart textile, incorporating thousands of nodes to stimulate sensations in the skin through tiny electric pulses.”

The company claims the suit can simulate wind across your skin or the feel of bullets impacting your body:

“Teslasuit is based on electro-haptic technology, which is a 'native language' of our body. Simply saying, when we touch something, those sensations are transmitted to our brain by electric pulses via our Neural System. Teslasuit stimulates [the] body with mild electric pulses, delivering a wide range of sensations from touch, virtual hug, and virtual bullet shot to heat and cold. Teslasuit can make you feel the real Force!”

Right now, the suit is available for preorder for $1,500 USD.

To be sure, it’s unknown how the suit will perform. Does it really work? Can it really make me feel like I’m experiencing physical sensations? Nonetheless, the fact that inventors are pursuing the creation of a haptic body suit means that we have ethical considerations to ponder. If we develop a virtual environment so real, so lifelike, so believable that we lose sight of the physical world, how does that impact human interaction? What does it mean for managing our weight? Does it enhance education? Create new opportunities for crime? How so?

Perhaps we need to slow down, contemplate where we’re headed.

In 1966, a young, new teacher arrived at a small, college prep school in rural Georgia to teach English to a group of unmotivated students. To make his curriculum interesting to his pupils, Eliot Wigginton asked them what would interest them; what topics would they like to study? The students settled on creating a magazine. They would practice their writing skills while producing a magazine about the history and culture of Southern Appalachia.

Dubbed Foxfire, the magazine articles “about the lives of Southern Appalachian folk cast a whole new light on the determination, faith, and joy of living that this vanishing mountain culture should be remembered for.” The articles describe the hardscrabble, simple life of Appalachian culture: hog dressing, mountain craft making, hunting and fishing techniques, food preparation, and moonshining. The editors argue for a return to simple living, a thoughtful approach to life. Over 6 million copies of the original anthology have been sold.

While I was testing Samsung’s VR technology, I was also reading the original Foxfire book. The apparent disconnect between the two was striking. But, when looking deeper, I was surprised by the insight Foxfire offers us as we tumble down the VR rabbit hole. Indeed, further developing virtual reality technologies requires Appalachian deliberation. It requires an examination of what we’re surrendering in order to have a virtual experience of our real life.

“It’s fast times now, y’know? Ever’thing’s flyin’,” says Hillard Green, a man interviewed by the Foxfire students. “You ain’t got no freedom’r’nothin’. You’ve got t’be in under some kind of control.”

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