Customized Communication in a Virtual World

The year is 2060. Professor Updike stands to take the podium for the keynote speech at his university’s annual communications conference.

Professor Updike is a clean-shaven African American man in his mid-forties. To the audience, however, these details are irrelevant. Everyone in attendance is wearing virtual reality glasses—a technology that allows each person to customize their own reality and seamlessly overlay that reality onto the physical world. This technology, at one time experimental and cumbersome, has now become normal and ubiquitous. In fact, it has become unusual not to see people wearing these glasses, although there remain some neo-Luddite holdouts in the rural areas.

Through their VR glasses, some people see Professor Updike as he would have looked twenty-five years ago as an undergraduate. Others have adjusted their VR settings to see him as a white person, or another race of preference. For still others, the professor appears to be giving his speech completely nude.

At the beginning of the professor’s talk, he reflected on recent advances in machine learning that enabled VR to no longer be confined to the gaming industry but become integrated into ordinary life.

“What these advances have made possible,” he excitedly reflected, “is the unprecedented power each of us have to customize our own reality.”

“We saw glimpses of it back in 2017 with the Pokémon Go phenomenon, where an imaginary world could be overlaid on top of the physical world. Even then, however, few people realized just how transformative the concept of customized reality could be. What each of us now possess is the ability to see the world, not as it actually is, but as we would like it to be.”

Then, assuming a more reflective tone, he added, “And who’s to say that the personal reality each of us construct isn’t just as meaningful and true as what we anachronistically refer to as ‘real life’? After all, isn’t the distinction between what is ‘virtually real’ and what is ‘actually real’, merely heuristic?”

Professor Updike went on to contextualize VR in light of economic developments that had occurred the 2040’s and 2050’s. He explained how after years of unprecedented disparity between the rich and poor (brought about largely through automation), VR is once again levelling the playing field.

“It used to be that only the very rich could sit on a deck and gaze out over an alpine lake overlooked by a distant mountain with a castle on top. Only rich people could afford that type of experience for the simple reason that having that type of real estate was expensive. But now everyone can have that type of experience simply for the price of VR glasses. It used to be that only the very rich could attend a cocktail party with the world’s best models. Now, even your own husband or wife can appear as attractive as a supermodel.”

“In short,” he explained, “we are achieving the Baconian goal of true mastery over the forces of nature, a type of regeneration through virtuality.”

“Just as physical goods like tickets, newspapers and greeting cards long ago shed their materiality to become matters of pure information, and just as physical places like libraries, stores and schools were displaced by online venues offering the same services, so the physical environments we view are migrating from the material to the virtual.”

“Whatever we can make digital, we can control, and whatever we can control, we can customize.”

Professor Updike then embarked on a whirlwind tour of areas of innovation currently in beta, including protocols for connecting VR directly to the human brain.

“The direct link to the human brain will enable information from our neuro signals to be beamed into a giant database in the cloud. A complex algorithm will then interpret this information in order accurately to pinpoint our needs and desires, and then to satisfy these needs with the VR projections that are beamed into our glasses or contacts.”

“Consider that often we don’t know what we would like to see. Moreover, having consciously to choose between so many options can be a burden. A technology that can read and interpret our neuro signals would be able to identify our desires and needs even better than we can.”

Directing the audience’s attention to a monitor behind him, the professor gave some examples of how these innovations might function in practice. He showed a man, Steve, going about his normal day, while data from his brain is continually fed into an algorithm reflecting his needs and desires.

When Steve goes home that evening and is greeted by his wife, Elizabeth, she appears ten years younger and Asian. Instead of the tired expression she normally has at the end of the day, Elizabeth has a gentle smile that gives an impression of complete availability. Her clothes were also different: instead of wearing the T-shirt and jeans she normally changed into after work, Elizabeth was dressed in a short skirt and transparent blouse.

Having become accustomed to this technology, Steve immediately accepts the new version of his wife with childlike simplicity, saying to himself, “I guess the reason I’m seeing her like this is because the algorithm knows I really want to.”

Stopping the video, Professor Updike exclaimed excitedly, “We can all be like Steve in that film! As this technology becomes perfected, our own algorithms will take over the job of customizing how the world appears to us, always up to date to reflect our latest needs and desires.”

Dr. Updike then clarified that, actually, this is not quite the final frontier. Assuming a more somber tone, he began to identify a formidable final challenge that was currently alluding even the most optimistic inventors, futurists and self-learning machines.

The problem, he explained, was communication.

“Although we might be able to change how we see the world and other people, we cannot yet change what people say without completely severing the possibility of interaction and social functioning. Of course, there are avatars that can interact and talk with us, but their usefulness is primarily limited to sexual recreation. While increasing numbers of young men are withdrawing into a virtual world where they only have to interact with avatars, this is not a realistic solution for most of us. Within the context of family life, and certainly within the context of work and meaningful engagement with the world, it is inescapable that we must interact with real people.”

“But this creates an obvious dilemma. As we’ve become increasingly accustomed to viewing only customized versions of our external environment, our tolerance at being unable to customize what people say will likely decrease. If Steve is able to change his wife’s appearance from one of tired irritation to one of cheerful availability, what happens when the words she speaks reflect the former reality and not the latter? In an environment where everything we see can be customized, there is bound to be something strangely incongruous about communication that remains immune to customization.”

The professor tentatively suggested that perhaps a solution to this problem would be found, not in technology, but in a type of reverse-engineered cognitive behavioral therapy.

“What if we could learn to continually reframe what people say to us, so that it can be absorbed within our own ego boundaries? Though this strategy may sound complex, it involves some basic communication paradigms that many of us already do naturally anyway.”

Then, turning to the overhead again, Dr. Updike illustrated these strategies with a series of bullet points that included things like:

  • When people say something that disrupts your personal reality, simply ignore it.
  • Whenever possible, interpret people’s words in light of what you would like them to mean.
  • When people talk to you, impose your own context onto their words.

“What I am suggesting,” the professor explained, “is that the auditory correlate to a customized landscape may be found, not in changing what people say, nor through changing what we hear. Rather, it is found by changing the meanings we choose to recognize.”

Anticipating objections from his listeners, the professor admitted that there might seem something self-serving to this reframing strategy. “But let’s not forget” he explained, “that as far back as the twentieth-century, theorists began understanding that we are all trapped in our own language games, that no interpretation of a text can claim the rigid absolutism of epistemic objectively. Applying this principle to ordinary conversation, all dialogue becomes a type of monologue. After all, what does someone’s words mean to me other than what I choose for those words to mean to me?”

“Indeed,” Professor Updike concluded, “in a world dominated by our virtual habits, attentive listening may soon become as cumbersome as writing a letter by hand.”