The Real Dilemma Behind Ethics In Virtual Reality

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In a few words, ethics are the rules that we follow to conduct our lives or areas of expertise. They give a meaning to our lives

As we continue to live an existence that is increasingly digital, we should stop and think. Do our traditional values apply when online? Should they be modified or adjusted in any way? Some food for thought.

When I was a kid, technology had little to do with identity. Take computers, for instance: you could use them to learn, you could use them for entertainment, you could use them to work. Before the world wide web was a thing, people’s relationship with technology was quite impersonal. When the Internet arrived to the average home, this started to shift: chat rooms and cooperative gaming invited users to build an online persona. There was a certain invitation play with one’s identity: you could go by any (nick) name you chose, and identify yourself with a picture that did not necessarily have to be yours. I am not exactly talking about identity theft, although it was an option.

We just want to be ourselves.

With the years the paradigm shifted again, and LordSteve_23 became Steven Johnson, who lives in Dallas and works at Fedex. It is most remarkable that people undergone this change willingly. Of course we all know someone who would never share any personal information on a web site, under the assumption that this precaution will keep companies from stealing his or her personal information. But the vast majority of us have at least one online profile, and I am not only talking about social networks. For instance, if you are job hunting, the more real personal information you provide the better.

With the occasional exception, social networks show that we now take pleasure in showing who we are. We might choose that profile picture that does not show that we are balding or the weight we gained this past summer, but it is still us. As a result, this persona we built online has the same responsibilities that it possesses offline.

It is not ‘just pretend’.

It may have been in the past though. But the status that virtual reality is achieving today is a much more serious one. What with all the hype that VR is experiencing, the use of this technology should be responsible.

Doctor Sigmund Freud used to say this: ‘the pervert subject does in actuality what the neurotic fantasizes’. That is to say – the pervert acts, the neurotic dreams.

ethics VR

…a pervert would say.

The quid of the question of the question then becomes what is reality and what is fantasy. If our online existence has become so similar to our daily, analogical lives, technology should not be considered mere fiction. In fact,  experts are warning the public about something called virtual criminality. What to do if someone were to be harmed as a result of another person’s actions perpetrated in a virtual environment? Tricky subject.

What we have discussed up to this point concerns the user, and the user only. From now on, let’s see what are industry’s responsibilities.

Rules should apply.

Virtual reality may have been first used in gaming and then education, but it is advertising what is going to bring VR to the masses. Most people’s first experience with VR is marketing related; mine, for instance, was in a Samsung installation. Every particular industry must take equal precautions with VR usage, but advertising will probably be the one that hits the public first. Therefore, ethical issues in this industry should be considered with the utmost care.

We have already discussed virtual criminality concerning the individual. Companies should also take precautions to avoid promoting potentially damaging, dangerous or illegal activities in a virtual environment. But companies can also become virtual criminals themselves. As hard to prove this may be, if a person becomes traumatized of injured as a result of experiencing a virtual reality ad, the consequences for the industry could be dire. Virtual reality could become the next goose of the golden eggs for ambulance chasers…

There is a second risk that the scientific community is pointing out. I personally do not concur, but it is still worth mentioning.

It is not the first time the experts warn about the dangers of desensitization. The platforms have changed, but the mechanism remains the same. A subject that is exposed to extremely violent content may be no longer affected by it, developing a sense of apathy or an utter lack of compassion towards the victim. This is a tale as long as time: the finger was first pointed at television, then video games and now VR. Old wine, new bottle.

However, this ‘new bottle’ offers an experience a zillion times more intense than any platform seen before. Not every subject exposed to extreme violence develops such emotional detachment – but the ones who do will do it tenfold with virtual reality.

Ambulance chasers paradise.

Advertising must be the second most sued industry of them all, being the health care system a sure first. In light of this menace, the content that users are going to be exposed to must be carefully created. If not out of an honest care or preoccupation for the public, measures should be taken to avoid major economic loses – not to mention the reputation damaging, something that may even lead to greater loses.

The answer lies in science. As virtual reality continues to expand towards every way of human culture, the need for thorough scientific research is imperative. Many mysteries of the mind will still remain unsolved, but that is no excuse – the industry must perform a responsible use of this and every technology. Or we, the public, should suffer the consequences.

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