The jokes in Oscar Wilde’s play are not only about triviality but, perhaps more importantly, that nobody is earnest or even Ernest. People do not say who they are or fully mean what they do – they are never fully at the moment, as themselves – what we may now call ‘being’ – and happiness is only achieved for all when the truth is revealed and accepted.
The play has many levels (hence, the subtitle: ‘A trivial comedy for serious people’) – but it also has important lessons for virtual reality and the looming metaverse. ‘A sense of being,’ or a lack thereof, may be an important protector against the negative effects of virtual reality and the metaverse.
‘Being,’ in its psychological sense, implies a consciously aware immersion and presence in the current moment, with a full and open acceptance of that moment. Without this sense, experiences are muted, and their impacts can sometimes be reduced (which can have its advantages, of course).
Moreover, without such a sense of being, depression and anxieties can proliferate, depending on whether the person faces the past or future. However, many do not get such a sense of being in a virtual world, and it is worth considering what this means for the potential impacts of a metaverse – both good and bad.
A sense of being is related to two factors – ‘immersion’ and ‘presence’ – which are not quite the same thing. ‘Immersion’ is typically thought of as an objective factor that depends on things like the reality of the sensory experiences provided by the digital environment. This is affected by the cumbersomeness of the equipment worn and the reality of the stimuli presented.
On the other hand, ‘presence’ is a subjective feeling regarding the user’s responses to the virtual experience. These two are related, with the former fueling the latter.1.2 A sense of being emerges from both immersion and presence. Still, it requires a cognitive component – a degree of belief in the experience – in addition to sensory (immersion) and affective (presence) components.
Immersion and presence are key to any virtual experience, but it is less clear whether a sense of being is essential. Without immersion and presence, we may not gain from a virtual experience. For example, we may not engage in the experience, and learning may not generalize to our real lives.1.2
In the real world, a sense of being is also critical – without it, people experience problems like derealisation. However, it is not clear whether we need to believe that the virtual world is real.3
it seems impossible that people would believe the virtual world to be the real thing…not even when they are standing by a virtual precipice with their heart racing and feeling great anxiety…The whole point of presence is that it is the illusion of being there…It is a perceptual but not a cognitive illusion.
The digital world may get along very well without a sense of being – indeed, its absence may be a saving grace from psychotic reactions.
Even without belief in the reality of digital experiences, virtual reality impacts many domains.1 Virtual treatment of some mental health issues, especially phobias and other anxiety disorders, is well developed.4 Education has begun to use virtual techniques to teach skills, such as second language learning5.
The military has used virtual reality successfully for many training reasons6. Thus, we can get something from a virtual experience without a sense of being. slater3 identifies why this can work, especially in areas like exposure therapy, where the learning occurs before we know it:
The perceptual system identifies a threat…and the brain-body system automatically and rapidly reacts…while the cognitive system relatively slowly catches up and concludes ‘But I know that this isn’t real’. But by then it is too late, the reactions have already occurred.
The goal is to allow new experience-driven learning, which is easier to control virtually than in vivo, with the hope that it will generalize to the real world. All that is needed is for the digital stimulus to generate enough response to allow reinforcement or extinction.
While skill-learning needs immersion and presence, it does not need belief – it does not require a sense of being. It may be, to the extent immersion and presence are good enough, but not perfect, that skills learned will not be tied to a particular stimulus-complex – they will generalize more easily.
If we learn something in a very clear, solid context, in which we have a full sense of being, then that learning may well stay in that context.7 A sense of being may defeat the object of these virtual exercises.
So, there could be practical gains in well-controlled digital contexts, where a sense of being is not strong. However, this is not what the entertainment or social media industries want in their applications. They aim to build immersion and presence to the highest degrees and generate as much of a sense of being as possible.
Improvements in the delivery systems for virtual reality, such as contact lenses rather than headsets,8 and large ‘reality farms’ manufacturing more lifelike experiences, will create stronger sensory ‘immersion’ and affective ‘presence,’ and maybe even cognitive ‘being.’ This is where the dangers may lie for the vulnerable or unwary.
As people experience a stronger sense of being in the virtual world, the safeguards emerging from its absence disappear. This may increase problems experienced around understanding what is real about the real world.9 For example, a sense of presence is increased by increasing emotional arousal8 – a key goal for gaming, and probably for the metaverse.
This may lead some with clinical vulnerabilities to be confused about what is real. Indeed, people lacking clinical problems may also be vulnerable. Those with high openness to experience, neuroticism, and extraversion can all experience higher senses of immersion and presence. Those high on ‘openness’ are especially likely to feel ‘absorption’ into the virtual world.10
Lest all of this sounds like doom and gloom, we need to remember that more research is needed. Will high senses of immersion and presence lead to strong senses of being? What will be the interaction between a sense of real-world being and a sense of digital-world being? Will they compete and cause problems, or will a strong sense of being in each world allow a clear understanding of the demarcations?
That may well depend on the psychology of the individual. Again, the technology rushes ahead of knowledge, and we really do need digital firms to put the brakes on their profits, even just for a moment, and consider how we can get this right – or, at least, not harmful.