Where are you? The question is both easy to answer and not; it depends on what you think I mean. Maybe, dear reader, you would tell me you’re in Scottsdale, Arizona, or maybe you’d say you’re at home, or maybe you feel yourself to be inside your body, inside your head in fact, somewhere behind your eyes and between your ears. All these things and more—such as “I’m in my 62nd year” or “I’m in a good place right now”—are ways of saying where we are. You might even think to yourself, I’m in the first paragraph of your essay, waiting to see where you’re going with this. (I’m with you on that.)
Where am I? I’m pretty sure I’m sitting at my desk, with my fingers on the keyboard of my laptop computer, inside my apartment on the third floor of a building in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn. And yet I’m not entirely here. To some degree, I’m not in a chair but absorbed in the words on the screen in front of me and connected, through them, to some sort of abstract, conceptual, linguistic space. All writers know this sensation, and it doesn’t require a computer, but attaining this absent absorption is somehow easier with a computer than with a typewriter. What’s more, you don’t have to be a writer to get lost in a screen. And, because our screens can keep us company in places where they didn’t formerly go—you can take your laptop to the coffee shop, your smartphone almost anywhere—there are more places where they can loosen our footing, send us floating free.
By now, most of us have either been the one who veers on the sidewalk while lost in a phone call or have had to sidestep someone who does. In a New York Times article from the year 2000, a good deal earlier than you might’ve expected, physicist and writer Alan Lightman remarked on that: “When you’re on the cell phone, you’re not where your body is. You’re somewhere out there in hyperspace. By always being somewhere else, rather than where you are, you’re nowhere.” Lightman was interviewed by the Times in connection with a novel he’d published that year, called The Diagnosis, in which a man falls prey to some kind of information sickness. Lightman’s character loses his physical senses one by one; the implication, one assumes (I haven’t read the novel), is that our data-riddled life is causing us, not literally but figuratively, to lose our senses. It’s hard to say when the Information Age began, but we were already some ways into it when Lightman’s novel came out, and the tide of data and devices and mediated connections has only risen since then.
One of the newer gadgets to swim into our ken is the virtual-reality headset. More properly, it has returned, having first arrived in the 90s. Those early devices would seem crude now, but they worked well for the time. I tried one in a demonstration at a Dave & Buster’s. While I remember the bulkiness of the headgear and the weight of the cable tying me to some computers and the fact that I was made to stand in the middle of a simplified boxing ring, which kept me from stumbling into anyone else, I also remember seeing a different world around me: a prehistoric landscape, above which pterodactyls lazily soared. If I turned my head quickly, the imagery lagged and had to catch up—I had the woozy sense, which sometimes comes after one drink too many, that the world was sliding around in my sights now and then—but I didn’t mind. As Samuel Johnson said about a dog’s walking on its hind legs, “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” I thought it was a fantastic bit of fun.
In the second coming of VR, the lag problem has been much reduced. The headgear has gotten lighter, the cable more slender. All the VR setups I know of include sound, and the more sophisticated systems can track us if we move, even allow something in our hands to manipulate what we’re seeing. In one demo on the HTC Vive system, I found myself standing on a sunken ship. Looking down, I could see the planks of the deck, and I could walk about a bit, approach the rail of the ship, and get closer to the fish and the very large blue whale swimming near me. Another Vive demo, of software called Tilt Brush, relied on two hand controllers and let me paint in three dimensions, though it mainly proved that I’m as bad at painting in three dimensions as I am in two. A little later, in trying the Oculus Rift along with a position-tracking system, I enjoyed discovering that, if I physically squatted, my avatar in the VR scene would also squat, which felt like the right thing to do because a Tyrannosaurus rex was just then towering over me. I also enjoyed a brief experience of rock climbing, in which I was able to choose a handhold by looking at it in the proper way.
For me, something was lacking in most of these demos, just as the other VR experiences I’ve had—which include a Mr. Robot promo and another ocean visit through the New York Times VR series—seemed deficient in various ways. I’d done nothing to earn my presence on that sunken ship, nothing other than travel to a game store in Manhattan; though I’ve dreamed of scuba diving since I was a child, I hadn’t taken the classes, traveled to a distant sea, hired a dive boat, or done any swimming. My time undersea involved no risk, no effort, no skill, which matters because being somewhere usually carries with it the residue of what you’ve done to get there, and though the scene looked right I had none of the other sensations, especially that odd weightless impediment of moving through water. Of what I’ve done so far, only Tilt Brush intrigued me with its challenge and possibility, and even those are limited. Say I get a system, learn to use Tilt Brush, and make something I’d like to share. To whom am I going to show my 3-D creation? Google can produce a video like this; I can’t. One of my questions about VR, which I can answer for technologies such as my laptop computer and my writing software and my Internet connection, is whether it will allow me to further my goals in the world, pursue my interests, engage my body and my mind in rewarding ways. Like TV when I use it to unwind, what I’ve seen of VR so far is less appealing as a form of doing something than as a way of doing nothing. Play can be purposeful, and a good use of VR in a game may change my impression; so may any number of other things. I’m skeptical, but I’m also curious.
The VR experience is now, to use Dr. Johnson’s term, done well, at least relatively speaking. But something is going wrong, for some users. According to a recent article on the Atlantic website, written by Rebecca Searles, “It seems that VR is making people ill in a way no one predicted.” One user calls it “post-VR sadness,” though he describes it as less a feeling of depression than of detachment. He speaks of a sense of “disappointment” and says, “The sky seems less colorful and it just feels like I’m missing the ‘magic.’” The article reports that others have felt effects that “range from feeling temporarily fuzzy, light-headed, and in a dream-like state, to more severe detachment that lasts days—or weeks.” A couple of terms I haven’t heard before enter the discussion: depersonalization and derealization, the latter indicating a sense that one’s surroundings are not real, the former a feeling that one’s self isn’t real.
Possibly today’s VR devices work too well. Changing place quickly as if by flipping a switch, which is what happens when we’ve put on a VR headset and its display suddenly fills our view with a new scene, may be hard for our brains to process. Maybe we just can’t recognize, understand, and feel at home in a simulated environment right away. But this doesn’t seem to be the problem. To judge only from the Atlantic article, no one has a dissociative experience when they enter a VR world from the physical world; it happens only the other way round, as a result of leaving the VR world and returning to one’s physical, social, and cultural surroundings. The article nods to the sense of vertigo or motion sickness that some people feel, but that’s different. Instead, the problem seems to be that VR gives its users a heightened sense of reality, registers with more vividness and intensity and presence than one’s ordinary surroundings do, and that withdrawing from this can cause the mind to doubt its surroundings for a while. If plain-Jane reality doesn’t measure up to virtual reality—so our mind might think—then plain-Jane reality may not be real, or real enough. Regarding the other so-called VR-hangover effects, it’s worth pointing out that many drugs—including plain old alcohol and marijuana as well as cognitive enhancers such as Provigil, stimulants such as Adderall, and psychotropic chemicals such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin—also alter or enhance one’s perceptions and that, for some people, the fading of those effects leaves one feeling disappointed, diminished.
Another possibility is that our cultural comprehension hasn’t yet caught up with VR. Space travel, for the few who have done it, has left widely varying impressions in its wake, which the rest of us know little of. Maybe, if humanity keeps it up, we’ll get a better collective sense of the kind of consequences it’s likely to have; we’ll have a more refined set of expectations ahead of time, and we’ll be better able to help those who come out of it with ill effects, as seems to have happened in some cases. (I’m not speaking of physical effects but of psychological ones. Buzz Aldrin, who landed on the moon in 1969, later struggled with alcoholism and depression, but it’s hard to say how much family history contributed to that.) This won’t necessarily lessen the feelings, whatever they are, but they’ll be part of our knowledge of how things work, of what can happen when you take yourself away from your home planet and then return to it. Likewise, it may be that VR will retain its potential to unsettle some people, but we’ll find ways to prepare for that, we’ll know to watch for it, and we’ll develop some pretty reliable means of dealing with it.
Air travel may be a better comparison, closer to home, though not fully down-to-earth. In a Season Three episode of The Americans, one of the central characters, Elizabeth, and her daughter, Paige, have just returned to Washington, D. C., from a trip overseas, and as they walk out of the airport terminal, Paige says something like this: “How odd that we were just in Berlin and now we’re here again.” By coincidence, when I saw that, I had just been reading about that feeling in a book called Skyfaring, by airline pilot Mark Vanhoenacker. His chapters are named for simple but fundamental aspects of flight, such as “Lift” or “Machine” or “Air,” and he discusses “Place” at some length. “Jet lag results from our rapid motion between time zones,” he writes, beginning with the familiar.
Yet our sense of place is scrambled as easily as our body’s circadian rhythms. Because jet lag refers only to a confusion of time, to a difference measured by hours, I call this other feeling “place lag”: the imaginative drag that results from our jet-age displacements over every kind of distance; from the inability of our deep old sense of place to keep up with our airplanes.…
No matter which pair of cities the plane links, almost all air travel can feel too quick.…
If we do not see much of the intervening earth—if we as passengers sleep most of the way or do not have a window seat—then journeys of such inconceivable scale can seem to take place all but instantaneously.…
It is right that our first hours in a city feel wrong, or at least bewildering, in a way we can’t quite specify. We are not built for speed, certainly not for this speed. When we cross the world some lower portion of our brains cannot understand what has, we might say, taken place.
Not everyone is so sensitive to their own experience or so evocative in writing about it, but what Vanhoenacker is describing must have happened to a great number of people, with varying degrees of impact. Place lag, to use his term, is clearly familiar enough that a television writer used it in a scene. This is part of what I mean by cultural comprehension: it’s what we get when a number of people have shared an experience, and when most of us, including those who haven’t had it, possess a common way of understanding it. You don’t have to be a drinker to know what a hangover is; you don’t have to be a world traveler to grasp the idea of jet lag or its companion, place lag.
Vanhoenacker has not only come up with a handy term for air travelers’ uncertainty about where they are. He also suggests, indirectly, a fix for it. He writes in the same chapter that he often gets his first full sense of the city he has arrived in when he exits his airplane, leaves the equally processed air of the terminal, and steps outside, just as Paige did in that moment from The Americans. That’s when the sense of place begins to settle; it’s where he is struck by the blasting heat of Dallas, or the scent of the sea in Boston, or the “rich, faintly smoky smell” of certain cities in India.
If VR is a kind of travel and VR sickness results from a kind of dislocation, another form of place lag, as I imagine it does at least some of the time, then the treatment for it may involve a restorative reliance on senses other than sight. One of the sufferers described in the Atlantic article used such an approach: “the only way I could get rid of that feeling was to walk around or touch things around me.”
No doubt some of us took a journey this holiday season or will do so soon, and a lot of us probably received a VR headset as a gift. If you come back from a VR sojourn—or, for that matter, a physical one—feeling detached or questioning the nature of your reality (as some of Westworld’s androids have begun to do), I suggest you stick your nose in a bouquet of flowers, splash water on your face, or listen to yourself sing. It might even help to click your heels together three times and declare with conviction, “There’s no place like home.”
[5/27/17: Revised one sentence for clarity.]