Two of my favorite movies are Soylent Green and A Clockwork Orange. Both presciently depict virtual reality as a tool for mind control and behavior modification. In Soylent Green, as a reward for volunteering to die and be turned into food (the product is called Soylent Green), the late Edward G. Robinson is treated to a fantastic movie of the natural world he never saw, complete with a soundtrack featuring Beethoven’s Pastoral. He is amazed and reassured by what he sees and ends his days with a smile on his face. In A Clockwork Orange, Alex (played by Malcolm McDowell) is an unrepentant criminal engaged in “ultra-violence” who is to be punished and cured by being forced to watch scenes of violence with his eyes forced open, music played and nasty drugs administered. This procedure is called the Ludovico technique.
We are now focused anew on the purpose and effects of torture and behavior modification, spurred by the recent release of the U.S. Senate report on torture. The graphic descriptions of waterboarding, posture restrictions and “rectal rehydration” differ little from Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada’s techniques as practiced during the Spanish Inquisition. How is it that with all the amazing advances in the technology of warfare the U.S. is using such primitive and – as the intelligence report argues – ineffective tools?
Enter the world of Virtual Reality (VR) and the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES). The CES is an internationally acclaimed showcase for all the latest electronic gear held every January in Las Vegas. By all accounts, VR was the big hit at the latest CES. Half a dozen VR products were there, including the Oculus Rift headset and the Thync, a “brain-zapping headset” that targets “specific neural pathways to affect mood,” according to reviewer/wearer Tim Bradshaw. Add to this the recent announcement by Microsoft that they’re entering VR via HoloLens, a product designed to further enhance the experience.
Last year, Facebook bought Oculus VR (the parent company of the Oculus Rift), with the hopes of “building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile.” With the headset, one can play tennis as if he or she were on a court, or ski as if on a mountain. The illusions created by the headset allow for a nearly endless variety of simulations.
Of course, these gadgets are currently aimed at pleasurable illusions. But one can imagine how they could be used for other, more unpleasant purposes.
Instead of rectal rehydration or waterboarding, suppose enemy Islamic combatants were forced to experience endless depictions of unveiled naked women, people eating pork, a high mass or Shabbat service. Imagine the misery and demoralization of a prisoner who endured days or weeks of experiencing the images they find so offensive. Certainly, this would compel suspects to confess to crimes or divulge the secrets of an operation.
If VR can – with low impact – affect thought, perception and behavior it will prove an irresistible tool for those who are in the business of changing all three. The entire cannon of behavior modification, which is based on punishment for wayward thoughts and deviant behavior, may be on the verge of being thrown into the dustbin of history. VR has the power to re-program both thought and behavior – without an iota of physical violence.
VR may also prove to be a valuable tool in fighting poverty. The latest technologies are making pleasurable realities available for a negligible sum of money. Slum dwellers could spend hours or days in the VR world of mansions and luxury. The impoverished could be sent on VR vacations to exclusive beach and ski resorts, with a zero carbon footprint to boot. We have all seen how many youths’ almost total immersion in the world of video games has resulted in the disorienting blur between the cyber and the real. The potential for VR to invade and meld this amorphous boundary is powerful. As always, the vanguard may be youthful techies, but the potential to become mainstream (and ubiquitous) is there.
VR as the new form of torture will have so few squeamish side effects the revulsion factor will be minimal. Imagine (seriously) that all those tortured in Abu Ghraib were shown simply wearing well-designed, and thus “cool,” headsets. The prisoners would look like they were at the movies or a Google gathering. No more messy photos of detainees hanging by their wrists, no naked whippings and beatings, no pails of water. With nothing to object to, their sympathizers would not have a recruitment tool to send out on the internet. Guantanamo Bay would simply resemble a multiplex. There could be a dozen different “cinemas” of VR to use on the enemy combatant miscreants. Each one would be based on the specific VR experience the authorities deemed to be the most effective. The VR immersion could be completely personalized. It would not take long to find the unique hot buttons that every person has and program to those.
As in almost everything technological, the function quickly becomes adapted to its best (and most profitable) use. The Oculus Rift, the Thync and many others will probably make an appearance at the next defense contractors trade show. Perhaps at the booth they can reprise Disney’s 1964 World’s Fair theme song, “It’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” while strapping on those VR headsets. It would make a rather fitting – if eerie – setting for the birth of the next big thing in the intelligence-gathering establishment: digital torture.