We're not quite there.
Rory's Rumblings: Will Virtual Reality Kill Surfing?
What will happen when we can plug in, tune out, and soar?
Season four of Black Mirror has been up on Netflix for the last few days and if you haven't yet watched it I highly recommend you do. It deals with themes I adore in my fiction—the nature of consciousness and reality, whether a digital simulacrum of our minds is truly us. The moral implications of carbon copying the human mind. Whether or not that copy is alive or just conscious.
I believe that if you cannot die you are not truly alive. The notion that those in charge would be able to retain their power for eternity, forever becoming further separated from the meat bags whose lives they control, instills in me a deep dread. A digitized consciousness is a thing, whether or not it thinks and feels.
It's why I'm morally opposed to AI development. The development of artificial minds will inevitably lead to humans either subjugating, or being subjugated by, an immortal race of minds unable to relate to the sweating, farting, crying hunks of meat that constitutes humanity. I've read too much Sci-fi to believe any of this ends well.
But that's paranoia for another day.
It's the first episode of this season, “USS Callister,” that got me thinking about surfing.
The episode takes place largely within the confines of a truly immersive virtual Reality. Everything within it is subjectively “Real.” The sights, the tastes, smells, the fear. If you're like me and struggle to reconcile the notion of an objective reality with your own inability to identify it due to your very subjective emotional response to stimuli it might make you ask, "What constitutes a Real experience?"
Our subculture is already facing a crisis in Kelly's Wave, and Wavepools in general. Like freshman thrown into Plato's Cave for the first time, we ask ourselves, "What is real?"
If you trap a wave in a pool and ride it, are you truly surfing? Or is it just saccharin sweet, close enough to satisfy an urge without being what we really crave?
I'm fine with calling it surfing. Or, if forced to nitpick, a new facet of surfing–Ditch Dragger, Pool Tool, whatever: The water is still wet. The physics behind the wave are, as I understand them, more or less the same. It's still fun. You still go fast and, according to rumor, it’s capable of dishing out severe injuries to fragile, middle-aged men.
With the expense and energy required of most of these desalinated simulacra, few currently find themselves with access to our sport’s Brave New World.
But what about VR? Very smart people are throwing large sums of money at the problem, it seems only a matter of time until they master the art of faking reality, and will eventually unlock the means to deliver a utterly convincing experience that is in no way grounded in authenticity. We'll be able to plug in, tune out, and soar...
What happens when a second reef roll-in bomb at Pipe can be picked off from a headset? The taste of salt in your mouth, the adrenaline in your veins. The rumble in your gut as it unloads on the reef. That empty-minded awareness engendered by a stand-up barrel. When physicality and endurance no longer play a factor. When there's no true danger other than the perceived. What if you could experience Ian Walsh's Pe'ahi barrel from the safety of your couch without sacrificing a single iota of actual sensation?
Would you do it? Should you do it?
Recreational drug users know, there's a cost to fully embracing the ersatz thrill that comes with altering a mind. Colors become muted in sober moments. Life can feel dull. Without judicious indulgence you run the risk of opting out, permanently retreating to the sanctity of the false.
If you can become a faux-superman, paddle in at Nazare, do airs at OTW that make JJF look like a kook, thread the needle through dry reef like Mason Ho, will the real thing hold any appeal? Why drive to the beach, deal with morning sickness dawn patrol while your aching body coaxes your muscles into movement, if you can find better within your mind?
I don't believe that wave pools will kill surfing. But virtual reality could. What I don't know is whether I'd sign up, take the ride, accept that fantasy will always be better than reality. Stop attempting to force my blundering body toward a goal that is, for most of us, only achievable in the absence of consequences. Would I willingly forego a dream in order to preserve my appreciation of the actual? Would anyone?