On 20 February, 2019, Jak Wilmot put on a VR headset and didn’t take it off for an entire week. He ate, slept, worked and played in VR, and even created a special contraption that allowed him to shower without removing the headset. His week-long adventures in virtual reality were live-streamed and compiled into a short documentary now available on YouTube: “I spent a week in a VR headset, here’s what happened.”
So—what happened? The results were fairly anticlimactic. He didn’t go insane and didn’t even suffer from particularly egregious boredom. He did completely lose his sense of time, and he did face countless frustrations when trying to interact with the real world. But the worst physical harm he encountered was spilling coffee on his lap. When things got rough psychologically, he could always log into a group yoga session.
“I feel like I have successfully used this technology as an addition to, rather than an escape from, for my life,” he says. And yet, we all know that many people already use VR as an escape—or who are already addicted to VR.
Broader society will very likely react to VR like Jak Wilmot. Most people will accommodate new technologies in ways that don’t seem extreme or unhealthy. But there will surely be others who cling to virtual reality as a superior lifestyle to normal living. Whether they are aware of it or not, these people will be following an art movement from the late nineteenth century—they will be the leaders of a twenty-first century decadent movement.
The Movement Against Nature
The experience Wilmot describes in his documentary is eerily similar to those related by Joris-Karl Huysmans in his 1884 novel Against Nature. The protagonist, a reclusive man named Jean des Esseintes, obviously doesn’t spend his days in a VR headset (the term virtual reality wasn’t even coined for another hundred years). But he retreats from the real world, hides away in a remote country house, and dedicates his time to creating and appreciating synthetic sensations. His life’s objective is to reach a higher plane of experience by shunning everything natural, wallowing solely in manufactured sensations. For taste, fine wine and cheese. For smell, perfume. For social experience, literature that defies strict naturalism. His favorite type of art? Fake flowers.
Against Nature became the guidebook for the decadent movement, and Des Esseintes its fictional saint. Oscar Wilde praised the book as “one of the best I have ever seen” and Paul Valéry called it his “Bible and his bedside book.” Advocates of naturalist literature, however, shunned the book as if it were a poison. Émile Zola describes it as a “terrible blow to Naturalism.”
The debate between decadence and naturalism never died. It remains a central question both in art and in daily life: should we revere the natural, or give in to excess and artificiality? In the age of VR and AR, this debate can perhaps best be phrased in these terms: should we live in the natural world and limit our exposure to the digital, or should we fully embrace virtual reality and enliven our senses with digitally manufactured sensations?
Just as an entire movement arose out of Huysmans’ aesthetics first vision of the good life, so too can we expect a movement to arise out of the good life that Jak Wilmot demoed. “Virtual reality is whatever you want it to be,” says Wilmot. And that includes VR used as a Huysmansian escape from naturalism. In essence, the modern decadent movement is identical to the movement of the past, except that this time it’s led by techies and gamers, rather than artists and poets.
The Wilmot Smell Test
As virtual reality becomes more widespread, more people will be faced with this choice: will they use VR as an addition to their real life—as Wilmot claims to—or will they use it as an escape from reality? Wilmot unwittingly sets up an interesting test for this at the end of his documentary. After he’s taken off his headset and stepped outside, he says: “I have never appreciated the smell of outside air so much. One thing we cannot replicate is nature. We can do it visually and auditorily, but there’s something about the energy of outside that is amazing.”
This might be called the Wilmot Smell Test. It’s the point at which Wilmot sides with those who think VR should be just an addition to real life. Stepping outside, he revels in the reality of natural smell—and the natural energy of the real world. One might imagine an alternative reaction: stepping outside only to take offense at the harshness of reality, with its stubbornly present smells and its overbearing assault upon the senses with pointless “energy.” To have this latter reaction, of course, would be to fail the Wilmot Smell Test.
The guidebook for the twenty-first century decadent movement won’t be written by a great French novelist or taught at prestigious universities. It will likely come in the form of a YouTube video much like Jak Wilmot’s, except that it will advocate fully embracing VR as an escape from your life. Hopefully, it will at least come with an advisory note about seeking help if and when psychological dependence develops. That’s one side effect Huysmans never had to worry about.
I’ve always thought that VR is the ideal solution for many of the problems of old age. You may be 90 and housebound or in a nursing home, but you can still use VR and the internet to go to the virtual pub with your real (but also housebound) friends, or virtually climb the north face of the Eiger with your real ex-mountaineer friends, and so on.
I’ve been saying for 30 years that when I retire and can’t get around any more I want to spend most of my time playing James Bond in Total Immersion Video Games.
The author sets this up as some Manichean choice: VR immersion OR appreciation of the natural world. No reason to believe that things will come down to this. I see the great potential of VR for people facing limits to their physical capabilities-the opportunity, for instance, for the quadriplegic to experience hiking, some simulations of physical being that cannot otherwise be experienced. At the same time people who love nature won’t accept this ersatz reality. Many people will simply see the tremendous potential of VR to reproduce images and sounds of a world plagued by climate change (images that might replace what we will lose to man’s destructive impulses). People will be able to choose to experience either reality; I don’t see this as a setup for some kind of dystopian world, just a new set of choices.
counterpoint: virtual reality will spark a 21st century pick-pocketing movement.
I hope to be able — someday — to take walks through my favourite parklands with a VR headset on so as to experience what that environment may have looked like in the past. Or in the future.
Whilst enjoying — at the same time — the beautiful aromas around me.