8 January 2016

Welcome to virtual reality politics


This is the weekly newsletter from Iain Martin, editor of CapX. To receive it by email every Friday, along with a short daily email of our top five stories, please subscribe here.

At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, one of the hottest topics was virtual reality. After years of trial and error, it is finally tipped for take-off with technology now available that produces exciting results (motion sickness aside). An Oculus Rift headset will cost you $599. The idea is that you put on said headset, and eventually even a suit, that enables you to experience other worlds from the safety of your home. This all sounds pretty hellish to me, and no alternative to going out for dinner or for a walk to the pub, but then in technology terms I am not at the cutting edge. I am such a Luddite that this week I am struggling to come to terms with my beloved ten year old iPod Classic finally ceasing to work, and discovering when searching for a replacement that “progress” in the intervening decade means that the successor music devices now have a much smaller memory and are more expensive.

The concept of virtual reality has been around even longer than my old iPod. For those of us ancient enough to remember the first burst of mainstream publicity on the subject, the latest hype will have a familiar feel. In the 1990s the concern was that in the near future (about now) many people would be so addicted to their virtual reality headsets that they would never go out or communicate with real people. They would stay at home, participating in a VR reconstruction of the D-Day landings or having a drink (and perhaps more) with Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant. I think various authors wrote novels about the dystopian prospects and there were certainly long, chin-stroking essays published in newspapers and magazines about how the human race would soon turn in on itself in a narcissistic festival of orgiastic role-playing.

Like many predictions, or speculations about the future by technologists, it hasn’t turned out quite as envisaged, although the technological innovation of the last quarter of a century has had an impact akin to the Industrial Revolution in ways that were not and could not have been predicted. That’s the invigorating upside of innovation and technology.

The Web, harnessing the geeky power of the internet, has disrupted entire industries and brought enormous advantages to consumers and (sometimes) workers, thanks to price transparency and ease of communication. In terms of logistics, supermarkets, food production, financial markets, shipping, peer to peer purchasing, travel and booking holidays, there has been an enormous amount of change. Indeed, the news business – which I joined around the time people first started making jokes about the internet never catching on – has been disrupted as much as any other. It is difficult to explain how different it was several decades ago. Established media had a monopoly on classified advertising and mostly grew rich on display advertising, for cars, shops and holidays, which paid for journalism. In that restricted landscape, launching something like CapX, which first appeared 18 months ago, would have been much more difficult if not impossible. The internet revolution has enabled new providers to appear, and simultaneously journalists have lost their old monopoly on transmitting and interpreting the news, which is a positive development.

It is in politics, however, that the impact has arguably been greatest. There, the premise of the internet and social media revolution is that it is a unifying force for good, a generator of connections and facilitator of positive change that breaks down barriers. This was the basis for much of the hopeful rhetoric about the Arab Spring that swept large parts of the Middle East and North Africa several years ago, with campaigners inspired by tweets and Facebook posts about dictators being overthrown elsewhere. Sadly, it didn’t work out as planned. Revolutions rarely do.

The problem with politics and technology in the West is not one of violence, or not yet. Instead, we have entered what might be termed the era of virtual reality politics, in which supporters of a particular view can shut themselves off from those who think differently, shun any mainstream media and parrot comforting lines, and sometimes conspiracy theories, to fellow believers. It manifests itself in a deliberate, and often proud, rejection of facts or alternative views. This is also observable in the rise of far-left and far-right parties in Europe, and in Britain with the success of the Scottish Nationalists and the far-left Corbynistas who have taken over the UK’s opposition Labour party. This is not – most definitely not – to say that all people who support those parties adopt this approach, but like the virtual reality obsessive, sitting there with his headset in a world of his choosing, the most strident advocates of the Corbyn worldview, or the United Kingdom Independence Party analysis, or the Scottish Nationalist cause, have on social media the ability to create their own reality. Opponents or even people asking legitimate questions are regarded as stupid people, who have not seen the inherent truth, or worse, they are cast as downright evil.

The US, as befitting its status as the world’s leading economic power, is doing virtual reality politics on a bigger scale than anyone else, thanks to Donald Trump. The reality TV star is just what angry voters sick of Establishment politics and mainstream media want. The mainstream must take a decent amount of responsibility for this state of affairs, for sneering at those without “acceptable” views; and for denying for too long the concerns about aspects of globalisation (on uncontrolled migration in particular) and the failings of crony capitalism. In America it has created such resentment that the Republican party will be lucky to survive 2016 in one piece.

If it does, it will be because a Republican candidate (Marco Rubio I suspect) emerges who can somehow break down walls, and get groups that do not agree on everything to at least agree on something, which is the importance of decent national leadership. That ability to reach out has always been one of the key elements of leading in a democracy, and one must hope that enough voters prefer it to permanent rage and the illusions of virtual reality politics.

There is good news. The main lesson from the British general election of last year is that beyond all the populist excitement and anger, when it comes down to it on election day there tend still to be large numbers of undemonstrative voters who decline to get caught up in populism and turn out quietly having made a judgment that while they may not be wildly enthusiastic about the options, they do think there are still some requirements they expect in a leader representing their country. That is why Cameron and the Conservatives won last May.

That notion of there being sufficient sensible, practical voters to act as a bulwark is about to be tested in the US presidential election, first in the battle for the nomination and then in the general election in November. If Trump does somehow win, which I have too much belief in America to think will happen, then put me down for a virtual reality headset and I’ll disappear, along with many other people, and spend my time locked away pretending that the American President is Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan rather than Donald Trump.

Have a good weekend. Below are my five picks of the last week from CapX.

Iain Martin is Editor CapX