BY LEAH A. RANSOM
A review of The Ethics of Virtual and Augmented Reality: Building Worlds, by Erick Jose Ramirez. New York: Routledge, 2022. 216 pp. $128.00.
Virtual and augmented reality technologies have been developing rapidly over the last decade. The growth in these areas have even led some researchers to begin to describe the range of technologies as “extended reality” since the boundaries between augmentation and immersion can and are being pushed in unique ways that are not always easy to categorize. Although often associated with gaming, these technologies have far reaching applications that are educative, extend the boundaries of experimental design, and even have the potential to reshape our work and social environments. In The Ethics of Virtual and Augmented Reality: Building Worlds, Erick Jose Ramirez explores these emerging applications and endeavors to create an ethical framework for educators, researchers, and game designers to consider as they continue to develop and use these technologies on or with individuals who may have “virtually real” experiences while using them.
Ramirez undertakes this process in seven chapters with the first five philosophically developing a rationale for the construction of a code of ethics that is created and applied in the final two chapters. Chapter one introduces the reader to both virtual and augmented reality technologies as well as their current uses and applications. Augmented reality (AR) involves an overlay of visual and/or auditory information on top of the user’s existing real-world environment – e.g. Pokémon GO, Snapchat filters. Virtual reality (VR) involves complete immersion in a digital experience where audio-visual input is entirely simulated. Ramirez lays out questions about presence, experience, identity, and empathy while discussing simulations designed to orient the user to what it is like to be a homeless person, wheelchair bound or a black man experiencing racist encounters. These simulations claim to offer an in-their-shoes perspective designed to induce radical empathy. Ramirez suggests these simulations may be ethically problematic. He also discusses the possibilities of creating moral vignettes like the trolley problem or designing experiments that would not otherwise receive IRB approval. The ethicality of these uses can only be considered after a detailed examination of changes in perspective and the limits of empathy which Ramirez then undertakes in chapter two. This chapter begins by distinguishing thought experiments that can be pedagogically useful versus perspectival thought experiments that are meant to have a probative role. The latter require perspective-taking that Ramirez argues is beyond our imaginative capacity. To explain this, he breaks down various forms of empathy from non-cognitive mirroring to more cognitively demanding mind-reading, imagining what another may do in a situation based on our knowledge of who they are and their circumstances, and perspective-taking which requires individuals to imagine themselves in a particular situation and think about what they might do in a given context. The problem with perspectival thought experiments is their propensity for failure as Milgram’s shock experiment in the 1960s illustrated just how wrong we may be about what we would do. Ramirez suggests that this failure is because although we may be able to imaginatively recreate the doxastic elements (sensory data) of a situation, we are unable to capture subdoxastic features such as emotion, time pressure, or other non-conscious influences unique to the agent. We are only capable of imagining ‘base cases’ or “those where the differences between the empathizer and their target are irrelevant because idiosyncratic features of each agent don’t impact the goal of empathy.” (pg. 34) Not only are we incapable of putting ourselves in the shoes of others, we are also incapable of accurately putting ourselves in our own past or future shoes.
In chapter three, Ramirez analyzes presence in virtual worlds or the feeling of being physically located in a simulation rather than where one’s body is located in reality. He gives four distinct examples of VR and AR experiences and proceeds to outline the differences between them that make a “virtually real” experience more likely. Drawing from several conceptions of presence in psychological literature, Ramirez zeroes in on three distinct factors that increase the likelihood that a virtual experience will be experienced as “virtually real.” The first is context-realism or the components that make the virtual world operate as our world does. User-interfaces, the ability to hover in space, quick healing after massive damage, past/future/imaginary settings are just a few factors that lower context-realism and remind the user that they are in a simulation. The second factor is perspectival fidelity or design elements that respond to the user’s choices and point of view such as the use of diegetic sounds, haptic feedback and first-person as opposed to third-person or God’s eye view. The third and final factor is related to a subject’s psychological makeup, notably their tendency to disassociation and high scores in openness to experience, extraversion and neuroticism.
Chapter four focuses on the potential of VR/AR simulations to yield ecologically valid experimental results. Ramirez cautions that subjects who have ‘virtually real’ experiences are susceptible to harm as if they were in a real-life setting because they experience it as such. He points to the 2006 VR simulation of Milgram’s original experiment and the potential harm inflicted on some of the subjects as some individuals behaved as if the shocked learner was real, asking questions as though the simulated person they were shocking was sentient and capable of answering. The recreation was perspectivally faithful with a high degree of context-realism. Ramirez also discusses game design where VR/AR developers can lower context-realism and perspectival fidelity to keep games fun without crossing a line into emotionally traumatizing content. Shooting aliens on a spaceship is very different than realistic war conditions with human enemies whose bodies don’t disappear or glow with items to pick up. Ramirez introduces “The Equivalence Principle (TEP): If it would be wrong to subject a person to an experience, then it would be wrong to subject a person to a virtually real analog of that experience. As a simulation’s likelihood of inducing virtually real experiences in its users increases, so too should the justification for the creation and use of the simulation.” (pg. 89) Ramirez argues that TEP or something like it should be employed in experimental design, game design, education, or anywhere that virtual simulations are employed.
In chapter five, Ramirez explains why experience tourism is unethical in part because the promise of experiencing life as a black man, a migrant crossing the border, or an individual who has autism simply cannot be accomplished. He references philosopher Thomas Nagel’s assertion that it is impossible for us to imagine what it is like to be a bat because bat experiences are shaped by bat bodies. The best we can do is imagine what it is like for a human to be a bat, not what it is like for a bat to be a bat. What is particularly insightful about this chapter is the application of structural intersectionality to recognize that the intersection of identities cannot be replicated. Perspectival empathy simulations essentialize gender, race, ability, etc and require subjects to rely on existing stereotypes to fill in any gaps. Ramirez’ argument is compelling, and his ethical examination of nudging is also insightful. While acknowledging the admirable intentions of creators, Ramirez suggests that rather than generating in-their-shoes experiences, creators should develop simulations that position the users as engaged witnesses. Here the goal would be to generate sympathy rather than empathy. Not only does this sidestep many ethical concerns, this approach does seem to show promising results thus far.
Chapter six walks the reader through the current ethical landscape and constructs a code of ethics that addresses technomoral issues unique to extended reality (XR) technologies. The code is practical and easy to apply. The final chapter of the book is the most speculative, considering ethical concerns that may be on the horizon as AR technology specifically becomes as ubiquitous as the internet. Who will be responsible for user appearances? Might we be able to change our appearance at will? Should we be able to control how others look to us? What might this mean for romantic relationships? How will we reidentify people when our evolutionary heuristics are no longer useful? If individuals can change their appearance, voices, languages, gender, or species at any moment how will we be able to recognize each other? These are important questions to ask now as AR glasses and contacts are already hitting the market and rapidly developing. As Ramirez points out, 2040 may look very different (literally)!
The challenge of this book, one that Ramirez readily acknowledges, is that research on VR/AR technologies is scant so conclusions can only be drawn tentatively. Additional research may invalidate some of the base assumptions used to justify ethical recommendations. For example, exposure to VR may indeed pose a risk for increased dissociative tendencies or deskilling in children, but we may find no adverse effects or deskilling may be accompanied by a technological upskilling to accomplish the same tasks. Ramirez does an excellent job acknowledging contingencies like this. The Ethics of Virtual and Augmented Reality: Building Worlds is accessible for undergraduate students while still providing substantial discussion material for graduate seminars and scholars alike. Anyone interested in digital ethics, gaming studies, identity, or technology will find this book to be both enlightening and provocative.
- Leah A. Ransom is a PhD student in Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests include: digital ethics, social epistemology, and video games.