It can be difficult to conceive of shared fantasies, where different desires catalyze and synthesize with one another rather than remaining separate and inert. It requires effort and sensitivity to harmonize, to let go of control, in pursuit of a broader kind of fulfillment, an expanded sense of belonging. It’s much easier to conflate fantasy with agency, with doing whatever one wants without the dilution of considering others. Then the space of fantasy becomes anywhere you can be alone and uninterrupted.
This idea seemed to have shaped the initial conception of a “virtual reality.” The term evoked a digital simulacrum of life, imagined as occurring in a separate, perpetually provisional space in which alternatives could be explored unilaterally without material commitment or moral responsibility. One could plug into it and escape to an unlimited freedom. The virtual was regarded as the opposite of the actual because it was held to be the antithesis of the realm of necessity. It was defined by the removal of contingencies and consequences. It was immaterial in several senses of the word.
But hidden in this notion of virtuality as liberty and generative possibility—as the unfettered capacity to express oneself—was always an assumption that virtual realities would not be shared spaces; they would rather be individualized projections that at most overlapped. Nothing could possibly be more isolating than wearing a VR helmet.
If the point of a virtual space is to manifest my unfettered will, then traces of other people’s agency become impermissible. I would need to somehow translate them into consequences of my manipulations, expressions of my ultimate design. The point is to make my illusion of control complete, turning other people into objects for my consumption.
In this version of virtuality, a collection of computers sustains the possibility of a space; it tracks and hosts our impulses, and assimilates us to its circuits. We are alone with a replica of the world, which renders itself only as far as our desire demands. But the more I expect to make my virtual world in the image of my imagination, the more it will preclude the participation of others. The more malleable and responsive it is to my whim, the more that malleability must be understood as a solipsistic strategy, proof of my isolation. This conception of virtual reality contracts the realm of possibilities to the limits of what I can imagine, an inverse big bang sucking the universe into the vanishing point of my infinitesimal consciousness. One could be everywhere at once in this kind of virtual reality, because everywhere was nowhere.
But these lonely places are not the virtual realities we have chosen to inhabit. Rather we have turned to the digital to extend our ability to communicate and connect; we have sought to further intertwine ourselves with others in ways that exceed the contingencies of geographic space, filling each of our moments with more social potentiality, more complications, more impingements on our autonomy, more deference and self-performance with an audience in mind. We chose to make the virtual a network of screens rather than a blank canvas, and treat it as an extension rather than an escape from social commitments. Why would you want unfettered agency to express yourself if there is no one there to notice? What fantasies are possible without intimacy?
In digital networks, virtual space coheres through collective attention; it makes intersubjectivity suddenly feel tangible, traceable, accountable. Social relations seem to gain materiality, density, affectivity. What seems immaterial becomes immutable. The archive of this social form of being begins to subsume or crowd out the more fleeting, ephemeral experience of physicality. Our overlapping realities dissolve into one another. We share data.
A collective sense of being is no longer a myth but the common sense of our daily experience, a primary default feeling of “we,” a sense that what I see is through our eyes, what I feel isn’t simply wasted on me. In this kind of virtuality, the limits of one’s body and one’s senses no longer serve as a pretext for limited empathy. Levinas’s dictum of an infinite ethical responsibility to the other begins to seem fulfillable, begins to merge with an infinite responsibility to oneself, where self and other are simultaneous, tightly enmeshed as they can’t be in empirical space.
But as ordinary as the collective consciousness can feel, it is also elusive. The virtual can expand to include everyone and thus no one—a social network of billions on which no one sees your posts. Belonging shades into exclusion; we becomes they. A community is as co-optable as it is tangible. The voices turn against you; they become indistinguishable from thoughts. This can trigger a desire to return to the body as a limit and as a refusal. The body becomes a retreat, a place where you no longer touch feeling but instead merely experience it again, happening to you rather than through you, the loneliness of sensation that can’t be shared. The body, rather than virtuality, becomes the site of escape, the dream proof of one’s inviolable privacy, where fantasies can begin again.