The Promise and Potential Peril of Oculus Rift

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Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boy_wearing_Oculus_Rift_HMD.jpg

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By Yonatan Gordon

Imagine for a moment that you were transported back to moments before the Red Sea split. As the barreling chariots of the Egyptians become visible, various thoughts and doubts may run through your mind. Then at that moment, according to the Midrash, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumps into the sea. Miraculously it splits and the entire nation proceeds onward, including you of course.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that a person is where his person’s thoughts are. To begin to appreciate in greater detail the power of thought, let’s now extend our thinking by means of a “time machine” (מכונתזמן). The value of this phrase is 613, the same as the number of commandments in the Torah. We can learn from this that if a person is complete in all 613 commandments then he has a time machine.

Let’s assume that the imagery of the splitting of the sea thousands of years back began to appear in your mind’s eye. What then? If you see yourself as the protagonist of the story, Nachshon, then this is a very good thing. Close your eyes and imagine yourself jumping into a sea of water, full of faith that God will deliver the Jewish people from the Egyptian pursuers. But the Red Sea experience was also fraught by paranoia. Will they be caught? Only after the Jewish people reached the other side, and witnessed their enemies drowned in the sea, did they begin to spontaneously call out in song to God.

Every morning we recite the Song of the Sea during the prayer service. But instead of recounting a historical event, ideally we should meditate on freeing ourselves from the perceived pursuers and paranoia of everyday life.

While the Splitting of the Sea meditation is immersive, there is also a test. Because the encounter is so captivating, there is also the risk of being swept away by the waters (God forbid). Psychologically according to Hasidism, we call this danger confusing the pursuer with the pursued or the predator with the prey.

As explained at length Body, Mind and Soul, the immune system of the body relates to the fear of rape, being pursued by the wolf. Whereas a healthy immune system annihilates destructive foreign intrusions into the body, an unhealthy immune system turns against the body itself.

The spiritual cure is to cultivate in our soul a sense of thanks to all those who have been kind to us and acknowledge our indebtedness to others, which in our account relates to the thanksgiving and praise offered after the splitting of the Red Sea. But until we get to that point, until we free ourselves of paranoia through redemptive song, there is a very great risk. And that is what we may confuse the pursuer with the pursued – the Egyptians with the Jewish people.

Immersive Virtual Reality

All that we have explained is a mental exercise mimicked by virtual reality technologies such as Oculus Rift. While these machines can’t actually take the user travel through time and space – for space travel you need a “space machine” (מכונתמקום), the value of “Shabbat” (שבת) or Shabbat observance – the visual realms they depict are dangerously addictive.

Let’s now assume that a game is developed called the “Red Sea Experience.” While playing, the gamer has the option of choosing to act out the experience from the vantage point of any of the participants of the event. If he chooses Nachshon, Moses, Miriam, or any member of the Jewish people, then he is doing well. But as we explained before, until healed of the pursuer-pursued confusion malady, God forbid, a person may mistakenly decide to choose to experience the perspective of one of the pursuing Egyptians. The question (and the concern) is what happens during the game over, the drowning experience? Whereas physically the gamer is not actually drowning, he may be led to think he is. Both from a physical and spiritual perspective this causes us to raise a red flag as to the potential danger of Oculus Rift and other devices like it.

Whereas fully immersive meditation – whereby the meditator travels time and space – requires full mitzvah and Shabbat observance to be experienced in its fullest (as alluded to in the numerical equivalences above), these virtual devices don’t require anything other than to put them on. As it is, children have died as a result of marathon gaming sessions. All the more so should there be concern for a “completely immersive computer-generated environment” like what Oculus Rift presents.

Non-Regulated Entertainment

In a recent Fox News article, Dr. Keith Ablow writes:

“Here’s the problem: If the Oculus Rift were a pharmaceutical or medical device, rather than a gaming headset, the FDA would study it for years and demand rigorous clinical trials in volunteers before approving it. It would want to make certain the device had no unexpected side effects — like depression or attention deficit disorder or anxiety or delusional thinking. And it would want to make sure it was not addictive.”

If you read the rest of the article, without mentioning the Kabbalah, Dr. Ablow goes on to explain the importance of interacting with real reality and real relationships to solve real world problems. But the Creator provides the cure before any possible disease or ailment. While Dr. Ablow is rightfully concerned that Oculus Rift and other virtual reality devices may lead to “narcissism and depression and dissociation and violent behavior,” we have already explained the cure.

When reading about the splitting of the Red Sea every morning during prayer, experiencing the Exodus from Egypt during Passover, the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot, and so forth, we run the risk of viewing these as one-time historical occurrences. But as Hasidism emphasizes, we should experience these events as if they were happening anew. While these experiences have the potential to be most profound and awe-inspiring, we also run the risk of viewing them as historical tales.

Whereas the unfettered flight of virtual reality games is potentially dangerous, if anything they remind us of the importance of immersing in and experiencing events to their fullest. Whereas the imaginary escapades of these games could potentially lead to uncontrolled highs, our grounding and regulatory board is Torah and mitzvah observance.

What then do we suggest? Learn the real potential of thought. Learn how to travel back in time or travel to distant lands in an instant. Learn how to experience as new that which first occurred thousands of years ago.

There are three garments of the soul: thought, speech and action. These three vehicles of self-expression enable the powers of the soul to manifest in reality.But whereas speech and actions stop at times, a person is always thinking. But since thoughts don’t stop the test is whether a person will replace the negative thoughts that come to mind with positive ones.

This then is our wish. That we all learn how to fully interact with the real reality around us, unfettered by the perceived limits of space and time, and fully immersed in positivity.

Invisible Technology

Astro Teller, head of Google X, recently delivered a keynote speech at Disrupt NY where he stated something very similar to what we are now explaining. To quote from the Tech Crunch article:

“When technology reaches that level of invisibility in our lives, that’s our ultimate goal. It vanishes into our lives. It says: ‘you don’t have to do the work, I’ll do the work.’”

What is our take on this statement? That while technology reminds us of the great potential of the human mind, we also hope for the day when technology becomes invisible. So invisible in fact that we no longer need it at all.

The Seer of Lublin could see clearly from one end of the world to the next without the need for Google Glass, Oculus Rift, or any other technology. Likewise, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev stated that we are all shown a vision of the Third Temple on the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av, the day when we commemorate the destruction of the first two Temples.

Back in January (January 1st to be exact) I published an article called “2014: The Year of the NonExistent Product.” This was written long before I knew about Oculus Rift, or what Astro Teller would say in his recent speech. But nevertheless I explained there that the supremacy of products is over, and we are now entering the primacy of thought.

Thus I would like to end with the wish that each and every one of you always merit to think good and happy thoughts. And for this we definitely don’t need the help of any machine.

Originally Published on Jpost.com. Republished with Permission.

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Please support Yonatan’s new Jewcer campaign “The Kabbalah of Business Book” by clicking HERE today!

 

 

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