Imagine you’ve put on a VR headset and you’re about to enter a virtual world. When you get there, it looks just like the real one. So much like the real one that you get confused. You begin questioning everything, from whether the furniture and room around you is real to whether you’re real yourself. Luckily, you’ve got an escape route. You can get back to the ‘real world’ through telephone wires. Or can you?
No, I’m not trying to get you inside the head of Neo from the 1999 film The Matrix, but inside the head of Dr. Fred Stiller, the main character from a mind-bending TV miniseries from 1973, which foresaw a great deal about virtual reality and our complicated relationship with technology nearly half a century ago.
A brief history of virtual reality
Virtual reality has been a buzzword in the tech and entertainment industries for a few years now. You can spend a small fortune on the higher-end headsets, like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, but cheaper options, like the Oculus Go, have made VR more affordable and accessible in a short amount of time.
The jury’s still out on the long-term consumer interest in VR, but as more of us are increasingly able to now buy our own VR headsets, the imagined future of connecting up to virtual entertainment each night in our living rooms is becoming more of a possibility.
But although this technology may seem relatively new, researchers have been developing virtual reality headsets in some form or another since the 1960s.
What’s more, sci-fi creators have been exploring the concept of digitally-generated realities for even longer, some of the earliest examples being Pygmalion’s Spectacles, written by Stanley G. Weinbaum in 1935, which describes a pair of glasses that allow the wearer to experience another world through sight, smell, taste and touch. Shortly after, Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote The Invention of Morel (La invención de Morel) in 1940, which tells the story of the discovery of a machine that can replay virtual scenarios over and over.
Since then, virtual reality has become a source of inspiration for a huge range of science-fiction novels, TV shows and movies, including Brainstorm (1983), The Matrix (1999), Ready Player One (2018), and many, many more.
But after all of this time, one of the most fascinating, hypnotic examples of virtual reality in science-fiction, which is filled with many of the same concerns, challenges and fears we’re facing today, is World on a Wire (Welt Am Draht).
Predicting the future of VR in 1973
Nearly 50 years ago, German film maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder created a two-part sci-fi miniseries made for TV that was way ahead of its time. Combined, the parts created a movie that would be an entirely different genre for Fassbinder and a pioneering example of VR on the screen.
Based on the book Simulacron-3, written by Daniel F. Galouye in 1964, the movie is set within the Institute for Cybernetics and Future Science (IKZ). Engineers have created the Simulacron, a virtual world that looks just like the real world and contains more than 9,000 ‘identity units’ who all look like real people and think they’re living, breathing human beings - and, importantly, not generated AI living in a simulation.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because I’m keen for everyone to go and watch it, but after a series of strange events, the protagonist and new head of the Simulacron project, Dr. Fred Stiller, begins to question the nature of his reality and goes on a mission to find the truth.
Made in postwar Germany, the narrative is delirious and full of paranoia that’s only amplified by the frenetic camera shots. But aside from leaving the viewer feeling confused, a little nauseous and maybe not as real as they always thought themselves to be, its lasting impact is that it proves virtual reality isn’t new. Instead, it’s been a part of our consciousness and sci-fi storytelling for decades.
Not only does the movie look to an imagined future, but, like many of the best works of science-fiction, it puts the cultural, social, economic and psychological implications of future technology under the spotlight too.
Because sci-fi is not only a source of inspiration for big new ideas and tech concepts, which sometimes make their way into the real world, it’s also a testing ground to look at the concerns, challenges and mistakes of these pioneering technologies in order to inform the future.
And World on a Wire does that exceptionally well. Here are just a few examples of how the movie explored the ethical challenges of dealing with artificial Intelligence and using technology and data for corporate gain, questioned how we identify what’s real, and examined the effects of paranoia and future shock when engaging with new technology that’s more important today than ever.
The threat of corporate entities staking a claim on technology
The virtual world in World on a Wire has huge potential for humanity. When asked by a journalist who benefits from the Simulacron, Stiller replies, “Everyone, if it’s up to me.” But, as you might expect, Stiller’s boss Siskins has other ideas. He plans on privatising the technology behind the Simulacron so it can’t be used by the public. Instead, he plans on building a relationship with United Steel, a corporation that wants to use the Simulacron to predict future demand for their products, thus gaming the system and making the company more money.
This battle between Stiller’s and Siskin’s interests plays a central role in the unfolding of the narrative and shines a spotlight on the disturbing relationships between government institutions and private corporations. This points to a universal concern that, if it gets into the wrong hands, new technology may not be used for the masses or betterment of society at all, but instead developed with the primary interests of consumerism, demands of corporations and political gain.
Comparing this narrative to the present day conjures up a whole host of sinister comparisons, including the recent privacy concerns surrounding Facebook. But long before the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Fassbinder was exploring the implications of corporations, tech companies and governments working together to serve their own corporate and political agendas. It was a warning that despite the fact new technology promises to entertain, improve and better us it also has the potential to exploit people in order to make money - leaving us all with little power or choice.
The terror of questioning your own existence
In World on a Wire, Stiller begins to question the nature of his reality, realising that if the virtual world feels just like the real one, could the one he thinks is real be virtual too? What about his own identity, is that real or is he one of the many, many units inside the simulation?
Anyone who has tried a VR experience before - especially if it involved haptic gloves or a suit - will know that when you ‘return’ to the real world things can feel a bit weird and disorientating, both mentally and physically.
So it’s not a huge leap to imagine that as technology develops and virtual worlds become more and more real, we might start to question what ‘real’ even means and have trouble separating simulated worlds from the real one.
This ontological terror around questioning reality, our existence and whether we’re real or not has become commonplace in the sci-fi genre, whether it’s unplugging in The Matrix, wondering who is and isn’t a replicant in Blade Runner and the journeys the hosts in Westworld go on to take back their power.
The more we bend reality, artificially create life, worlds and everything in-between, the more we need to be aware of the impact that could have on us psychologically. Whether that’s paranoia, shock or even disorders that haven’t manifested yet.
There’s been so much research recently about the positive effects of virtual reality, not as much attention has been paid to its detrimental effects. One 2006 study found that some people enter a dissociative state after trialling VR, which can lead to derealisation - a feeling like you or your environment is no longer real.
As VR advances we need to be wary of these issues and develop ways to feel immersion in virtual environments, whilst finding ways to ground ourselves and prevent feelings of derealisation so we can transition between realities safely.
The nuances of dealing with artificial intelligence
The units within the Simulacron have their own lives, thoughts, feelings and ambitions - one even tries to escape because he’s aware he’s in a virtual environment.
We need to bear in mind that if we create these characters within a virtual world and want them to seem as real as possible, that pursuit of artificial intelligence and realism might bring about issues. Of course this is the same concern as any kind of AI developing understanding and consciousness, which is a theme that’s rife in science-fiction, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina.
But what World on a Wire highlights so well is an AI’s programming for survival - and how this might develop. If we want a unit to have thoughts and feelings, to become intelligent and learn from us, it logically might want to do things that go against the entire reasons it exists in the first place.
At this stage these are more thought experiments than genuine concerns, but understanding that we have an ethical and moral obligation when creating AI is a lesson that should be prevalent from World on a Wire and the other sci-fi examples that deal with robots gone rogue.
The lasting impact of World on a Wire on the sci-fi genre
Before its 2014 Criterion release, World on a Wire was mostly inaccessible to the public since it was first aired in the 70s and made a few appearances at film festivals since then - and that’s a real shame. But now we can get hold of it, it’s well worth the 3 and a half hour runtime.
At its core, World on a Wire is an enigmatic, ambitious and prophetic look at virtual reality and technology. It shows where we might be headed in terms of big ideas and future tech, as well as predicting some of the moral minefields we may have to navigate sooner than we think.
So if you’re looking for a simulated reality story and hefty dose of future shock that predates The Matrix, Black Mirror and Westworld, dig out Fassbinder’s cult classic, which is still a landmark sci-fi movie 50 years on.