John Humphrys staggering around in a piece of ‘virtual reality’ headgear that looked like binoculars and made him feel sick was as attention-grabbing as radio can be. So I listened in last week as the intrepid Today presenter tried out infotech’s latest gimmick.
The Oculus Rift began life on a crowdfunding website, heralded as an exciting new tool in virtual reality: a tool that computer-games boffins had long been trying to crack. Facebook bought it, and Rift should hit the market this month.
I experienced a forerunner years ago when sampling for my newspaper a day in the life of a bus driver. At a driving school I sat behind the wheel of a virtual double-decker, and ‘drove’ the lurching behemoth, checking wing mirrors, hitting kerbs, narrowly missing a pedestrian in a storm — and feeling, like John, slightly sick.
But that needed a roomful of equipment. The computing, the all-round video projection, the computer-generated pictures for windscreen and wing mirrors, the synchronised sound effects and the jolt when we hit the kerb cost a bomb. It was therefore a narrowly limited experience, anchored in one place. The Rift, however, is all contained in a piece of headgear and — as Humphrys saw next — allows the transmission of on-the-spot reports we may soon be able to ‘experience’ as if we were standing in the reporter’s shoes.
Next will come ‘haptics’ — a sophisticated version of my jolt on the bus — in which the subject can ‘touch’ and be touched; feel the breeze; be virtually splashed by the rain. Finally, smell and taste may not prove too difficult to replicate and transmit. We shall then have an experience in all the five senses, electronically communicable from one person to the other, as though one were the other. As Humphrys pointed out, the possibilities for pornography hardly bear thinking about.
His interviewee steered the conversation on to higher moral ground. A reporter, he explained, may soon be able to transmit from a refugee camp in Syria not just an old-fashioned ‘report’ of what it was like, but the whole experience. Here in Britain we could be all but inside the camp, inside the reporters’ or refugees’ skin: looking around, moving, hearing, feeling, seeing what they did. Humphrys worried lest this might ‘cheapen the suffering’ — dipping a toe in the water, as it were, from the comfort of our own homes for just a few minutes, thinking we now knew what it was like, but without really experiencing the torment, the loss, the whole predicament of those who would still be there when the device was switched off and we nipped into the kitchen for a coffee.
I have a different worry. Journalism edits. It must. By editing it ‘mediates’ the news. It must. The more successfully the mediator manages to hide — the more the audience feel they are seeing and hearing the news not through another but for themselves — the more power the mediator gains to shape the audience’s response. We think we’ve seen it, been there, felt it. We haven’t. We’ve encountered a little less of the reality and a lot more of the virtual.
I’m not implying a superior objectivity in the news reporting that a traditional print journalist undertakes. All report — word-of-mouth, print, radio or television — edits the raw data. This for more reasons than one. First, you could fill a newspaper (or an hour) with details of just one minor report, but time and space do not allow. You must select: boil it down to the salient details.
‘Salient’? This takes us to two more reasons for editing. Reported unselectively, real life often seems just a confusing mass of unrelated data. A reporter must keep our attention, and so searches for a storyline that can supply shape and meaning where there may be none. Finally, moral purpose is not absent from a reporter’s work. Are there good guys, bad guys, deserving victims, urgent human needs to describe? This too shapes an edit — as it would (for instance) shape that Syrian refugee-camp story. Time spent among plump children or well-dressed teenagers would tend not to make it through to the final feed, not necessarily because the editor wishes to mislead, but because someone (but not the ultimate audience) has decided they are unrepresentative.
All reporting topiarises: from a formless mass of available foliage, it excises what is not the desired pig, peacock or cow, until what is left resembles the topiarist’s template.
What’s my special problem with virtual reality? A problem that to some extent afflicts television reporting and all photo-journalism, but radio and print journalism less. It can be summarised in that hoary old fallacy ‘seeing is believing’. A written or spoken report wears its health warning — ‘Only if you trust the witness’ — on its sleeve. Pictures don’t. We print journalists are not and have never been particularly reliable, but the public know they don’t have to believe us, and often don’t. They should be (but are not) equally suspicious of pictures. Except to the photographer, pictures are hearsay too.
Shown an on-the-spot television report or shocking newspaper picture, we believe we’ve seen ‘with our own eyes’. ‘A picture’s worth a thousand words.’ It isn’t, of course, because what the viewer has not seen is the selection process; but the more immediate and first-hand the viewer’s experience feels, the easier that is to forget.
Print journalism and, to some degree, radio lack this dangerous power. When a report is heard or read, the audience does not feel they are themselves the witness. When it’s a still picture, they may. Even more so when the picture moves.
Virtual reality takes that illusion one step further, seeming to place the audience physically in the scene. The cumbersome Oculus Rift may prove a commercial flop, but it surely points the way. As entertainment, enjoy the sensory enhancement this century has in store. As news, cultivate towards it an enhanced distrust. You aren’t there in that camp. You really aren’t.