Primal Numbers – Holodecks on Holiday, Part II

Welcome back to the USS Enterprise, where the next big thing in travel awaits you: a holiday on the holodeck. No need to pack, buy insurance, or get inoculated. Soon, you can take the entire family to Europe from the comfort of your couch. The only question is, who will control what you see when you get there?

Before we answer that, let’s look at the obvious benefits. First of all, the technology itself is pretty cool. As this Telegraph article reports, the virtual reality visors by Oculus can take you to popular destinations around the world. No doubt the number of locations will expand and the quality will improve. In the next decade, researchers even hope to include physical sensations such as taste and touch in the experience.

Holodeck holidays could also democratize travel. Since a virtual trip to the Parthenon would be far less expensive than the real thing, millions of people could enjoy a holiday they might not otherwise take.

And then there’s the sheer convenience of it all. Afraid of flying? No problem on the holodeck. Worried about trekking your family halfway around the world? It’s much easier to keep an eye young kids (and avoid unexpected illness) when you know the customs, language, and food.

So, what’s not to like, then? Well, if your holodeck holiday is just an interesting add-on to real travel adventures, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. The danger will be if we start replacing real travel with virtual trips, because here be dragons.

The dragons, of course, are simply a catch-all for our fear of the unknown. Uncharted territory That’s presumably crawling with fearsome creatures and dangers aplenty (the colourful medieval phrase first appeared on the Hunt-Lenox Globe, made in 1510, as this Atlantic article explains.)

Which is not to say that holodeck holidays will turn us all into fearful, racist xenophobes. Those problems have existed for thousands of years, long before the first kings and dynasties conquered their neighbours.

No, the problem with holodeck holidays lies in the gatekeepers of those real-yet-virtual worlds. Who will create them? Whose version of a real country or culture will we be wandering through?

Whether It’s a tiny company or a massive corporation, someone else’s vision will form the places you see. Politics, profit, religion, and a hundred other factors will lay a filter over the landscape. There may be no intent to deceive, but You’re never going to see those places as they truly are?or be aware of deliberate distortion when it does exist.

In the real world, you can talk to locals. You can come to know, firsthand, how other people view the world. You can discover differences and similarities to your own life, even though their culture might seem unknowably foreign to you. Travel to a different country, or even another province, and you’ll probably discover that “they” have a lot in common with “us.”

You may well find out that those dragons really were a figment of your imagination.

On a holodeck, though, unfiltered exchanges don’t exist. There’s no chance to see peoples or cultures as they actually are, for better or worse.

We put up filters in the real world too (you don’t act the same way around your boss and your best friend, for example). But what we’re talking about here is an entire place and culture being portrayed as though It’s the real thing. Not a book or movie, but a virtual duplicate of what you’d encounter in person.

And That’s where it pays to remember that, no matter how good the technology might get, there’s more than just an ordinary window between you and the scenery. There are also the agendas, beliefs, and interpretations of people you’ve never met. People who, intentionally or not, are showing you the world through their own eyes.

Holodeck travel brochure? Count me in. But when It’s time to explore distant places, I’d rather slay those dragons for myself.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.