Reality as a service

I’ve always seen reality as mixed, so when I heard today that Microsoft is about to launch a line of Windows Mixed Reality Headsets, I was chuffed. Everyone who dons the eyewear, I assumed, would see the world exactly as I do. It was a dream come true. Subjectivity would finally be resolved, and in my favor. Here at last was a gizmo — from Microsoft, no less — that I could get behind.

Then I read that Microsoft “defines Mixed Reality as anything that includes or falls between Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.” My chuffiness evaporated like dew on a summer morn. Whatever these headsets are going to reveal, it’s not going to be my reality. It’s not even going to be a reality. It’s going to be a bunch of realities subsumed into a meta reality.

We seem to have an abundance of realities all of a sudden. It’s like the Yippies finally went through with their plan to put acid in the water supply. I’m feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t even realized that there was a gap between Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality that other realities could squeeze into. I had taken it as a given that VR begins right where AR ends — that they share a border. I was mistaken. MR encompasses AR and VR, but it also includes many other, as yet unbranded Rs. Conceptually, it’s something like the multiverse. Once you admit the possibility of two realities, you get a multitude of realities, all higgledy-piggledy.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” T. S. Eliot wrote. But he wasn’t wearing a Windows Mixed Reality Headset.

I see where this is heading. Reality is about to be platformed. Reality, in fact, is going to be the ultimate platform: the Superplatform. You’re going to have Apple Reality, Facebook Reality, Google Reality, Amazon Reality, and Microsoft Reality, and each of them is going to be enclosed in a Trump-sized wall. The Reality War will be the war to end all Platform Wars.

Who am I kidding? There’s not going to be any war. Competition is for losers, particularly when it comes to reality-building. What we’re actually going to see is the rise of a Reality Oligopoly: five great and profitable Reality Monopolies feigning rivalry but existing comfortably side by side. I expect that the walls between them will end up being slightly porous — just enough to allow a bit of reality-hopping. You may be a member of Facebook Reality, but you’ll be able to vacation in Amazon Reality. Some sort of cross-payments system will be arranged.

It seems weird to think of reality as being ad-based, but I suppose a cynic would say it’s been that way for a while. Still, I can’t help but see a protest movement emerging: a small band of lefties and libertarians marching together under the banner of Reality Neutrality. “Reality wants to be free!” they’ll declare in a manifesto. To which the Reality Monopolists will quietly reply: “You’re entitled to your own facts, but you’re not entitled to your own reality.”

Image: Microsoft.