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Reality: Where Does It Go From Here?

The 2017 edition of annual VR and AR conference 'Versions' had a lot of feelings about our future relationship with tech.

Now an annual meeting of the greatest minds in VR and AR, the second edition of NEW INC and Kill Screen's Versions conference revolved around how these nascent technologies are affecting our current reality and how they will affect future cultural landscapes. Held at the New Museum and guided by the Albert Einstein quote, "Reality is an illusion, a persistent one," the eight hour event contained six panels filled with VR creators, visual artists, video game designers, and a smattering of other cultural experts and creators, as well as a closing address on the dystopic nature of digital rights management (DRM) by author and technology activist Cory Doctorow.


You, Me, & Everyone We Know panel with Victor Luo, Cecilia Abadie, Jon Rafman, and Judith Donath, facilitated by Jamin Warren.

In Gary Shteyngart's sci-fi novel Super Sad True Love Story, the author imagines a dystopic future where people can use devices called äppärats to see each other's "hotness" rating, a combined metric derived from their job, salary, and other mostly superficial metrics. In the panel You, Me, & Everyone We Know, author and Harvard Berkman Center fellow Judith Donath argued that in the near future, AR technology will allow people to peruse the personal information of strangers while walking down the street, in a similar fashion to Shteyngart's äppärats.

Artist Brenda Laurel gets her face digitally scanned during downtime at Versions 2017.

"We'll probably have a chip that emits your own information to other people. It'll start off as a thing for people interested in self-branding, then it'll get popular with the masses, and then it will reach the point where it will be weird for you not to have one. People will wonder if you have something to hide," Donath posited. "Issues of privacy will shape the future of AR and VR."

The crowd at Versions 2017

As something of a counterpoint, Meta Company program manager Cecilia Abadie argued that "things don't usually happen in as dystopian a way as they are portrayed in media," and that "the only way to predict the future is to invent it," effectively saying the power is in our hands to prevent this. Still, the question of how to control the ways in which our personal information is emitted into the world as these new technologies develop is paramount, no matter what direction the future takes.


Fireside Chat with Claire L. Evans and Brenda Laurel

Veering away from VR and AR specifically but staying within the realm of emerging technology, Doctorow's keynote address was a call-to-action against technology's ever-creeping domination upon us. Exploring the perils of DRM, a type of technology scheme resulting from the Clinton administration's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), Doctorow revealed how we are starting to serve our technologies, rather than having our technologies serve us, as we tend to think.

Versions 2017 Keynote Address speaker Cory Doctorow

Doctorow explained how DRM transforms not only the commercial rights, but also the commercial preferences of companies into literal law. Using the example of HP printers, which recently underwent firmware updates that notified their owners that their 3rd Party ink cartridges were 'damaged' and incompatible with their units, the activist disclosed that the inks do in fact still work with the printers, but embedded software in the HP brand cartridges tell the printer to reject those without it. Third party developers are prohibited from incorporating this software into their own cartridges since tampering with it violates the DMCA, which can result in hundreds of thousands of dollars of fines and minimum jail sentence of five years. "We are a step away from dishwashers that won't take third party dishes," Doctorow morbidly jokes.

The crowd at Versions 2017

Beyond the greedy, capitalist overtones of DRM and DMCA, Doctorow explained how these laws directly cause terrifying security breaches. Benevolent hackers and users that encounter security flaws in these technologies are not legally allowed to report these vulnerabilities because they are in violation of the DMCA. Because security measures cannot be taken in advance by those with good intentions, malevolent hackers have a much easier time hijacking these technologies, as evidenced by an unknown individual yelling at a child through a baby monitor and a series of Chrysler Jeeps whose hotspots allowed hackers to control them remotely.


A Versions attendee tries New Reality Company's 'Tree' VR experience at the Ace Hotel after party.

But Doctorow isn't passively waiting for DRM to take over human life and hackers to cause irreparable damage, and he hopes we don't either. In 2015, he joined the Apollo 1201 Project, an organization attempting to eradicate DRM before our future is negatively molded by it. The project is guided by two simple principles it sees as imperative to prevent a dystopic future: "Devices should always obey their owner," and "Uncovered security facts and flaws should be legal to disclose."

A Versions attendee tries Tyler Herd's 'Chocolate' VR experience at the Ace Hotel after party.

The address ended with Doctorow urging the audience to share the ugly side of DRM with at least two other technological-inclined but unaware people, and in turn to ask them to do the same. "The need to combat DRM is humanity's most important battle, as every major cultural battle will be fought on the Internet in the future. We need collective action to kill DRM and to implant the above principles."

Sensing Stories panel with Robin McNicholas, Charlotte Furet, Drazen Bosnjak, and Chandler Burr, facilitated by Adi Robertson

More information on this year's iteration of Versions can be found on the conference's website. A recorded live stream of the conference can be viewed for free on Twitch.

Being There: Agency & Storytelling panel with Nick Montfort, Hector Harkness, Nancy Bennett, and Diana Williams, facilitated by Julia Kaganskiy


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