If you could predetermine your experiences while floating in a tank with your brain plugged into electrodes, would you? I know I wouldn’t, even if that meant living a life strictly made of satisfactions and success. I’d rather not enter the Matrix anytime soon, thanks. It sounds creepy, disconnected from reality and just plain wrong. I’m not alone in thinking this: people generally tend to hold unfavorable reactions to “the Experience Machine” thought experiment, which philosopher Robert Nozick famously discussed in 1974. 

In his book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” Nozick predicts negative responses to the hypothetical scenario of the Experience Machine. He develops his argument by considering what matters to us beyond having good feelings. We want our experiences to be real, not restricted to a “man-made reality.” We want to perform certain activities. We want not just to feel, but to do. Why? Because we wish to become people of a sort: potentially successful, intelligent, well-rounded and ethical. Nozick concludes that “plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide.” It indeed feels unattractive to live a life completely dictated by an external influence, in which we lose all of our agency and connection to the real world.

But what are virtual reality, or VR, technologies if not a toned-down version of an Experience Machine? VR headsets promise to morph users’ environments into completely distinct scenarios, blending the digital world with reality to create an immersive experience. With a VR headset on, I could skydive from the safety of my common room and travel to faraway countries without taking a flight. But no matter how vivid and convincing these moments may seem, I don’t think they will ever be enough.

I would expect people to react to VR in the same way they reacted to the Experience Machine thought experiment. Instead, people have been flocking to buy a headset of their own. VR users increased to 171 million in 2022, and the VR market is predicted to reach ten times its 2021 size this year. But the question remains: if we want to live the “here and now” in its truthful and imperfect form, why are so many of us diving head-first into the online world? 

I think the answer is that we tend to behave in accordance with the majority. I’m possibly more critical of VR because none of my friends own a headset, and I see this technology as a cutting-edge development embraced by the distant mist of the unknown. But like VR, social media arguably follows similar premises to Nozick’s thought experiment. We are constantly immersed in the lives of others, curated to reveal mostly happy, sunny, glimmering vignettes. I am an active user of social media, probably because everyone I know also is. In our current world, being online appears to be a condition for keeping one’s interpersonal connections. Social media has become the primary way of staying informed about other people and keeping in touch. 

We all wish to have real lives. Ideally, our experiences should be determined by our concrete actions and should bear significant consequences for those around us. Yet when the fake and virtual permeate everyone’s day to day, disconnecting feels impossible. Maybe we react negatively to the Experience Machine because we imagine ourselves isolated in a tank, while others are going to class, sitting in Cross Campus, or jogging in the street. That happens to be my first impression of VR as well. 

But if everyone was plugged into an Experience Machine, would any of us have the courage to unplug? 

LAURA WAGNER is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College. Her fortnightly column, “Metamorphosis,” promotes insights about adapting to technological innovation and future change, based on personal experiences at Yale and beyond. Contact her at laura.wagner@yale.edu