Ready Player One: Virtual Reality May Need to Join the Internet As a Utility Someday

I know we like to focus on the day-to-day nitty gritty of politics here at the Washington Monthly, but it’s a slow news Sunday so it can’t hurt to have some speculative fun and talk a bit about virtual reality.

As most of us are aware by now, the FCC is going to classify broadband as a utility. That has the effect of not only helping to protect net neutrality, but also defanging service providers from predating and extracting exorbitant rents on the common good that is the Internet.

And though it may seem far-fetched at the moment, there may came a day in the not-so-distant future when one or more virtual reality worlds will need the same protection.

This point will be clear to any progressive reader of the charming and engaging 2011 bestseller Ready Player One. The story is set in a dystopian world of energy, climate and unemployment crises in the middle of this century, in which most of civilization chooses to spend almost all its free time in a much more pleasant world: a lifelike virtual reality simulation called the OASIS in which much of life from school to shopping takes place free of prejudices and complications from the real world. The book’s plot is driven forward by the death of the simulated world’s creator, whose last will and testament creates an elaborate contest whose winner will gain a majority stake in his company, and therefore control of the OASIS itself. Up against the protagonist are a bevy of obstacles, not least of which is a behemoth evil Internet Service Provider corporation that resembles Comcast or Verizon on steroids and wants control of the OASIS in order to charge access to it and spam it with advertising.

It’s a fun book, but from a public policy angle the scenario presents a number of problems. it’s not unreasonable to suspect that there may come a day when virtual reality is so engaging that people will want to spend more time there than in the real world. It’s also possible that the existence of such a reality will help solve as many social problems as it causes. It’s also likely that the first entity to create such a world will be a private corporation. It’s also not unreasonable to postulate that for convenience’s sake alone, the cost and infrastructure required to maintain a universal simulated reality will mean that only a few companies will compete in the space–and much like with Facebook and social networking, it’s possible verging on probable that there will only be one popular choice in the marketplace, at least for a long time.

The challenge in Ready Player One is that the rules governing this incredibly important new space are controlled by a handful of private individuals, and a hostile takeover by a malevolent corporation is also possible. At no point in the book is there even a consideration that the OASIS should be truly public space controlled by the taxpayers. That’s partly to serve the narrative, but also partly because the notion of public control doesn’t square very well with tech nerd culture.

That is going to have to change. When truly effective virtual reality that is useful for more than just games does come along, it’s going to be an incredibly valuable asset to humanity. As with broadband today, the rules governing access to and use of that space will be far too important to be left at the whim of the private profit motive.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.