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What is Virtual Reality in reality?

Daniel Miller24 February 2021

The problem with any discussion of Virtual Reality is precisely that it is so hard to take the discussion back to reality, by which I mean to return it to a sober scholarly discussion of what it is, rather than slipping into speculative opinions about what we would like to imagine it will be and then fooling ourselves into thinking that has already become the case. That is one of the reasons I made the film that you can watch here. In truth, I don’t think Virtual Reality is at all important with respect to the ethnography of everyday life. For myself, I decided that lockdown was the appropriate time to buy a device that had also come down in price. My main use involves an app called Wander which is effectively a 3D version of Google Street View.  My most memorable use of this was journeying around various places in Botswana in order to help one of my PhD students decide on a potential fieldsite.

But what I find very appealing is the fact that the idea for doing this came directly from my ethnography in Ireland, where I was greatly impressed by the gentleman you will now meet in this short film. The point was that his usage was not based on some hype, or vision of the future. Rather, it confirmed something I have been observing now for decades. In general, most new technologies are initially used to compensate for things we already wanted to do but were previously unable to accomplish. That has been the case for almost every iteration of the internet. Liam knew that, at his age, there are places he will probably never get to visit as a tourist and other places he would never have been able to visit anyway.

That led to his very real use of Virtual Reality:

The Age of Migration

Xin Yuan Wang13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.