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Techno Terrors: A Look Back (and Ahead) at 1983’s BRAINSTORM

“But the thing is, I like it. I want more.” — Dr. Michael Brace

Can we know death without dying? Or, can we experience simulated death that is so real that we too will die? As fantastical as these questions may seem, developers of modern virtual reality are aware of the problem that death poses. And although no clear line exists to know when things become too real, there are attempts by the VR world to limit the realness of death. Problematically, then, these VR developers and their company executives are in charge of the ethics of what we experience. But in the Wild West of VR, if development of teledildonics and simulation are an attempt to make virtual sex as real — or better — than real sex, then, who is stopping anyone from developing death experience like no other — one so real that the user may experience even the afterlife?

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In BRAINSTORM, directed by Douglas Trumbull (special photographic effects supervisor, 2001: A SPACE ODDYSSEY), Drs. Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher) and Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) invent a machine capable of recording, onto a kind of film, the experiences of users who have been strapped into a headset. These experiences can then be played back for a new user.

The researchers quickly learn that not only are users capable of experiencing, in first-person, the visual archive of another, but also the feelings and emotions of others. This new finding leads Brace to empathize with his estranged wife, Karen (Natalie Wood, here in her final role), resulting in an improvement in their relationship and a deepening of their connection.

It is clear that there are beneficial aspects of the technology. However, in other instances the dark side is made plain. As is the case of Hal Abramson (Joe Dorsey) who is nearly turned to a vegetative state after borrowing a sexual experience, then editing the clip (splicing and taping in analog fashion). Hal sits, half naked, twitching, and groaning as he is caught in a dangerously addictive orgasm loop before being saved by Brace.

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Once word of the breakthrough spreads, it becomes clear to Reynolds that the military industrial complex (those funding the research) have other plans for the technology. Against Reynolds’ wishes, the military team begins monitoring her progress.

Perhaps due to the increasing stress of her life’s work, Reynolds suffers a massive heart attack. Alone in her lab and with her last dying effort, she manages to strap on the headset and record her final moments. Brace attempts to experience Reynolds’ death film, but realizes that this induces the heart attack upon himself. With some tweaking (lowering the physical effects) he begins to experience her death. Unfortunately, at this same time, a member of the spying military team does not make the necessary changes—he experiences the heart attack and subsequently dies.

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Initially, Brace is unable to complete the entire death scene, and soon the military takes complete control of the project, which we learn is codenamed Project Brainstorm. And what does the military have in mind? Brace hacks into the server and finds that beyond flight simulation, film experiences of severe mental trauma, torture, and brainwashing are documented. He vows, then, to destroy the project, but not before experiencing, completely, the death of Reynolds.

The final scene suffers from Abrahamic religious tropes of the afterlife: heaven, hell, and angel like beings. But, the subject of being someone else through the playing of film over a headset raises many questions—questions that today are no longer only the purview of speculative fiction.

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A few years ago, Google Glass was used to produce a first person pornographic short featuring mega porn star James Deen and Andy San Dimas. The idea is that the user may choose to participate from either actor’s point-of-view. Although not tapping into higher brain functions as in BRAINSTORM, if done properly, the goal is for the experience to feel as immersive and real as possible – especially if coupled with teledildonics, which are in development. And being that Google Glass, and indeed Cardboard, are mobile, the relationship between social media, VR, and porn becomes an even more fascinating study. Clearly, we will have sex with someone while we’re having sex with someone else. There’s no doubt that the porn industry will likely be at the forefront of mastering VR simulation since stimulation is its goal.

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Anyone can find their kick, however obscure and fetishistic, on the Internet and VR promises to break the screen. As fascinating and engrossing as porn can be, perhaps not very far away (in some imagined scale) is the interest we have in the abject and morbid. As normalized and unspoken as prescription drug addiction is, so too is the pornography of media violence we consume daily. Consider the endless loop of figures leaping to their deaths from the Twin Towers. As Hal nearly orgasms himself to death in BRAINSTORM, so too may be the future of virtual sex and violence — and yet, it is highly unlikely to be a purely individual, solo experience. The web 2.0 ethos of digital sociality will be a foundation of newer VR applications and death games will become very real and very social (see my previous Techno Terrors: Brainscan).

The question with media and violence has always been how much will the fantasy affect reality, from Dungeons and Dragons, to heavy metal, and Internet chat rooms. But it is increasingly difficult to extract being connected from disconnected; the dichotomy no longer holds — the center does not hold. It’s likely that VR will be a training ground for violence and near-death experiences — but the military and other professions as well as the laymen will use this pain and gore for their own ends. BRAINSTORM raises a more interesting conflict: that between pure, personal pleasure & pain versus the empathetic potentials of being someone else. If such moralizing is left to the developers, military industrial complex or corporate executives, then we may lose the game entirely.

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