Can Virtuality ever substitute for Reality?

The animatronic moose twitched the skin of its flank, and as the flies buzzed off, water drops dripped from the hairs on its belly. Four days into a seven day circuit of the Bowron Lakes, we were in a swampy area where each lake seemed to have a moose or two which appeared off to the left of us as we paddled in from the river, and which bounded off into the woods a moment or two later; and about the third time this happened, on the same day that we had seen an osprey catch a fish and a couple of beavers poking their heads up from the water as we prepared to drag-portage across a dam,  I had joked that it was just like being in Disneyland with all the predictable animatronic displays in each section.

But this time I was nervous. Perhaps we were too close, because if the moose spooked and ran towards us, its hooves might do us more damage than a mere dunking in slightly smelly water.

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That was real. But the picture that occupies the header for this Aeon/Psyche article gave me the tools to imagine an experience I have never had. Having paddled a kayak in ocean waters, and having seen ponds in glacial ice up close, I could already well imagine the experience of paddling up to a floating iceberg – and maybe into and over the slightly luminous pale turquoise of the shallow water between the two looming mounds of hard white ice (rendered completely opaque by the action of weathering on its sometimes smoothly puckered and sometimes ornately sculpted surface). And prompted by the picture (or by a verbal description) I could even imagine the concern I might have on looking up at the darkening sky – about whether I should cut my visit short for fear of being caught far from land in bad weather.

Of course, that imagined fear is different (at the time) from the real fear I felt about getting too close to the moose. But I am not sure that the memory of it is necessarily so much different (which may be why false memories of abuse can sometimes be as harmful to the victim as the reality). And the same applies to almost every aspect of every other travel experience I have had. We do not now have (and may never have!) the technology needed to create a truly immersive travel experience. But if we did, and if that experience could include interactions with real people (or avatars that we could not distinguish from such), so that ethical decisions about how much to tip and so on would be understood to have real consequences for other real people, then I am not sure that anything would be lost by replacing all travel with its virtual counterpart.

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