Virtual Being

I’ve thought a lot lately, and written about at times, the phenomenon of the virtual world. Specifically, I’ve pondered the impact of the virtual reality offered up by Second Life and, to a lesser extent, online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. My take, and the reason I’m interested, is that the ever-widening spaces of the virtual world represent a new type of reality and existence for humans, heretofore unexplored and unknown.

If I bring this up in a public space, I invariably get a curiously defensive response from early adopter/technophile types who will argue that none of this is new, that humanity has always endeavored to escape, however temporarily, the physical world through inventions of virtual worlds – through literature, drama, psychoactive drugs and, later, video games and film.

Fair enough. But what I’m seeing develop is something of much broader impact, and it is due to the medium you are now engaging: the Internet. As prevalent as fantasy and “worlds of the mind” may have been throughout history, none of the methods for fashioning other worlds, until now, provided the prospect of a persistent, universally shared alternative physical reality and an alternative identity (or multiple identities) for the individuals inhabiting that reality. I believe this is the defining difference of online virtual worlds compared with past escapism, and the reason they are exploding in popularity – not just the easily labeled virtual worlds of Second Life and multi-player online games, but all of them – the online forums, the chat rooms, the shopping malls, the movie houses, the sex dens, even one’s e-mail correspondence can take place, due to the Internet, in an always-present, always available (with the advent of Blackberries, universal WiFi, netbooks and the like) and always populated alternate reality. And the most striking difference, I think, is that this alternate reality no longer represents an “alternate” to the “real” world – it is equal to if not more compelling to plugged-in individuals than the so-called real world. The virtual world, in fact, as demonstrated by late human behavior patterns, is presently competing with the real world for our attention. And among many individuals, it appears to be winning.

This is new. If someone in the past, for example, were to spend a disproportionate amount of their time living a Star Wars fantasy, or if you prefer, dressing like Jane Austen and pretending to be a denizen of Regency England, we would have, as a society, designated that person as at least “out of touch” and, at most, a kook. Think “Trekkie.” But today, and often by necessity, many of us spend a very large portion of our time interacting not with Nature and our fellow beings, but with an LCD screen and our fellow Avatars or screen names or e-mail addresses. We may never meet these “people” (and in the case of online forums/worlds/gaming are unlikely to ever meet them), and yet it does not seem strange to us that we now divide our contacts–our friends and associates–between “people” we know and – well, whatever we want to call the partial version of people we deign to “know” online. (We don’t necessarily know them – we know their online persona. Case in point: the FBI agent who spends all day pretending to be a 14-year-old girl.)

Evidence that the virtual world is “winning” the battle for our attention is anecdotal but compelling.  Often it seems change in human behavior is generational – that is, that novel ways of living are established in our youth (because everything is new anyway), and persist through our adulthood. If this is so, then look at the youth of today – they are totally at home in the virtual world, and many seem disengaged, bored or even restless when not connected to it. When socializing with younger people I know, it’s not uncommon for them to have their cell phones open and before their eyes the entire time, effectively dividing their attention between the “real” people they are with and the virtual information that may become available. It’s important to note, because it represents the advantage the virtual world has over flesh-and-blood humans. To wit: it is instantaneous, up-to-the-minute and universal in reach. Sitting at a table in a bar, you have a pretty good idea of what’s on offer for the next hour or two – the present people sitting, drinking and conversing. But on the table, your Blackberry is a  Siren, a portal to another – faster acting – reality, one which potentially offers you everyone you know (or in the case of Facebook, have ever known), and the latest news from around the globe as filtered for your preferences. In contrast to your drab flesh-and-blood companions, the phone offers instant access to an entire reality contained in cyberspace, filtered and channeled directly to its little screen.

This phenomenon has been lately noticed in business meetings, during which the “high-powered” folks will monitor their Blackberries for any contact or information that may override the more or less “static” presentation of the current meeting in the (predictable) physical world. Or maybe they’re just playing Solitaire. Presenters at meetings have noted they feel they are “in competition” with meeting attendees’ devices, and that they are at a natural disadvantage in such a contest – no flashing colors, no news, no tweets from Ashton Kutcher, no stock updates, no surprises.

The bizarre phenomenon of “driving while texting” probably would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But it is prevalent enough to be an issue in this society, and it signifies the pull of the virtual world – we can’t even let it go while we’re fully engaged in the physical world and at risk of seriously compromising our place in it.

This is not meant as a criticism of technological progress, and I would hope this site is evidence enough that I am not a technophobe or Luddite. I don’t actually know (nor does anyone) what the spread of virtual habitats  portends. We may become a nation–a world–of sedentary screen gazers who forget what a tree looks like, or we may eventually ramp down our obsession with the virtual world and place it in our technology tool bag alongside digital cameras, DVDs and Marconi’s wireless. But we are living, at least part of the time, and for many of us a good part of the time, in a new reality, and I would argue that it is the first “new” reality for human beings since the earliest days of our embrace of civilization – represented by the inventions of writing, agriculture and animal husbandry.

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