Are Virtual Worlds The Harbingers of The End of Society?

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When people discuss the future of online communities and virtual environments it’s the question that nags at the back of everyone’s mind.  Even among virtual world evangelists it’s a topic of concern, apprehension and uncertainty.  A concept and concern so powerful that mega hits like the Matrix have been based on it.

The question begs – are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end of society? Will, as most people fear the eventual march of technology result in environments so immersive, so powerful, and so socially disconnected that our species loses its ability and desire to interact, reproduce and perpetuate itself?  Will virtual worlds and their progeny result in the eventual death of civilization? Experience tells me that most people believe it will.

I disagree.

In fact, not only do I disagree, but I’m not worried in the least. The forward march of technology is an interesting dilemma.  Especially since, with each new invention things previously unimaginable become a reality opening the gateway to future inventions and technology so far beyond the scope of our current understanding that they are, by today’s standards, unfathomable. The side effect of this forward moving evolution is change.  Sometimes a change so fundamental, it re-shapes our very lives. Fire. The wheel. The written word.  Change can make the topic a very difficult one to explore, after all – change is scary or at the very least something that requires a transition period before it becomes comfortable. So, where is the fine line between what we’re afraid of because it’s new or different, and what we’re afraid of because it’s detrimental?

I believe the answer lies in our core nature as a species.  We are, fundamentally, social creatures.  We reach out, build communities, and seek out companionship.  We are not a-sexual and as such by our very biological makeup are hardwired to seek companionship.  Community is at the core of who we are, and our success as a species.  It powers our communities, which have enabled us to overcome great obstacles, eventually becoming the dominant form of life on earth.  It’s for that very reason that the thought of technology breaking down those social bonds is so alarming.  It’s also for that very reason that I’m not concerned. Humans – as a species – will always seek out other humans. In fact, the lengths we will go to are spectacular.  A point I am continually reminded of when I look at gamers behavior.

A few years ago when I was spending a lot of my time playing Everquest and other online games,,, I was constantly amazed at the lengths guild/group members would go to in order to meet each other in person.  It’s not uncommon for gaming guilds to hold meet-ups and while the lions share are more regionally oriented many are international in scope with members from all over the country (and world) flying in for small & medium sized face-to-face gatherings. There’s an important lesson here – even in one of the web’s most immersive environments people still reach out to each other.  Another example of the power of community presence is LAN parties where groups of 3 or more gather in one location and all play/chat/etc. for hours and in some cases days. At these events it’s not uncommon to have X people in a room silently focused on their screens for surprisingly long blocks of time without verbal interactions.  Despite their apparent lack of social interaction, they are using Skype-like technology to communicate with each other and others throughout the world, chatting constantly, and interacting in a rich world with their avatars.  So, why gather at all?  The comradship of being together.  The power and appeal of being in the presence of other humans and enjoying the face-to-face socialization that happens during downtime.  Again, these behaviors make it clear that as a species we thrive on, and hunger for, social interaction.  We are social creatures.

Confident in our social nature, I’m not concerned about the growing influence of technology because fundamentally we will always reach out to connect physically.  The dynamics may change, but the physical presence of someone, especially a romantic partner, is an experience that technology can’t duplicate.  In cases where it comes close it may temporarily satiate our needs, but ultimately even in these instances real world social interaction will always win out.  That’s why – to me – the fears about virtual world technology are a non-issue.

So, what happens if technology does move to the point where it can imitate and replace social interactions and the benefits of face-to-face interactions? That is the imagined matrix paradigm, a virtual reality so complete, real, and believable that you can’t tell the difference between it and the real world.  If, or rather when, technology evolves to the point where it is able to flawlessly imitate the real world, where does that leave us? Staunchly embedded and fiercely loyal to the world we know. It’s a scary thought, but realistically would that world be any less real, albeit different, than what we now classify as the “real world”?  Would it truly be a bad thing if it satiated all of our needs and fulfilled us every bit as completely as the “real world”? I don’t believe it would be bad.  In fact, at that point I believe it becomes every bit as real, valid and perhaps even essential as what we take for granted today.

So, are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end? If you believe that humans are fundamentally social animals and that we need that social interaction to survive, then your answer should be a confident no.  If, on the other hand, you do not believe that we are fundamentally social – what are you concerned about to begin with?

As always I value your feedback, thoughts and discussion.  Please take advantage of the comment feature below and share your thoughts!

Terrorism & Technology – Ignorance is Bliss

I can’t sit idly by any longer keeping my view on this matter to myself or limited to select conversations. The House’s recent vote to approve the FISA bill with provisions allowing immunity for the Telco companies that participated in the blatant violation of constitutional rights has left me steaming. Call it the straw that broke the camel’s back if you’d like but it’s time to take a real look at everyone’s favorite word – terrorism – and the delusional behavior that’s allowed otherwise intelligent Americans to sign off on atrocity after atrocity while selling the constitution and bill of rights off wholesale.

Willing to give up our constitutional rights in the name of security? All because you’ve been told and believe it will prevent Islamic terrorist attacks and that air travel, buildings, etc. will be safer and that you and your fellows will no longer be at risk if we give up enough of our liberties or allow enough supervision? I’ll let you in on a little secret. Not only are you wrong, but you’re so far off base you should be embarrassed. You want something to be afraid of? I’ll share the TRUTH with you and let me assure you it’s FAR scarier than the cinematic garbage you’ve been cowering from for the last 7 years. Only, these threats are hardly mentioned. These are just a taste of the real threat you face and the sad reality is that the steps being taken, and the rights you’ve offered up for sacrifice won’t make you any safer from them.

Edit: In reviewing this post I’ve decided that I need to attempt to clarify a key point before going into the following illustrations. I’m sharing these threats not to illustrate the danger we are in, but rather to illustrate the general dangers out there…To paint a big picture in the hope it helps you understand better, the real situation.  I believe that once you understand the situation better that you will, I hope, be less willing and susceptible to fear tactics based on over exaggerations/lack of perspective. I’ve included the following illustrations because while useful, I don’t believe big picture statistics such as the following register for the average individual. On the off chance that they do please note that the CDC has reported the following top 10 causes of death in the U.S. in 2005: Heart disease: 652,091, Cancer: 559,312, Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 143,579, Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 130,933, Accidents (unintentional injuries): 117,809, Diabetes: 75,119, Alzheimer’s disease: 71,599, Influenza/Pneumonia: 63,001, Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 43,901, Septicemia: 34,136.  When you add up these 15 diseases they killed 1,891,480 in 2005. Keep in mind that these statistics do not accuratly include the estimated 400,000+ people who die from smoking each year, or the 43,000+ estimated car accident fatalities which occured in 2005.  Consider how these threats impact your behavior and then consider how your behavior and ability to live life to its fullest has changed given your reaction to the threat of terrorism.  Now please consider these illustrations. I remind you they are real and shared not to drive you to give up your constitutional rights but rather the exact opposite. These are shared to educate and to give you perspective. Before you give something up paramount to the quality of your life, consider the relative nature of the alleged threats to your life.

Illustration I: It’s 113 degrees outside right now, tonight’s low will be 77 degrees. My air conditioning is running, I have constant access to cooled water, and I still go home dehydrated. In fact when I walk into my apartment I have to take off my shoes, or wait for the tar that’s melted onto them from the asphalt in the parking lot to melt. On my way home from work I’ll pass through at least 10 traffic lights. When I get home and go to cook dinner I’ll pull a T.V. dinner out of my freezer and microwave it. Now imagine the death toll that we could expect among Phoenix’s 6 million residents if the power went out for 2 days. The death toll aside, imagine the catastrophic economic impact?

Don’t think that’s possible? The Washington Post, January 19th 2008:

In a rare public warning to the power and utility industry, a CIA analyst this week said cyber attackers have hacked into the computer systems of utility companies outside the United States and made demands, in at least one case causing a power outage that affected multiple cities.

‘We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet,’ Tom Donahue, the CIA’s top cyber security analyst, said Wednesday at a trade conference in New Orleans.

The article goes on to quote:

Over the past year to 18 months, there has been “a huge increase in focused attacks on our national infrastructure networks, . . . and they have been coming from outside the United States,” said Ralph Logan, principal of the Logan Group, a cyber security firm.

At the time MSNBC noted:

In a test last year, the Homeland Security Department produced a video showing commands quietly triggered by simulated hackers having such a violent reaction that an enormous generator shudders as it flies apart and belches black-and-white smoke.

Illustration II: The power issue aside, let’s talk about Nuclear threats. We are, after all discussing invading Iran for continuing to pursue nuclear weapons – but again, let’s look at the REAL threat to Americans. Compare the impact of a foreign nation located on the other side of the world in which, despite all of the posturing and what’s happened in the middle east over the last 6 years, has a relatively positive view of the U.S. or…the potential harm just one or two rogue hackers could inflict if they were able to hack our nuclear facilities. Let’s look at Arizona again. Arizona is home to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant which has 3 reactors and is the largest in the U.S. It’s also located less than 50 miles from DOWNTOWN Phoenix. Anyone in the mood to speculate what might happen if hackers were able to compromise the facility and initiate an overload resulting in an enormous generator literally ripping itself apart? Oh, and I forgot to mention Presidential Candidate John McCain stated last week that his future energy policy would focus on building 45 new nuclear reactors in the U.S. by 2030 (NY Times).

Illustration III: Feeling nervous? That’s hardly anything compared to what would happen if malicious hackers penetrated the FAA’s flight system. You thought Sept. 11th was bad? As I’m writing this I did some flash research. According to FlightAware there are currently over 5,500 airborne aircraft being tracked by the system right now, with over 53,000 arrivals tracked in the last 24 hours. What happens if the software coordinating part or all of that traffic is compromised?

Illustration IV: Attended a major concert or sporting event recently? Pretty tough security right? Pat downs, searches, no opened water bottles or containers. Heck, more than a few of us have had our small nail clippers confiscated for “safety” reasons. All in the name of preventing terrorism and keeping you safe – it makes you feel better, right? One catch – when I was a student at ASU we snuck all sorts of things in through those security measures. Luckily we were focused on getting in tortillas and bottles of alcohol not plastic explosives and marbles. The student section typically holds several thousand of Americans best and brightest youths, packed shoulder to shoulder. The pathetic thing is, that despite all the money being spent and time being wasted, those security precautions still miss more than they actually catch. Just last week I was talking to a friend, who realized after the fact that she’d accidentally flown with a can of mace in her handbag. It’s an uneasy feeling I’m sure more than a few of you have shared.

Illustration V: Let’s put death, destruction and devastation aside and look at the information wars. Earlier this month an important, though little covered, news story broke noting that at least 3 members of Congress have reported that their computers had been compromised by Chinese hackers looking for information on dissidents. Even more interesting is this quote;

The Pentagon last month acknowledged at a closed House Intelligence committee meeting that its vast computer network is scanned or attacked by outsiders more than 300 million times each day.

Do I have your attention yet?

The Reality: These dangers are a basic snapshot of the threats out there. I’ve shared them with you to 1) educate you and to 2) offer illustrations of the extreme dangers out there in the hope of illustrating the triviality and blatant stupidity of the fear tactics currently being used on the American public 3) illustrate why terrorism is not sound grounds for giving up our constitutional rights. The panic-laden behavior of the current atmosphere of fear is a very real type of terrorism. The talking heads also have it right, in part. The target IS America and the American people. The unsettling and unpopular truth, however, is that we face two distinct groups of terrorists. The Islamic extremists we’re all more than familiar with and then a second, equally insidious group. The politicians, corporations, and consultants encouraging an atmosphere of fear for political and economic benefit. Since the viewpoint I’m about to cover is extremely controversial let’s start out with a basic definition:

“terrorism“ noun

1. The use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, esp. for political purposes.
2. The state of fear and submission produced by terrorism or terrorization.
3. A terroristic method of governing or of resisting a government.

In a post 9/11 world we are all more than familiar with this definition. Most of us have used the words terrorist, terrorism, etc. on a weekly basis over the past 7 years. However, this post is about what happens when we take a close look at the actual definition – at the significance of the word, the meaning, and what it truly means for American’s health, freedom, and safety as it relates to domestic threats.

For the sake of this post the two parts of the definition we need to focus on are the 2nd and 3rd points. In respect to the 2nd, I’d like you to take several moments and to reflect. Ask yourself who are ALL of the parties that have played a role in the creating and perpetuating the current atmosphere of fear and submission in the U.S.? Second, I want you to ask yourself who has capitalized the most on those fear and used the threats posed by terrorism to the greatest advantage? As you ponder these two questions keep in mind, that no one can hear you right now. No one is there to judge you. Now is a moment for true, honest reflection, for you to look at the concepts fairly. Ask yourself if you’ve been correct in your assumptions, and if you feel you have to defend those assumptions to yourself.

Now – consider the 3rd definition. This is of paramount importance as it’s something we seldom look at fairly. When we discuss terrorism it is typically as a tool for resisting government, as is the case with the Islamic zealots. Occasionally, as was the case with Saddam, we apply it to foreign dictators who have shown a blatant disregard for human rights, who typically operate above the rule of law, who imprison political prisoners, and who discourage opposition through fear. Say it again, “A terroristic method of governing a government” and now ask yourself how that fits against what has occurred in the U.S. under the Bush administration. Consider it relative to the questions you answered in regard to the previous point and keep in mind that the current administration and it’s supporters have violated the Geneva convention, made a mockery of habeas corpus, have made proven use of reported terrorist threats to shift elections/political favor, has ousted secret agents for political gain, has facilitated countless no-bid contracts, forced into retirement or disgraced any qualified dissenting voice, and illegally spied and detained Americans among a plethora of other scandals and violations.

Realistic Threats

Don’t mistake my words. I’m not saying that religious zealots are not a threat. I’m not saying that we should ignore their preferred use of hijackings and suicide bombings. I AM saying that they are a relative threat. I AM saying that the fear of boarding an airplane and having it hijacked should be kept in perspective. That if we give in to fear and are willing to sacrifice everything America stands for, and even our morality for a false sense of security, then we are anything but patriots. The war on terror hasn’t just been a war against a small minority which attacked us. It hasn’t just been a war on the government (Afghanistan) that supported them. It has been a war on an entire religion, a war against sovereign nations under false pretense and most disturbingly, it has been a war against what America truly stands for carried out by self proclaimed American patriots. The real threats to America come not only from extremists but those bereft of morality seeking power or financial gain. It doesn’t matter if the threat comes from an Islamic zealot, a Christian zealot or an Atheist hacker. This is not truly about religion. It’s about money and power.

My only hope is that from this point forward, when faced with new legislation, or a decision that affects the future of the world, that you will pause. Ignore the false appeals to fear. Transcend the impulse to sacrifice anything and everything for the illusion of safety. Judge the measure, bill, action, or statement by its legitimacy instead.

Let the words of our founding fathers guide you:

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.
-Benjamin Franklin

It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others: or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. -Thomas Jefferson

For further reading: A recent Forbes article on tech threats.

Something unclear?  Want more information?  Have a question? Disagree? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section.