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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.
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?
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