Our multi-choice reality
There is really something quite profound about how digital media technology is changing human society. We can never be sure that what we see in a magazine, on TV or at the movies is real or synthesized. Now more than ever, people have to choose which illusion they want to believe in. Seeing is no longer believing.
But it doesn't stop there. Time becomes virtual as we use voice mail, email, community forums and video sharing to post messages into the future and around the world. Even people themselves appear virtual through text messaging, 3D chat rooms and video conferencing. And this will only become more convincing as 3D video and holographic projectors become available. Add to this embedded computing, personalized web agents, intelligent appliances, smart cars and semi-autonomous robots, and our lives will become more virtual still. Human experience is becoming synthesized - non-physical in space and time - while our experiences become less and less physical.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure I have to admit that I helped bring this all about. My 25-year career in digital media and the Internet brought me into contact with many of the people who made this happen and was directly involved in some of the advances. I continue to live a lot of my life over the Internet and am even working on a book using 3D virtual characters who portray a real myth-rock band named Distant Lights out of Austin.
Yet, I wonder what effect all of this will have on society. How much 'virtual' is negative and how much is positive? I've thought about this for years and here is the future I see:
1. A population with increasingly impaired interpersonal and language skills, thus depending more and more on pictures and gestures,
2. People who know less about the natural world, spend less time outside and are more concerned with manmade constructs,
3. Increasing political and religious polarization due to like-minded online communities.
4. A population who is less controlled by the public institutions, but more controlled by special interest groups in diverse locations,
5. People who cannot reach a consensus in their local community,
6. Increasing reliance on automation to deal with the physical world, leaving more time to spend in the virtual world with imaginary friends and abstract ideas.
All together, this paints a picture of increasing social fragmentation within an artificial world. One could imagine something like The Matrix or Avatar where we sit plugged into a cyberworld we have created, playing out whatever fantasy we like.
But wait a minute! Isn't that what the world is anyway? Isn't a tribal society what we're talking about here? A small number of like-minded people who gather around the central fire of the Internet to worship the gods of their choice? Weren't human slaves a form of automation at one time, separating us from the natural world as we lived inside fortress walls? And how many knew how to read and write at all back then?
The fact is, the virtual world is helping us escape the artificial world of huge governments, corporations and mass media, returning us to a neo-tribal society in cyberspace. No longer aligned by geography or country, our tribes are made almost entirely of thought. And these thoughts are carried as electrical signals around the world, arriving to us even as electromagnetic waves out of thin air! The Internet has become a physical noosphere and digital Akashic record.
It seems that as the real estate of the physical world comes under greater and greater surveillance and control by institutional systems, the un-real estate of the virtual world is becoming more tribal and mythological. New gods are being born inside people minds through role-playing games and simulated environments while the old gods of consensus are struggling to survive, protected by their unquestioned institutions. Even our 'enemies' have become virtual - fearsome specters of cavemen created by the institutions as a last grasp at control - all while vast populations slip away into non-physicality.
In time, the institutions will become irrelevant as the people simply enter their personal holodecks to join their favorite tribe. Here they will work and play together, creating virtual products to earn virtual money. Here they will adore virtual gods and assume virtual personalities. Here all their wishes will come true, fulfilled by electronic thoughts rippling through space.
Happiness and fear are all virtual here, too. People cuddle up around a hot idea rather than a warm fire with their partner. Sex itself becomes virtual and on-demand, assisted no doubt by special purpose Firewire accessories. As holographic images project directly into the cortex, feeling and emotions become virtual as well. Yet, who's to say this virtual reality is any different than our physical reality?
Perhaps The Matrix movie was right - reality is virtual to someone living outside of it. It's odd how physical reality makes us become MORE virtual and MORE imaginary while the quest for spirituality makes us LESS virtual, LESS artificial.
In the end, we do seem to be predisposed to pursue virtuality. Perhaps virtuality is irresistible and the correct path because in this we can learn new things and create new worlds. Who knows, maybe the ancient archetypal gods will return to us through The Cloud of cyberspace, teaching us how to fix this physical world. Perhaps a virtual world is the medicine we need to help us imagine a better reality, one ready for the next stage of spiritual evolution.