- Politics and Social Issues
Rise of Isolationism and the Virtual Age
Many would argue that humanity still resides within the information age. However, I would argue that we've already begun to leave the information age and are now living in a transitional state into the next era. We have experienced a peak in the information; now with the Internet and smart phone technology information (as well as people through social media) are now only a few clicks or taps away. The technology that made the information age is now leading us to a paradigm shift towards isolationism, virtual reality, and ultimately transhumanism. Many might dub the next age of humanity as the "Virtual Age."
Imagine a future where we are always connected to a virtual world that is built on the foundation of the internet, social media, digital connections, and technology. This utopian world could eventually fulfill our every human desire. However, in this new world, we will never have to leave our homes (or perhaps even our room) and the physical reality that we live today will slowly fade from our lives. In fact, this idealistic fantasy is happening right before all of our very eyes.
As of right now, Facebook has claimed to have reached a milestone of 2 billion active users. That's more than 25% of the world's population. With very little marketing, getting that many people to use a product is almost unheard of - this is especially true when you consider the fact that roughly 98% of the world population earns an annual salary less than the US Federal minimum wage (Global Rich List, Kurt, 2017). This is mostly certainly an amazing feat.
We've all heard the adage that social media brings people together yet we are further apart than we have ever been. Everywhere you go you will see people aimlessly tapping away at their phones completely oblivious to the world around them. Text (and checking social media) while driving is on the rise and people spend more time in front of a screen today than they ever have before. Technology has taken over many people's lives. A quick Google search for "How to stop using your phone" yielded more than 14.6 million results. A similar search for "How to stop using Facebook" yielded a smidge more at 215 million results. When you are busy staring at your smart phone you are missing out on engaging people in the world. Obviously technology addiction is a problem that here to stay.
An increasing number of people are finding themselves "removed from the world" and living in the digital one. Our fixation on screens and all things virtual are leading to a culture of isolationism where physical interactions are no longer valued and in fact are often avoided due to their awkwardness or the potential for having an unpleasant experience. In Korea the online gaming culture is so intense that many players "live" in the internet cafes and gaming areas. The players have their own cubicles and can easily play games for more than 24hrs without stopping. Furthermore, injuries related to playing too many games are common place. Compulsive online gaming has become such a societal problem in Korea that the government stepped in to pass a law in 2011 to limit the amount of online games children aged 16 or below play (Lee, 2015). This phenomenon is catching on in America as well. In fact, a recent article in the New York Times suggested that young men are increasingly working less (and earning less) so that they can spend more time online playing games (Bui, 2017).
The bottom line is that the more time we spend in the virtual world then the less time we spend in the real world - there's only 24hrs in a day. Therefore, increasing technological advancement is leading to isolationism. One of the ironies of technological change is that to get away from the progressive nature of society you have to become an isolationist yourself! Committing yourself to not becoming part of society dooms you to be an outsider. So it seems that there is no way away from the isolationistic future.
Virtual Reality (VR) technology allows people to escape the real world and become immersed in a new world. Specifically, VR technology is designed to give the user an experience that mimics real life so precisely that the brain can sometimes start to believe that the experiences are real. Virtual reality technology is already available to most people who already have a smart phone. In the future, movies, television shows, and even social media interactions will take place in a virtually created atmosphere. You'll be able to hook yourself up to the virtual world to experience anything your mind desires while physically remaining stationary in your home.
When virtual reality surpasses reality in terms of what it can provide users, there will no longer be a need for physical possessions, large homes, or even physical stores. In fact, people could live their entire physical life in a studio apartment with only a handful of essential items while living out the majority of their life in the virtual world. Imagine working, playing, and interacting with the world from the convenience and comfort of your couch - indeed this is the future. There will be a time when actual life and virtual reality are so intertwined that you won't be able to tell the difference between the two.
While this fanciful idea of the future might sound far-fetched, there are already examples of people living this such lifestyle. Not unlike the Korean video game players millions of people already spend upwards of 10-12 hours a day in front of a screen lost in a virtual world. In addition to this, there are potentially millions of people who spend every waking hour living out a virtual existence in a world call Second Life. Just like the name sounds, Second Life is a virtual world where you can do all the things you've always wanted to do in real life while sitting in front of a screen. Second Life is a completely immersive world complete with a virtual economy and plenty of ways to socialize and interact with others (Bennett, 2007). Second Life is such an immersive experience that many global companies are starting to use this platform to hold meetings and conferences. In addition to this, a recent study found that 17 percent of Brits would trade in their real life for a virtual one (Petit, 2017).
After the pleasures and benefits of virtual reality become too great for people to resist there will come a day when we will question the need for a physical body. Why hold on to the physical world when 99% of time you find yourself within a virtual one. And besides, who likes to eat real food anyways? It's messy and requires too much work! At this point technology will have advanced far enough to allow us to actually place our minds permanently in a virtual world. No longer will we be bound by the physical laws of our world. We also won't have those pesky bodies to hold us back either.
Will this be the end of humanity as we know it? The idea of transferring your mind to the virtual world brings up so many questions. Are there laws inside of the virtual world? Who gets to decide those laws? Who will remain in the physical world to maintain the hardware that supports the virtual world? Can you die or can you commit murder in the virtual world? What if the power goes out? Why about hackers and computer viruses?
Of course my predictions of transhumanism are just speculation however these views are shared by many. We know that we are becoming increasingly isolated and it's also a fact that the virtual world (and virtual reality) is fast becoming the way of society. What happens after that is anyone's guess. No matter what happens, there will come a time in everyone's life where they will need to make a choice about which life they want to live - a tangible physical one filled with all that life has to offer or a virtual utopian world that exists only as ones and zereos on an array of servers located around the world.
References and Resources
Bennett. Jessica. "Why Millions are Living Virtual Lives Online." Newsweek. July 7, 2007. <http://www.newsweek.com/why-millions-are-living-virtual-lives-online-104537>
Bui, Quoctrung. "Why some Men Don't Work: Video Games Have Gotten Really Good" The New York Times. July 3, 2017. <https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/03/upshot/why-some-men-dont-work-video-games-have-gotten-really-good.html>
Global Rich List. <http://www.globalrichlist.com/>
Kurt, Daniel. "Are You in the Top One Percent of the World?" Investopedia. April 24, 2017. <http://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/050615/are-you-top-one-percent-world.asp>
Lee, Dave. "The real Scares of Korean Gaming" BBC News. June 5, 2015. <http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-32996009>
Petit, Harry. "Sick of the Real World? 1 in 5 Brits Would Trade in their Lives to Live in Virtual Reality." DailyMail. March 7, 2017. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4290366/One-five-Brits-prefer-live-VIRTUAL-world.html>