- Politics and Social Issues
Rise of Isolationism and the Virtual Age
Having not yet reached the apex, many people would argue that the world and humanity still exists within an era known as the information age. However, I would argue that ample evidence exists to support the notion that we've already begun to leave the information age. In fact, I believe that we are now living in a transitional state leading to the next great era of humanity. Indeed 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 drove the creation of the information age is now leading us towards a paradigm shift to a new era of isolationism, virtual reality, and ultimately transhumanism. Many folks like myself have dubbed the coming 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 in some cases would never need or desire to leave the room where we were born. In this world, the physical reality that we live today will slowly fade from our lives and a virtual reality will begin to overtake the environment that fills our mind's eye. As far-fetched as this may sound, this idealistic fantasy is actually happening right before all of our very eyes in various places around the world. We are becoming increasingly isolated and more dependent on a virtual world. No longer can we easily define what it means to be human.
As of right now, Facebook has claimed to have reached the digital milestone of having more than 2 billion active users. That number of users can easily represent 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 that could have only been accomplished at the outset of the information age.
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. Texting (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.
This is so much of a problem that many cities are starting to ban the use of smartphones while walking. In a recent example the City of Honolulu actually made texting while crossing the street illegal (Parks, 2017). Clearly, we are succumbing to the whims of technology which has now taken over our 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 just a smidge more sources of help at more than 215 million results. We realize the problem but just can't seem to stop.
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 the unfamiliarity, awkwardness or the potential for having an unpleasant experience.
It's not just texting and social media that's become a challenge to society. In Korea the online gaming culture is so intense that many players "live" in the internet cafes and gaming areas that line the main streets of the urban environment. The players have their own cubicles and can easily play games for more than 24hrs without stopping as the cafe's don't normally close for business. 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 can 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 as we increase the amount of time that we spend in the virtual world it leads to a proportional loss of time spent in the real world. 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 easily escape the real world and become totally 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. VR can be so real in fact that you can easily find examples online of people who experienced "VR Sickness" after participating in a virtual realty adventure. Symptoms of VR sickness are usually very similar to motion sickness.
Virtual reality technology is already available to most people who already have a smart phone. For less than $10 you can strap the phone to your face an experience life in an immersive 3D world. In the future, movies, television shows, and even social media interactions will very likely take place in a virtually created environment. People will be able to hook themselves up to the virtual world to experience anything their mind desires while physically remaining stationary in their homes.
When the realism of virtual reality surpasses our physical reality in terms of what it can provide to the users, there will no longer be a need for many of the worldly things that we take for granted. Physical things like having possessions, owning large homes and even shopping in brick-and-mortar stores may become a thing of the past. In fact, it's not unlikely that people could live their entire physical life in a micro-sized studio apartment with only a handful of essential items while living out the majority of their life in a 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 across the globe already spend upwards of 10-12 hours a day in front of a screen lost in a virtual world. Furthermore, in Japan there are groups of people who are choosing to live an extremely minimalistic lifestyle owning only a small set of clothes, a few cooking instruments, and a computer or smart phone (Lim, 2016). A lack of real estate in Japan compounds this problem where some apartments are as small as 215 square feet (Garafola, 2017).
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 totally immersive world complete with a virtual economy and plenty of ways to socialize and interact with others (Bennett, 2007). Second Life is such a riveting 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 99.9% of the 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; we will be able to transcend the boundaries of humanity by living out an existence in a fantasy world made up of ones and zeroes.
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. What kind of laws exist 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? What about hackers and computer viruses? Many books can and have been written attempting to answer these kinds of questions.
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 new way of society. What happens after the shift towards virtual anthropogenesis 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 and physical one filled with all of the things that true real life has to offer or a virtual life within a fantasy utopian world that exists only as information and data.
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>
Garafola, Victoria. "Declutter Your Mind with Japanese Minimalism." Yunomi. July 14, 2017. <https://yunomi.life/blogs/discover/declutter-your-mind-with-japanese-minimalism>
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>
Lim, Megumi. "Less is more as Japanese Minimalist movement grows" Reuters. June 19, 2016. <http://www.reuters.com/article/us-japan-minimalism-idUSKCN0Z50VP>
Parks, Miles. "It's Now Illegal to Text While Crossing The Street in Honolulu" National Public Radio. July 29th, 2017. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/29/540140824/its-now-illegal-to-text-while-crossing-the-street-in-honolulu>
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>