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In Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel Loan player one, life is divided into two disparate experiences: the real and the virtual. The story is set in the year 2045, in a future plagued by environmental, economic and social problems that force its inhabitants to spend time in a vast, highly detailed virtual environment called OASIS. Entering OASIS with advanced VR visors and gloves allows users to maintain fantasy identities with altered appearances and even superpowers. These alternative identities offer people an escape – not only from their dystopian world, but from their own identities and perceived inadequacies.
years before Loan player one, author Neal Stephenson, in his 1992 novel Snowfall, described a fictional immersive virtual world similar to OASIS, which he called the Metaverse. In this metaverse, virtual inhabitants could create world features from scratch, creating entire neighborhoods and characters in a manner similar to many modern online games.
The technology and culture described in Loan player one and Snowfall are not too far-fetched when considered in light of our own trajectory. AI and automation are rapidly eliminating the need for people to work or even live closely together. Advances in transportation and communications have allowed people to maintain seamless and instantaneous connections with each other anywhere on Earth. The world has become connected in ways that would not have seemed possible just 100 years ago.
It had a positive impact on most aspects of human society.
Telecommuting is revolutionizing business and commerce. A software engineer might live in rural Kansas and work for a tech startup in Stockholm. Homebound people with disabilities are getting paid jobs at a record pace. Dating apps can find your perfect match 3000 miles away. Doctors can perform life-saving virtual surgeries. Making information almost universally available has led to more effective processes of scientific discovery, education, cultural exchange, and sociopolitical reform.
Even the term metaverse (which originated with Snowfall) has taken on more concrete meaning, as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that the social media company will focus on developing a “metaverse” where users interact not just socially, but economically on a platform. -cyber-physical form based on blockchain.
Yet despite this apparent condensation of our distances and differences, mounting evidence suggests that increasing numbers of people are feeling more alone. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced drastic changes in our professional and personal lives, humans were increasingly isolated from each other.
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Electronic communication has removed much of the spontaneity and authenticity from conversations and human relationships. Social media encouraged people to craft personas for the short-lived endorphin rush of likes and followers. Even the crime becomes less personal – perpetrators no longer have to look you in the eye as they wipe out your life savings or steal your identity in an anonymous basement halfway around the world.
Simple human social dynamics like trust, understanding, and empathy are difficult to achieve fully without in-person interaction. Virtual presence can only partially convey subtle signals like eye movement, body language, and voice inflection that are important elements of communication. A recent Zoom call went awry when one of the participants was mistakenly rendered as a chat. Not knowing if someone attending a particular meeting is currently wearing pants has become a modern reality.
Other cues, like nerve or love pheromones, sweaty handshakes, and rapid heartbeats, are completely lost in virtual communication. They’re primitive, subconscious variables that people have used since we’ve existed to find mates, avoid bad guys, and forge partnerships.
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Humans are, for all intents and purposes, primates. We are highly social mammals with an instinct for connection and interaction – an instinct that took millions of years to develop. For 99% of human history, we lived in small, semi-nomadic groups, relying only on each other for warmth, safety, and survival. This reliance on physical, tangible connection is built into who we are and cannot easily be supplanted by friendlier apps, denser silicon chips, and smart source code.
Covid simply accelerated a process that was already underway – a process of redefining human interaction, for better or worse, probably permanently.
As creators, we must strive to balance the speed, efficiency and productivity of our innovations with the recognition that we are creatures of flesh and blood. Understanding and respecting our vulnerabilities as a social species plays a vital role in the impact our products can have as this new virtual global market moves from fiction to reality. Profit is essential to the livelihood of entrepreneurs and innovators, but it does not have to come at the expense of our humanity and that of future generations.
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