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“Virtual” Reality?

November 15, 2008

Stretch. Crack the back, roll the neck around. Shut off the damned alarm. Take solace in fresh coffee; give thanks to digital timer on coffee maker. Release the latch, and gently guide the lid of the box upwards. The silver rimmed LCD world awaits, glowing through its matte lens. Open the browser expecting to see your favorite portal, but instead, there is only a 6 word frame. No external links, no further explanation. Welcome to the Brave New World.

Ok, it hasn’t happened yet. And it doesn’t have to be that sinister. But, it might be time to start a cultural discourse on just how virtual this new reality we are creating really is. There have been a number of events lately that have made me giggle at the way the online universe was spilling into reality. There were the two Dutch teens who were prosecuted for stealing an amulet in an online game. And then the Japanese woman who was jailed when she hacked his account to kill her online husband after he dumped her in the game Second Life. But two events tonight made it even more apparent just how blurred the line between reality and virtual reality has become. 

The first is a story of online love, real life marriage, online private eye work unveiling possible online cheating, leading to real life divorce. It is, from CNNs account, a soap opera of a story that seems to jump from real worlds to virtual worlds in a way that is so confusing, I had to read the story twice just to decipher which events occurred in reality and which events occurred in cyberspace.  Unlike the previous examples, it is not merely a story of someone who is prosecuted for hacking or other illegal activities stemming from something they did because of an online game. There is no stolen intellectual property or violated privacy to prosecute. It is a classic human drama of love and loss. It attests to the very ability of this increasingly linked world of technology to connect with us on a human level. The emotions felt by both parties in this story are as real as those in any failed marriage. And yet they began, revolved around, and ended through interaction in a virtual world. But the woman’s faith in the virtual world has not been shaken too much. After using a virtual PI to catch her non-virtual husband having a virtual affair, she “is now in a new relationship with a man she met in the online roleplaying game World of Warcraft.”

Which leads us into story of the night number 2. World of Warcraft (WoW) creator Blizzard Ent. just held their annual “Blizzcon” convention of WoW fans. And wow, are there some fans. 

bc4_500x500No, the above picture is not part of a “caption this” contest (although feel free to caption in the comments – it’s ripe for humor). That is the Blizzcon costume contest winner riding on her “animatronic tortoise mount“. Keep in mind that the costume and tortoise mount were created and funded by a private party for a costume contest at a fanfest. The amount of work required to make something this elaborate is no small matter. In fact, it is more elaborate than many of the floats entered into the Rose Parade that are funded by cities, groups, or corporations and assembled by teams of volunteers.

As humorous as these examples may be, they point to something deeper. This world of 1’s, 0’s and pixels is as real as any other we’ve created. And the repercussions are equally pertinent. The music business may have been the first to realize it. They were certainly one of the first to react. Unfortunately, that reaction was fueled by fear over the lack of control the corporate structures had of this new form of delivering music. A brief historical synopsis:

Back in 1999, a new service hit the scene called Napster. Napster allowed people to freely trade files over a growing open network, aka the internet. A large number of files being traded were copyrighted audio recordings. The major labels feared this new assault on their control of distribution of recorded material, especially when songs leaked before their official release. Their reaction was not one that attempted to embrace this new method of information delivery. Instead, they tried to shut off the tap. Lawsuits against Napster and its creators ensued, and proved to be only the first in a series of lawsuits brought by the industry and it’s lobbies (RIAA) as the industry attempted to grasp the intellectual sand that slipped from it’s fingers. The labels left a 2 year gap between the time Napster was shut down (2001) and the time they finally came together to provide a digital download service with the help of Apple through the creation of iTunes (2003). In that time, album sales continued to fall, and illegal downloading increased. This trend has not been reversed, and the music business is wondering how it will remain a valid entity of business in the new climate. It is a mistake that even the major labels have come to realize, as evidenced by their response to music videos showing up on YouTube. Instead of suing and attempting to shut down the service, all 4 major labels made licensing deals with YouTube.

The effect of the virtual world on the real world is further evidenced by the recent presidential campaign and transition of power. The Obama campaign embraced the virtual world of communication in a way no other campaign ever had. In fact, the campaign had amassed such a large list of email addresses that the list was used as collateral towards a loan (which did not end up being needed, and as such was not taken) during the end of the campaign. And President elect Obama has continued to show that he understands how important the virtual world is to motivating the modern citizen. The transition website is but the most obvious example of this deference to the importance and reality of the world of new media.

All of these things make it clear that we have created a new reality. As with all realities, it is only as virtual as we believe it to be. And we are believing it to be more and more real. And as with all new realities, this new virtual one has the potential to move humanity in any number of directions. Unlike previous realities, however, this new virtual world bends at the direct influence of the will of its users. It has not yet been steeped in tradition. It is still able to run amok, providing an anarchic playground in which any voice can be heard. As technology increases, the ability to create competitively flashy content to bring to this unregulated show and tell is placed into the hands of more people.

In theory, the public has always owned the media distribution networks. Technically, the broadcast networks used by radio and television are owned and controlled by the taxpayers. But we handed our controlling interest in the old networks over to corporate surrogates and federal regulators long ago. The results have entertained us for decades. They have also given control of our first virtual worlds (radio, then television) to outside interests and have left the average citizen with no real voice in the media world. But the new media printing press has been created and handed over to society to use as we see fit. It will bend to and reflect our will. It is up to us to make certain that reflection is something we want to see.

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3 comments

  1. […] Vote “Virtual” Reality? […]


  2. Very interesting! While I am glad for the opportunity to share my thoughts and viewpoints with the world, I have a healthy skepticism about the “computer world.” The Matrix made quite an impression on me, and I couldn’t keep my paranoid self from worrying about the ramifications it warned about. I also remember an older movie called Brazil starring Robert DeNiro, Johnathon Price and John Cleese that showed a computer world that “looked back at its users.” And thanks to my liberal public education in the 60s I am always on the lookout for Big Brother. The computer brings new sinister meaning to that idea.

    Just call me suspicious.

    Thanks for the heads-up!


  3. @ Left-Eyed Jack:
    Sorry for the delay in response – blogging has taken a bit of a back seat to work lately. The Matrix was certainly a statement on some of these kinds of issues. The phenomenological questions raised by it (ie. is this steak really any less real/does it matter if only I perceive it to be) were wonderful. The Wachowski brothers post-Matrix film V for Vendetta falls into a similar category – and gives some great lines for thought like “people should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people”.

    Brazil, too, is a movie I highly recommend people see – especially post 9/11 (raises some great questions about what it means to be a “terrorist”). No John Cleese though – the Monty Python connection comes from it being directed by Terry Gilliam. Brazil, however, wasn’t so much a comment on the “computer world” as I saw it – it was more a comment on the governmental bodies that control information. The Matrix, too, brought up similar points, albeit in a more technologically advanced way. And while both of these movies bring up great points about what could happen if our new information market is over regulated, what I am left to wonder is what will happen if we leave it unregulated.

    On the one hand, I too fear “big brother” and heed the cautions brought by so many dystopic authors and film makers. But my other hand keeps butting in, questioning the wisdom of leaving any market, be it an informational one or a financial one, unregulated and free. To put it more succinctly – unregulated BS is potentially just as dangerous as regulated BS, and personally, I don’t trust “little brother” to regulate out the BS any more than I trust “big brother” to do so. Somehow or another, I think, the whole family is going to have to figure out how to get along so that everyones best interest is served.



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