The Rise of Isolationism and the Virtual Age
Many people would argue that the world is still 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 that is leading us towards the next great era of humanity. Indeed we have experienced a peak in the amount of information we have access to. Nowadays, because of the Internet and smart phone technology, information and connections to other people through social media are only a few clicks 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 all of our human desires. In this new world, we will never have to leave our homes or in some cases, we would never need or desire to leave the room where we were born. In this world, the physical reality that we currently experience will slowly fade away and a virtual reality will begin to overtake our lives. As far-fetched as this may sound, this idealistic fantasy is actually happening right before our eyes in various places around the world. We are becoming increasingly isolated and more dependent on a virtual world. We can no longer 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. Getting that many people to use a product with very little marketing is almost unheard of. This is especially true when you consider the fact that roughly 98% of the world population earns an annual salary that is less than the U.S. Federal minimum wage (Global Rich List, Kurt, 2017). This is 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. For example, the city of Honolulu recently made texting while crossing the street illegal (Parks, 2017). Clearly, we are succumbing to the whims of technology because it has 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 a few more sources of help with more than 215 million results. These results suggest that most people realize that excessive social media use and phone addiction are major problems.
When you are busy staring at your smart phone, you are missing out on interacting with people in the real world. Obviously technology addiction is a problem that is here to stay. An increasing number of people are finding themselves removed from the real world and living in the digital one. Our fixation with technology and all things virtual is leading us to a culture of isolationism where physical interactions are no longer valued and, in fact, are often avoided due to unfamiliarity, awkwardness, or the possibility of 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 internet cafes and gaming areas that line the main streets of urban communities. The players have their own cubicles and can easily play games for more than 24hrs without stopping because the cafe's don't normally close. Furthermore, injuries related to playing too many games are commonplace. 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 younger 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 results in a proportional loss of time spent in the real world. Therefore, increasing technological advancement and engagement are leading to isolationism. Refraining from becoming part of society dooms you to be an outsider. So it seems that there is no way to avoid an isolated future.
Virtual Reality (VR) technology allows people to easily escape the real world and become totally immersed in a new world. 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 reality adventure. Symptoms of VR sickness are usually very similar to motion sickness.
VR technology is already available to most people who have a smart phone. For less than $10 you can strap the phone to your face and 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 VR surpasses our physical reality in terms of what it can provide to 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 potentially live their entire physical lives in a micro-sized studio apartment with only a handful of essential items while living out the majority of their lives 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.
One day, actual life and VR will be so intertwined that people 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 kind of lifestyle. Similarly to the aforementioned 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.
In addition to this, there are potentially millions of people who spend every waking hour living out a virtual existence in a world called 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 lives for virtual ones (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 can place yourself in a virtual one? And besides, who likes to eat real food anyway? 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. We will no longer be bound by the physical laws of our world. We also won't have our 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 that's 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?
Of course my predictions of transhumanism are just speculation, however many people share these views. We know that we are becoming increasingly isolated and it's also a fact that the virtual world and VR are becoming a larger part of society. Whatever 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 real life has to offer or a virtual life within a fantasy world.
References and Resources
- Bennett. Jessica. "Why Millions are Living Virtual Lives Online." Newsweek. July 7, 2007.
- Bui, Quoctrung. "Why some Men Don't Work: Video Games Have Gotten Really Good." The New York Times. July 3, 2017.
- Garafola, Victoria. "Declutter Your Mind with Japanese Minimalism." Yunomi. July 14, 2017.
- Kurt, Daniel. "Are You in the Top One Percent of the World?" Investopedia. April 24, 2017.
- Lee, Dave. "The Real Scars of Korean Gaming." BBC News. June 5, 2015.
- Lim, Megumi. "Less Is More as Japanese Minimalist Movement Grows." Reuters. June 19, 2016.
- Parks, Miles. "It's Now Illegal to Text While Crossing the Street in Honolulu." National Public Radio. July 29th, 2017.
- 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.