Real Virutal Worlds (RVWs)

I don't know if anyone else has yet used the phrase "real virtual worlds" (RVWs), but according to some folks at the2007 Game Developer Conference, something like this is about to happen because of what they see as a huge influx of corporate capital into MMO sites like WoW. Maybe there's another term for it, but it seems to me that, in the mid-range forecast still, with Web 2.0 (more here expounding on O'Reilly) and this economic shift, we are entering the the planning and early testing stages of our imagined futures. These are futures where we live in real virtual worlds, where the "real" and the "viritual" mesh ever more seamlessly and with less effort -- of either the physical or imaginative kind -- with each other. It sounds as if designers want daily activities like banking and shopping to soon be a matter of entering the "viritual" portal and performing these functions within an imaged space accessible by thousands.

The question this poses, of course, is just how close we will actually live up to the hype and horror of virtual reality. I doubt we're moving toward a Matrix-like dream state society, but I also doubt the visionaries who claim we're about to move into the wonders of full-body immersion experiences. As physical creatures, we're just not that smart. Look at the future visions of the twentieth century. We live in nothing like the worlds of imagined by H. G. Wells or Phillip Knowlan. We won't ever live in the world of William Gibson, either.

This isn't to dismiss these writers. In fact, it is to point out their importance and, in so doing, point out the importance of critical academic research about video games. SF writers, authors of graphic novels, producers of MMOs, even hypester-historians like Rheingold all produce the template -- the imaginative plans by which we shape these RVW technologies and our futures.

OK, but here is what I have been laboring to argue for many a year now. As we follow this path, we continue to loose sight of the physical consequences of our actions. Each of the virtual literacies upon which such a future and a design for society depends holds potentially devastating consequences for our physical bodies -- the real platform upon which all this depends. What use is virtual banking if we're all riddled with cancer? Seriously, the computer is a toxic beast! And they persist!

Part of the optimism in techno-ideology though is the unshakeable belief that humans are capable of overcoming their problems through technological advancements. Just look at the "non-toxic computer." The amount and kinds of chemicals that go into making computers and other devices is amazing. Add to that the entire production chain of making plastics, silicon chips, aluminum casings, power generation, battery production... well, the list goes on and on. Even if the computer itself has a low toxicity, it can still leave a huge toxic footprint through its manufacture. Let's not calculate the magnitude of this problem by simply looking at the number of computer users. We have to add in the servers, routers, cables, satellites, plus the systems that provide care and maintenance for the system itself.

My point is that all of this has an effect on the physical world. It affects not just "nature" by poisoning streams and lakes, seeping into groundwater, attaching itself to soil particles, and becoming airborne through dust, but in doing so, it also enters our most precious bodily systems. This is simply not on the radar of those pushing for ecological modernization who shift the debate from the ethos of the perpetrator to the ethos of the critic or who make changes within the system without changing the system itself.

Does this mean I'm selling my Mac, dropping my weblog, or ditching my minivan? No. But my Mac is almost five years old and will be recycled and I bike, bus, or carpool whenever possible, plus we use only one car for four people. The fact is that our society is organized around its technologies. Cities are set up to be car friendly and my career, like the careers of many in an information economy, pretty much determines that I use a computer or be left way behind. And this is critical, for perfection may be impossible. We are, after all, human and that means limited. We cannot live in such a way that we do no damage. Even vegetarians live off the lives of others. What we can do -- what we must do -- is teach others how to juggle what determines them with ways to resisting them. In the end, we won't ever reach the imagined future utopia, but with a bit of hope and luck, we won't reach the dystopia, either. Instead, we can use the original RVW, our imagination, far more wisely.


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth yet, but I understand the idea of reducing your eco-footprint, so, in part, RVWs (what economist Edward Castronova calls synthetic worlds) may help us reduce our footprints. Sure my computer, its production and demise, are toxic happenings, but so is my car. What if we went to the synthetic office instead of the "real" one. I may not need to drive that 1-2 hour commute (1 way, for many) and reduce my footprint in a greater way than getting a new computer every 3 years. Who needs mass transit when I can sit in my pajamas all day and attend business meetings in Second Life. And I could easily attend this year's CCCC if it were in a synthetic world--no planes, cabs, elevators.

With cities, such as Phoenix (check out the "Can America solve its traffic problems?" story from Tuesday on the NBC TODAY show's website), they need to construct new and larger freeways to accommodate all the vehicles. I've driven through Phoenix on a thick-air day. It doesn't need to have any more cars on the road.

Okay. But I'd miss all the cool stuff NYC has to offer and get fat sitting on my couch. Yet, if I were one of those people who has to commute to work everyday and now could telecommute I'd gain those hours back to hang with my family or go for a walk. (So glad I'm only a 20 minute bike ride away).

Would RVWs be more positive than negative? Pure speculation on my part.

Unknown said...

Good question and point taken about the footprint of synthetic worlds. However, isn't it really only in theory that one's footprint decreases? First, folks like to work F2F. Second, even telecommuters need to go into the office -- usually weekly. Third, telecommuters may get to stay home, but only when the system works. If something goes awry in the system, someone somewhere has to move their ass around.

Your comment on missing NYC also underscores the other problem w/ synthetic worlds and telecommuting to work: the loss of real communities. We need more time talking to neighbors, helping old ladies and young kids, and figuring out how to connect in suburbia or exurbia (yet another problem with the telecommuting dream). Yes, some of this might happen with more synthetic worlds. But the fact is this is a multifaceted and highly contingent problem with multifaceted and highly contingent solutions. Increased reliance on technology at least has to be offset with real decreases elsewhere. So, it can be good, but it can be bad on the course we currently run.

Anonymous said...

I hear where you're coming from, and I agree with you on many points. I don't know if the footprint is really reduced--seems possible, though. Sounds like a good study.

As far as the technology breaking down and someone not making the teleconference--how many times have people missed an event because of weather, traffic, or mechanical problems? I don't think we can escape breakdowns of technology.
And why do telecommuters need to go to the office weekly? Really, I don't know.

But, playing devil's advocate (or simply the role of synthetic world researchers and participants) I would have to take issue with you distinctions between "real" and "virtual" worlds. Many argue that virtual worlds are just as "real" as the f2f world.

Castronova on the economic importance of these spaces (I believe his research showed Everquest's GNP [of purely digital products] somewhere between Russia and Bulgaria). Turkle would say that people are developing/playing with "real" identities in virtual worlds, and some people who meet virtually (through in-game chat) go on to meet f2f (a few marriages have been documented, too).

So, these synthetic worlds can and do build communities (of a different sort perhaps) simply because people who share interests and values can find each other more easily than in the "real" world. And in my own experience, I met a number of players who played side-by-side with their spouses and children and would attend the WoW conference to meet each other in the "real" world.

I guess, it's hard for me to make a distinction between the "real" and "virtual" since in every case we are dealing with people interacting with each other. If it's that I may not be "myself" in that space and experiment with new identities, I'd say that I'm always doing that in the f2f world too.

But, I agree, that building a local, f2f community has value. There was a recent story about an elderly gentleman being found sitting in front of his tv--dead for a year. His neighbors never thought to check in on him. However, what I've seen in WoW for example, is that the community does notice when someone disappears (made all the easier by the technology that records/reports a players last time in the world).

Heck, my blog is the way I've built a community with other Comp-Rhet folks who share my interests (and going to conferences to get facetime is a luxury I can rarely afford). If I relied on f2f, I'd be very, very isolated.

Wow. I'm glad you made this post, David. It made me do a lot of thinking.

k8 said...

I'm too tired to write an involved response, but can I just say wow - you covered a lot of territory in one post.

dhawhee said...

Nice post, D. Anne Balsamo was on our campus recently, and she talked about how cool it would be to invent a device that would scan a product--she was thinking here, say a bar code for an ipod--and the device would then spit out information about the product's production--how much material and energy it used, how much people got paid to make it, and how far it had to travel by what means and in what kind of packaging. Just so we could gauge whether it's 'worth it.' Brilliant.

And also, if you haven't come across it, you might want to check out Peter Mortensen's article Reading Material in Written Communication 18.4 (2001). He looks at literacy from the point of view of toxicity (esp. pulp factories).

Unknown said...

Thanks, Debbie. The Mortensen article sounds like a good read. Derek Owens (2000) also covers the production of things, but he does so by excerpting Richard (??) Powers' Gain.

Anonymous said...

Hey, David, I feel bad about making such a long comment on your blog. I didn't realize it at the time and was running out the door.

I've copy and pasted to mine. Feel free to delete it, since I've linked to it.

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