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.