Thursday, February 15, 2007

How Cell Phones Are Preparing Us For Virtual Reality

It seems there has been a lot of discussion these days about the ramifications of virtual reality. George Dvorsky’s been heralding possible “perils of a digital life” on his Sentient Developments blog. Over at’s “Sci Fi Weekly” page, Michael Cassutt worries that massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) like “World of Warcraft”, “Second Life” and others will cause people to start turning their backs on books and film, (which present a finished story), in favour of these other existences online where they can create idealized versions of themselves and not only seek out their traditionally favourite types of stories (be they high adventure or complex personal relationships), but actually take part in them and affect their outcome. Even SouthPark has recently taken a crack at the virtual reality phenomenon and its effects on relationships, personal priorities, the issue of whether the “real world” has primacy, and hygiene with an episode where Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and their pals have to save the world of “World of Warcraft” from a seemingly unstoppable delinquent player.
In fact, while the issues surrounding alternate/virtual reality, of which the current MMOs are the first significant step (the equivalent of homo erectus on the long evolution towards modern homo sapiens sapiens, which might be technologically analogous to a fully sensory-immersive and interactive artificial reality where the user can create complex features and companions without the necessity of outside programming), gained popularity with the general public in the 90’s with movies like “The Matrix” and widely-publicized predictions by high-tech firms looking to make names for themselves, the phenomenon is well-worn territory in the world of speculative fiction. Take your pick of the cybernetic torture chamber of Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream”, the datumplane of “Neuromancer” and William Gibson’s other books, movies like “Tron” or “The 13th Floor”, the Disney-like holodeck of the recent Star Trek series, or any of a hundred others.
But in all the explorations of the dangers and delights of these optional parallel worlds, it seems that there isn’t a lot of exploration of how human beings will prepare for the experience. Most stories generally either present a situation where a character is literally dumped into the new reality (“Tron”) or knowledge of its existence (“The Matrix”) and has to adapt like Alice in Wonderland to an alien environment. Or we’re offered a character living in a world where virtual reality and its issues have been around for some time – a person who’s adapted to his environment (or fighting against it) naturally since he/she has always been a part of it (take your pick of the Gibson books). I haven’t seen any evolutionary-style alternative to the “surprise, you’re in a different world” trope - nothing that tells us how people initially adapted to the long-established alternate consensual reality. I’d be interested to see if there are stories, shows or movies dealing with the possibility of gradual, subtle cultural adaptation to the new optional life. If there’s something out there, let me know.
That being said, I think there’s something that’s already preparing our culture in some ways for the virtual-versus-real/virtual-interfacing-with-real experience, though inadvertently. That’s the cell phone.

(Sorry, folks. I know it took me a long time to get to the point. As a former radio news dog, I’m kicking myself for burying the lead, but I thought the set-up was necessary this time.)

More to the point, it’s the evolution in conversational etiquette driven by the cell phone, and most obviously in the young.
It doesn’t take the greatest observer of detail to look around and see that, in the industrial nations of the world at least, most young people (teens, people in their early 20’s, and even some kids younger than 10) have got cell phones and are more than willing to use them. In fact, it’s highly likely that Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter are right on target in their prediction in the “A Time Odyssey” books that it won’t be long before every kid in the world has a cell phone.
And it’s this complete willingness of the young (and even some middle-aged business and information junkies) to answer the cell phone call or text message right away, regardless of the task or person in front of them, that’s been infuriating older folks for the past few years (in fact, ever since production of the devices got to the point where they could be sold cheaply and in many cases given away free with a connection agreement, prompting wide-spread use – this in combination with the increasing emotional need of parents to be able to reach increasingly independent kids anywhere, any time). There are many people who get intensely annoyed when talking to a younger person who hears the ringtone/feels the vibration, reaches for the cell faster than a gunfighter drawing his piece on a dusty, tumbleweed-strewn street at high noon, and instantly diverts his/her attention to the call display, putting the conversation completely on hold until they’ve dealt with the call/text message/email. To the older person forced to wait, this is a highly insulting and invalidating experience.
And yet it’s one done, for the most part, in total innocence by the young person.
To be sure, in some cases, there is some degree of insult (or at least indifference) intended in giving the phone a higher priority than the person/task physically in front of them. It’s also equally reasonable to say the young person’s reaction can also be an inability to focus on one thing at a time and ignore distracting stimulus.
But I think for the most part, it’s something entirely different: it’s really a modified version of party socialization. Think of it this way: when you’re at a party, you may, in addition to all the other typical activities, engage in group discussions. But you’ll also have several one-on-one interactions with other guests. Now, at some point during one of these tête-à-têtes, it’s a given that some other partygoer will mosey up to the both of you and attempt to horn-in on the conversation. Like him or hate him, you can’t ignore this third wheel. Your interaction with your initial conversational partner must be either suspended while you deal with the interloper, or adapted to include him. I’m convinced that’s what happening with youth and cell phone calls/text messages/emails: they’re not differentiating the physical communication in front of them from the electronic, these are assigned (at least initially) the same value and the new communicator (the cell) is seen as something that must be acknowledged as much as another physical person would have to be.
In all the years since the popularization of the cell phone among the young, this behaviour has not fizzled out. It has become the norm and there is no reason to expect that it will change. In fact, as today’s youth become older, it will be a culture-wide standard for conversational etiquette. Conversational etiquette is evolving.
And herein lies the key to how the cell phone will lay the foundations for society’s ability to handle the coming reality-artificial reality interface.
I suspect this change in behaviour that puts electronic communication on an equal footing with physical communication will allow people in future years to interchange the physical world with its custom-made, electronic parallel dimensions without much anxiety. Going from interactions and sensations in the physical world to interfacing with one of the many man-made consensual realities at the flick of whatever proverbial “switch” used will be to them the same as saying “Just a sec.” in a conversation and picking up the cell, or turning to the third partygoer and acknowledging him.
To bring the evolution metaphor back for a second, if today’s MMOs are the homo erectus of virtual reality and total sense-immersion electronics/software the equivalent of modern man, then the cell phone would be the ape coming down from the trees considering whether to shamble across the savannah.
Because it is a consumer product that’s affected this change in personal interaction, one might wonder whether this points to some sinister global social-engineering program run by high-tech manufacturers aimed at smoothing the transition, acceptance and acquisition of new consumer goods. I would say definitely no. That kind of conspiracy theory doesn’t wash because it wasn’t a given at the advent of the popularization of the cell that young people would behave this way. Certainly they would have been tempted to, but any number of factors, such as role-models showing a disdain for the quick-fix of the cell phone’s demand, or direct education by elders, the annoyance of distracting ring-tones or vibrations, detrimental effects of increased communication on school grades or job performance, or a desire for more private time, could have spurred youth to view the cell phone as an inconvenience rather than an essential extension of natural communication abilities. However probable, it was never a given that this change would happen.
In the end, as alternative realities become more pervasive, and perhaps even necessary in some circumstances, and the march towards fully immersive custom-made options continues, there will be many opportunities and dangers that individuals and society will forced to stop and consider. But the societal changes already wrought by the cell phone mean that, for the most part, the up-and-coming generation probably won’t be too concerned about the journey itself.

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