Archive for February, 2009

Here Today…

Wednesday, February 4th, 2009

Over forty years ago Star Trek greeted its viewers with the words “Space: the Final Frontier”. But is it?

Okay, geographically speaking, sure. Unless we find a way to get outside the Universe into some parallel reality, space contains all of the planets we will ever find, and, thus, can be said to be the Final Frontier.

But let’s not limit ourselves to mere geography. Cyberspace, the universe of data, contains or will eventually contain, all known information about all known or discovered panets, as well as all of the stories, theories, dreams, and conjectures of all planets that could be, might be, or may someday be. Cyberspace is the final frontier, IMHO.

Back to living in cyberspace. In my last post I asked how such an existence is affecting the perceptions, expectations, and relationships of the humans inhabiting it.

A lot can (and has, and will be) written on this subject. Let’s take one parameter as a starting point: the lifetime of a romantic relationship. How long will it last?

Okay, all you cynics can tune out now. For the rest of you who believe in, and value, a relationship between two caring individuals, this is a significant question. Those who are content to drift in and out of random assignations may not care, but the rest of us (I hope) do want something that lasts, that has more meaning than incidental pleasure.

I’ve had relationships in both real life and virtual life, and some that took place in both. One thing that I have noticed is, it seems that the majority of relationships that take place solely or mostly in virtual realilty are rather brief. Meet, greet, make with the sweet, then back on the street. Why is this?

Here is a perfect example of how virtual living is affecting the expectations of its inhabitants. I think it is a fast-forwarding of the grass-is-always-greener principle caused by the exploding multiplicity of alternatives.

Wow, vocab overdose! All right. What I mean is simply this: the fewer alternatives you have, the more stable your decisions are. You stay in a job until you find a better one. You stay in a relationship until or unless the feeling dies, OR you (c’mon, we’ve all done it, fess up) start to think that maybe there is a better alternative.

Long ago, when we lived in small isolated communities, people paired up in monogamous couples and alternatives dried up; the pairings were more or less stable. But nowadays, with our increased mobility and visibility, we can go places and see more…alternatives. And as our culture has become increasingly mobile, we seem to have become increasingly fickle. Divorce is common, when it used to be more rare. Living together, that easier-exit-strategy pairing methodology, has become prevalent. Commitment seems so come with an expiration date, like packaged food.

It is a no-brainer to extrapolate this principle to the Internet and relationships in cyberspace. The internet now contains, at any given second, more surfers than the population of the largest cities on earth. Online games and communities containing millions of users put people in contact with exponentially more “alternatives” than ever before. It would be astonishing if all this doesn’t have an impact on how those humans view commitment to a relationship.

Please hear me: I am not arguing for the correctness or desirability of emotional promiscuity. I like relationships that last. All I am saying is, the inevitable effect of existing in a cornucopia of potential mates is that many people will want to explore as many possibles as they can, and so it is a forgone conclusion that most relationships will be even briefer in cyberspace than they are in “real” life.

Some of this is, undoubtedly, due to the tendency of many onliners to take relationships in virtual reality less seriously, as if it were all just role-play. But I think that those of us who really want a long term relationship, one which grows and evolves, will have to find ways to be even more significant to that significant other. I’m working on it. Good luck. –MRK

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Living in Virtual Space

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

People are spending more and more time in virtual worlds.

It began with the experimental Multi User Domains (MUDs) and then progressed to immersive virtual online envoronments and games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft.

We all know this. But what is the eventual effect of such a change of residence? Because when a child or an adult is spending (and I’m not pointing fingers here — I do it myself) large chunks of time interacting with objects and avatars in a computer-mediated reality, we might as well say that they live there.

So what are the effects of “actually” living in virtual space? How does this change our perceptions, our expectations, and our relationships? I’ll be exploring this and other questions here.

Let’s start with some definitions of terms, for those of you (if any!) who have not explored this new flavor of experience.

“Virtual World” — a world that exists solely as the result of computer-generated calculations and interactions, which simulates “real” world experience to some degree, including the presence and potential interactions of avatars with computer-generated objects and other avatars. I’m excluding from this definition the worlds of fiction literature, television, and films, because they are largely passive experiences.

“Avatar” — an entity in a virtual world that is the abstract representation of a user/participant. An avatar can be a simple geometric model with limited customizability, such as the characters in early online games such as Dungeon Siege, or a highly customizable entity that can be made to resemble the actual appearance of the user operating it, such as the avatars in Second Life and other realms.

Okay, enough definitions for now. Let’s talk about living in virtual space. First, some background for you. My first virtual residence as Doom. Yes, the first version; I am not young. Even with the huge pixels and jerky enemy motions, I was tranfixed by the feeling of roominess — the perception that I was “actually” moving in large spaces, due to the constantly-updated perspective rendering of my virtual surroundings. This effect persisted when I moved on to Quake and , only with better and smoother graphics.

During this early phase of my virtual residence, I was unconcerned with interactions. The only communication I had with fellow players was coordinating with fellow team members and taunting opposing team members.

As I moved on to MMORPGs such as City of Heroes and World of Warcraft, however, I realized that such worlds can be communities — online societies composed of groups of users who log in to play with (and against) each other. I began forming relationships with people I never “actually” met.

All this has made me wonder what kind of future these new realms are ushering in for humankind. I am tired of hearing that the Internet supposedly isolates people…because we don’t go out and play catch with our neighbor Sparky in the back yard or the local park. That might be more true nowadays (the not-going-out part), but what about the fact that I can play with someone from the UK, collaborate with someone from India, and converse (using a translator program) with someone in Japan — who doesn’t speak a word of English? Am I really all that isolated? Somehow I doubt it.

On the contrary, I propose that, instead of isolating us, the Internet and its online virtual realms are ushering in a transformation as fundamental as those brought by the automobile and the television, only much bigger. Before cars, many people spent their entire lives near where they were born. Before radio and television, we could only read about events on the other side of the planet after they occurred. Now we have greater mobility and visibility. Online virtual realms will only increase our capabilities.

Which brings us back squarely to the question I began with: how does this extension of experience change our perceptions, our expectations, and our relationships? Let’s talk about it.

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Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

fu·TIQ·ui·ty n. pl. fu tiq·ui·ties
1. Future times, especially the times following the current era.
2. The people, especially the writers and artisans, of future times: inventions unknown to most contemporary humans.
3. The quality of being new or in-the-future; considerable newness: a development of great futiquity.
4. Something, such as an object or a relic, belonging to or dating from futuretimes. Often used in the plural.

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