Imagine, a life fully immersed inside a computer game where our every desire is fulfilled, and the suffering of reality is absent.
One day, we may decide that a virtual existence is a more appealing option than the real world of pain and limitations. Perhaps we could create such an amazing alternative, that reality itself becomes obsolete.
Even today, without the “fully immersed” aspect, there are thousands of people who already spend more time in virtual worlds than the real one. As virtual environments improve, this will only increase.
Since the early 21st century, the residents of the virtual world Second Life have been working hard to recreate real “life” as accurately as possible. Despite the virtual platform giving occupants the ability to fly and teleport, they still prefer to meticulously create staircases to walk their avatar up and down. At discos, people require the coolest dance animations and best looking clothes. In meetings, virtual characters sit down to rest their virtual legs. It seems the confines of “reality” provide a comfortable and familiar environment.
But virtual worlds are created by us – so why limit ourselves to reality? We could create entirely new realities. By realising that we are free of the rules of real life, the doors are open to incredible new possibilities. In many ways, virtual worlds already provide us with glimpses of alternate realities. We should take notice of these instrumental differences.
In Second Life specifically, we are introduced to many “virtual concepts”. These ideas exist only in the virtual world and they provide us with an insight into a possible future, exposing us to their possible implications.
In Second Life, you cannot die. Your avatar may still exist (although it won’t be “physically” present) in the virtual world even after your real body has passed away. Although it is possible to harm you by the use of scripts, you will always exist unless you are deleted by the administrators. People can always view your legend whether you are personally online or not.
It is entirely possible to record every action you perform in your virtual life (although, as far as we know, this feature has not yet been implemented into Second Life). All of your memories can be put into the virtual world by means of screen grabs, videos and saved conversations. One can only imagine this becoming more and more sophisticated, recording thoughts, movements, emotions, desires, preferences, and more, onto a central server to be accessed at any time. Perhaps with this kind of in depth recording in place, prediction of alternate futures within the virtual world might not be far behind.
Distance is not a real concept in virtual worlds, so can easily be circumvented. Transporting instantly from one place to another is easy. This is because everything’s location is catalogued, and then referenced in a more human way, via context. Just like the Internet, we don’t care where a website is hosted, we just care about the content. In the same way, communication is not affected by physical distance.
Nanotechnology and the non-existence of the laws of thermodynamics
In the future, we may have desktop devices that can create any object instantly from a few basic raw materials. It promises to change the economy and the way we think about possessions.
In Second Life, it is possible to build anything you want, instantly, on the spot, from nothing. Providing you know how to build, it is a simple matter of putting together the polygons you require to create a new “physical” object in the virtual world. More sophisticated items require programming, bringing life to inanimate objects.
One of the most fun things in Second Life is flying. Humankind has long looked up to the skies, wishing we could join the birds and see the world from another perspective. In virtual reality, this is not a problem. You can even use scripts to fly higher and faster. This is a showcase of an ability that doesn’t exist in the “real” world. What other abilities could we attain in Virtual Reality?
There is a technique that exists in Second Life called “Cam Scanning”, which involves manipulating the camera any way you wish. This allows you to “scan” the surrounding area, even seeing into private rooms, while your avatar is somewhere else. The people being observed cannot tell that they’re being watched, and people around your avatar can’t tell that you’re doing it. This feature completely undermines privacy and brings up some important social questions. Should it be programmed out of virtual worlds? Or should we just accept that our previous perceptions of body language, proximity, and presence, are obsolete?
In addition to exposing us to new concepts that do not exist in real life, virtual worlds also reveal some real world concepts that are made obsolete by the Virtual Reality paradigm.
Although your avatar can experience harassment and “physical” effects such as “bumping” and being propelled by programmed projectiles, feeling physical pain is something that needn’t exist in Virtual Reality. This is profound in that those who enjoy hurting people no longer have any way to satisfy their desires and demonstrates the primitive nature of physical pain. Could suffering be completely eliminated in Virtual Reality?
Obviously whilst still in possession of a physical body, we will always need fuel to keep us alive. But could this be achieved by powering the “Matrix” of VR users with vast solar farms?
Going further, we may be able to upload our minds completely to a virtual reality environment. In this case there will be no need for food, other than virtual food for our enjoyment. Of course, the machines running the Virtual Reality interfaces would require fuel, but in the virtual world itself, we may have no concept of starvation or even eating.
Most aspects of biology aren’t relevant in virtual worlds at present. However, as the programming of these worlds is improved, it may be possible to incorporate biological aspects. Sex is a biological element we would almost certainly want to retain in a virtual environment, as would other positive physical sensations such as the benefits of exercise. However, none of these would be necessary, just desirable options for virtual living. Certainly, biological limitations and problems such as illness do not need to be present in a virtual world.
On the other side, there are many concepts that we do not (yet) escape from in virtual worlds. Mostly related to the human element, these concepts illustrate what is important in life. Whatever “reality” we decide to live in, there may be no escape from our core humanity. Or is there?
In Second Life, there are rules to adhere to. The company who runs the servers create the guidelines and control the economy. There is no voting for new leadership. It is essentially a dictatorship. However, in the future, we may decide that we prefer a virtual world that is entirely open source, created by the public and run by the public, with no overall leadership. Could this demonstrate that liberty is a perfectly viable and highly desirable system once concepts such as sadism are nullified and energy abundance is realised, or would it lead to anarchy on the virtual streets? Or most profoundly, would we be able to program out any chances of wrongdoing, thus creating (in the eyes of the creators) a perfectly behaved society – the dream of autocratic leaders?
Social Interaction, Emotions, Humour
In a virtual world, we are still ourselves. We still have to talk to people as we would in real life. Our personalities aren’t changed by the fact we look like Spongebob Squarepants with a machine gun. All the vital elements of personal interaction, timing, humour, affecting other people’s emotions, debate and relationships, are impossible to escape from, no matter how the reality is programmed.
Art and Entertainment
No matter what the environment, art and entertainment will always be a vital part of humanity. People will always want to be entertained, and there will always be people that want to be creative. Creativity is a vital aspect of humanity that I see transcending all transformations of our environments, entities and existences. With infinite life spans, what else can hold our interest but an infinite array of possibilities?
The difference with virtual reality though is that the reality we know no longer confines these possibilities. Art no longer needs to represent reality, in a virtual world, art itself opens up a whole new world of possibilities. For instance, in today’s world, art is represented by a picture on a wall, a movie, a piece of music. But in a virtual world, it could be an experience, a highly abstract representation of a situation, or something else entirely.
In a virtual world where every fantasy and desire can be fulfilled, will there be any need for people to use trade to get things they want? Surely the point of a “Better than Life” simulation is to obsolete the need for money, work and business? Will enterprise will continue to have a place in a Utopian reality, virtual or otherwise.
Creativity is something that we all possess, but everyone is different, so there will always be new ideas, new art, and new ways to entertain. This continuing need for entertainment, and the fact that there will always be those who want to create, could keep some form of enterprise alive. Perhaps creative ideas themselves will become the new currency in a virtual society.
Cause and Effect
If you’re dealing with real people, you’re always going to have an effect on them with the interactions you have. There will be no way of turning back the clock on other people’s minds.
However, if you were dealing only with Artificial Intelligences, their memories could be erased and you would be able to re-live situations, essentially going back in time. Which of these two alternatives you wish to live in could perhaps be a choice.
It may even be possible, in the case of the virtual world dictatorship, that the actions and memories of real people are undone for the benefit of elites within the world, thus giving a select few complete control over their lives at the expense of the rest of the population.
The move to a virtual existence would have all sorts of implications on our humanity.
As humans, we are motivated and driven by our needs. Our primary needs are physiological; food, sex, and comfort. At the current state of society, these needs are quite often not met, leading to all kinds of consequences.
In fully realised virtual immersion, satisfying these needs is as simple as programming the environment. The implications of this are profound, and will change the fabric of society.
Even now we see the impact of desires being met with virtual reality. Millions of online gamers are able to live virtual lives that are better than real lives, having adventures, being different people, and fulfilling their fantasies, albeit via a keyboard and monitor. This changes our very essence of our psyches.
In realising that these fantasies are possible, our general expectations in life are altered. Our priorities are distorted.
Our morals and ethics are altered by the alternative environments we occupy – we are a product of our environments after all. If our environment provides us with all we need, we remove many aspects of our humanity in an instant, both positive and negative.
As well as our environments, we are defined by our bio-chemistry. Testosterone changes men’s personality as oestrogen does women’s. What happens when we can control the brain more intimately and more precisely by artificial means, in a similar way to hormones?
Without food, where do we focus our efforts? With ultimate sex, what impact does this have on relationships, sexuality, love, friendship, reproduction, and sex itself? What will become of violence without anything to cause it? Without suffering, will we retain the concept of good with nothing to contrast?
What will we become without the primitive animal urges that made us human in the first place?
As you have seen, the idea of a virtual world goes far deeper than a 3D chat room. Looking from the perspective of a futuristic, perfect virtual reality, we are forced to question the very essence of our existence. What is the point of living if a utopia is provided for us? Once the superficial shell of reality is peeled from us, what is left of the human soul? What are the common denominators of our existence?
The virtual world paradigm opens up our eyes to the limitations of reality, and shows us the true essence of what it means to be human.