Technology is No Substitute for the Real World

You may be reading this as you wait for class to begin. Or you could be reading this on a computer screen at 2 a.m. It’s the same story, but the settings are of two very different worlds.

If you are reading this in our print edition, you are probably surrounded by other students who are reading the same paper. Maybe they’re reading this article too. If you’re reading this online, you are probably alone in your room. Maybe you’re listening to music. Others might be reading this article at the same time, but you have no way of knowing it.

The new millennium almost seems like a letdown. It’s 2001 and the only space odyssey around involves the Russians and their self-destructing Mir. No one flies around in “”Jetsonmobiles,”” either. Reality bites, doesn’t it? Reality bites, but soon we may not have to deal with it. Soon, we will be able to spend our lives in a digitally created world.

Despite the decline of the tech market, 2001 is significant because it will go down in history as the true beginning of the Digital Age. It will be the end of traditional socializing and community, and the beginning of virtual reality as a substitute for the real thing.

It’s the reality of life in 21st-century America. Our “”society”” is moving toward total privacy. This worries me.

Almost daily, I see someone on Library Walk who appears to be talking to himself. He isn’t crazy; he’s talking on an almost-invisible phone. He is “”connected,”” and yet he is disconnected from the world around him.

Like each previous technological revolution, the Digital Age has quietly engulfed us. We didn’t ask for this deluge of information and electronic devices, but it evolved over time and we evolved with it.

I am part of the last generation of Americans to grow up without a personal Internet connection. During my junior year of high school, I finally got “”connected,”” but children now are on the computer long before they’re in kindergarten. This worries me.

Children in the United States don’t know any other way of life. As far as they’re concerned, the Internet is as remarkable as a peanut butter sandwich. This also worries me.

The Internet is often hailed as a breakthrough in communication, but that’s not necessarily positive. There is nothing so great about talking to people across the world when it means that you no longer talk to your next-door neighbors.

Traditional community is on the way out. The rise of suburbia was the first strike against it. In many cases, neighbors now are not friends but simply other people dwelling in their own private world, one door down from yours. You don’t hear “”there goes the neighborhood”” very often anymore, because it packed up and left a very long time ago.

Rising political apathy in America is not surprising. As our world becomes increasingly private, public issues mean less. Most people don’t care about the government unless it wants to increase taxes or dump toxic waste on their front lawns. Only then are politics worth dealing with.

One of the special qualities of computers is that they allow us to turn our private world on and off whenever we please. Problems need not exist in cyberspace. If an argument is brewing between you and another Internet user, you can simply log off. You never have to deal with another person’s feelings if you don’t want to. That you may have never seen this person’s face makes it even easier to do just that.

The human mind doesn’t just like simulated situations; it comes to prefer them. In an age of unlimited possibilities in the virtual world, reality is no longer a priority. Virtual reality makes the impossible possible, as long as it doesn’t mean dealing with real problems.

Virtual reality can’t end poverty and it can’t end hunger, but it can blanket us in the feeling that these problems don’t exist. Virtual reality can’t make death painless, but it can numb us to the feelings associated with it. Again, this worries me.

Millions of video games can simulate killing another creature, but no video game forces you to deal with the real-life consequences of taking a life. In the virtual world, there are only simulated consequences. The reset button takes care of everything. For a lot of people, this is the perfect existence.

For now, virtual reality is limited to video games and the Internet, but change is coming. Any experience will be able to be reproduced. Technology will evolve past simulating reality and on to simulating experiences that are better than the real thing.

The line between the virtual and real world is blurring. I worry about what virtual existence means for the future of the real world. Will the real world become a massive inner city to the suburbs of hyper-reality? If we cross over to a predominantly digital existence, are any of us going to want to come back to the real world?

The evolving Digital Age keeps barreling ahead, with little regard for what it leaves in its wake. Before we decide to plug in any further, I urge us to take a look at the reality we are leaving behind. It is imperfect, to be sure, but that is the way life was intended. As a society, we should think about hitting the reset button before it is too late.

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