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Friday, November 5, 2010

The Inexorable March Towards the Virtual

Second Life, The Sims, video games: the virtual world seems to be taking an ever-stronger hold in the high-tech world we live in.  Some people seem to feel even more comfortable in the virtual world, where they can craft new and different identities through their self-invented avatars.  But it's not hard to hear the murmured fears about how much time some people spend in these Neverlands rather than being grounded in reality.  The people that inhabit these binary universes are thought to be somehow just a bit whacky.

But these fears of the virtual are not new.  The move from the physical world to a more virtual world has been going on for a very long time.  I was reminded of this as I was reading T.J. Stiles National Book Award-winning biography, The First Tycoon, The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  In the first decades of the 19th century, the economy consisted of individual proprietors and limited partnerships.  As the first corporations began to be chartered to build canals and railroads, the concept of what constituted a business began to become untethered from the hard and comforting reality of the physical world.  The structure of the corporation not only created a new entity that had a legal life of its own (including legal immortality), the stock issued by the corporation began to move away from an accounting-based recognition of the value of the corporation's real property.  Stocks began to be issued for financial reasons and were now free to seek their value in the open market.  This uncoupling of what used to be considered "real" for something more intangible created great angst in the general public.  Shares that were issued for financial reasons were considered to be "watered stock", an expression that derives from the trick of old drovers who would would let their cattle over-drink just before being weighed to determine their market value.  What did stock represent if not the total capital assets of the corporation?  If it couldn't be taken apart and sold, many felt it wasn't real.  Things like an existing customer base, brand recognition, or know-how were considered to be intangibles and hence of no monetary value.  People like Cornelius Vanderbilt helped to move the country forward into a new era, a more virtual era, through his creation of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad.

The march to the virtual continued during the Civil War when the lack of enough gold in the U.S. Treasury made it impossible to procure all that was needed to fight the war.  The Greenback was issued as legal currency and it set off a wave of negative reaction that went on for decades.  Why should a piece of printed paper be worth something?  It wasn't either gold or silver.  It was just... paper.  We moved another step towards a more virtual world.

When Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, communication took a giant step towards the virtual.  No longer would long-distance communication require either people or a written document moving from place to place to carry information.  Information could now move instantaneously, unfettered by the limitations imposed by geography.  The same sense of uncoupling followed the introduction of the telephone and the phonograph.  Edison was known as The Wizard of Menlo Park, not because of his lightbulb, but because his phonograph took the physical world of sound and somehow encapsulated it so that it could be reproduced at will.

So many of our technologies have a component of abstraction to them; photography, motion pictures, radio, and television all uncoupled the real from the virtual.  With the blooming of the Information Age, we have moved to virtual money through ATMs, cash cards, and PayPal.  We make friends through social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.  We chat through text messaging, tweets, instant messaging, and video calls.  We shop on the internet without giving it a second thought.  We fight our wars using pilots who fly Predator aircraft through virtual links halfway around the planet.  The boundaries blur rapidly.

As surely as there is an Arrow of Time that moves in only one direction, there is also an Arrow of the Virtual which moves ever more away from what we like to call the Real World.  The rate of change often exceeds our capacity to cope.  We feel disoriented and apprehensive as we are pried loose from the old objects of our security.  But what was uncomfortable to one generation is taken for granted in the next.  Our world of 2010 is only a way station on the journey to something that will seem even more disconnected from what we think of as real.  Maybe the comfort in all of this is to realize that it is not only natural, it is inevitable.  People will feel just as comfortable (and uncomfortable) with the world of 2110 as people felt in 1910.   Maybe the secret is to relax and try to enjoy it.

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