When I teach my Science Fiction course to high schoolers, inevitably the question arises whether technology is harmful or beneficial. It’s an overly simplistic question meant to spur debate, but I’ve noticed in the past five or six years that fewer and fewer kids find technology disturbing. And so, I tend to lean that way in discussion, citing things like pollution, global warming, genetically modified foods, sounding the alarms about how we’re all headed toward a metaphorical Matrix. And if none of that works, I start talking about the joys of being in the wilderness and the fact that contact with dirt makes people happier.
Where the discussion really gets interesting, however, is when we delve into virtual reality territory. There are those who claim that living in the Matrix wouldn’t be so bad — like Cypher in the movie — except their argument isn’t that “ignorance is bliss”; their argument is that virtual worlds can be more fun than the real world.
I’ve seen what these kids are talking about. When I was in middle school, I had a Sega console. Not the Sega Genesis. The original Sega. And there were a few games called role-playing games, which usually involved dungeons and towers and grassy meadows that you rode your horse through. One such game was called Ys; another was Golvellius; and there was a third one called Phantasy Star which had really cool dungeons on multiple planets, no horses. Actually, according to wikipedia, Phantasy Star was the first “story-drive” RPG released in the United States, but whatever. The point is that these were all role-playing games and as such, required the player of the game to become the main character of the story unfolding over the course of the gameplay.
Don’t all games do that? Well, yes, to a certain extent many of them do. But from what I can tell, RPGs differ in how much they suck you in. An RPG is a time vacuum. And when you finally force yourself to turn it off at 2:00 in the morning, you don’t necessarily feel a sense of satisfaction. Maybe here’s where I should stop talking in second person. I don’t necessarily feel a sense of satisfaction. In fact, I’d often feel quite the opposite — a sense of having been duped, of having spent a lot of time and having very little to show for it.
I’m hearing my wife ask, “Isn’t that the case with all video games?” even though she’s not here. I guess my reply is couldn’t you say that of all fun/recreation. I mean, what do you have to show for watching an episode of The Ghost Whisperer or after playing a game of Jarts with your brother? There are all sorts of unproductive activities that have very few tangible outcomes but are nonetheless worthwhile. And in fact, sometimes wasting time itself is worthwhile.
But RPGs are designed to require hours and hours of play and many of those hours are devoted to what’s known as “side-missions,” which are little detours you can take from the main plot of the game so that you can make your character stronger, smarter, more experienced, more magic, whatever. So I guess it’s probably pretty accurate to say that a large part of RPGs is about developing your character whilst not forwarding the plot at all.
Enter Second Life. For those who don’t know, Second Life is an online 3D virtual world, where you can interact with others via your “avatar.” Your avatar is your character — in many cases, a hotter version of yourself.
Second Life was developed in 2003, and as I understand it, is quite an elaborate virtual space. It even has its own commerce. You can buy or sell things inside Second Life using Linden dollars, which can be exchanged for actual money — meaning there’s real earning potential. There are also virtual lectures and protests and concerts. I find it quite disturbing, to tell the truth. It’s an RPG without a story. And I can’t see how it’s anything but a huge time vacuum.
But let’s think about this.
There’s a spectrum of virtual spaces. On the one extreme, you have Second Life, a virtual community in which you can essentially spend all your time. Get a catheter and an IV, and you’re good to go.
Next is Google’s Lively, which was launched this summer. It’s a little like Second Life: it has ‘3D’ avatars, which interact in 3D rooms, but it hasn’t “monetized” yet, so it’s not quite as immersive (read: “lifeblood-sucking”).
Take away the avatars and ‘3D’ crap and you’re left with a chat room. Variations of chat rooms have been around for a long time. They provide live, real-time communication, but the people using them often have “handles” or user names different from their actual names. So they can screw with their identities.
A chat room without the live = a forum. Lots of fake names still, but posted responses. Have you ever had roommates who had schedules completely different from each other so that the only way you could communicate was by leaving messages on a white board or a random piece of paper? That’s basically a forum. Not live, not actual human contact, but useful.
And then there are social network sites, which have various capabilities, but the basic idea is a lot like a forum, except organized by people rather than interests/hobbies/topics.
Many of the above are nice supplements to actual life. But shouldn’t we be scared that they’ll replace real interaction? Aren’t we all going to end up holed up in dark basements, staring at our computer screens and eating potato chips (with chopsticks so we don’t get the keyboards greasy) if this goes on?
I looked up some actual Sociological studies on this. You should be impressed. Just around the turn of the century, everyone had some stern warnings. Kraut, et al. at Carnegie Mellon University reported in 1998 “negative effects of using the Internet on social involvement and psychological well-being among new Internet users in 1995-96.” A few years later (2002) Kraut and friends said, “Online relationships are less valuable than offline ones.”
One Norman Nie asserted circa 2000 that “Internet use may actually reduce interpersonal interaction and communication.” And when Nie teamed up with his pal Ebring, they found that “time may be ‘stolen’ from local face-to-face exchanges and given to distant friends, ‘stolen’ from the phone and given to email, and ‘stolen’ from now with promise of return later.”
So there you have it. Be afraid. The internet is Doctor Frankenstein’s monster and it will kill your loved ones.
Or maybe not. Barry Wellman and Anabel Quan-Haase concluded that “the Internet occupies an important place in everyday life, connecting friends and kin both near and far. In the short run, it is adding on to — rather than transforming or diminishing — social capital*.”
In revisiting his 1998 study, Kraut et al. “found that negative effects dissipated“: “This sample generally experienced positive effects of using the Internet on communication, social involvement, and well-being.”
Barry Wellman and Caroline Haythornthwaite edited a book called The Internet in Everyday Life, which does exactly what I’m doing here but better. In their intro, they note that “Wagner, Pischner and Haisken-DeNew [found] that teenagers’ use of the Internet [did] not take away from the more socially acceptable activities of reading or playing sports.” And later, they cite “Robinson, Kestnbaum, Neustadtl and Alavarez [who found] that Internet users show a more active lifestyle than non-users, including less sleep, and more social contact with friends and co- workers (although less time with their children).”
So there’s kind of a mixed bag of results. But Haythornthwaite and Wellman say it best when they assert that “at present, the statistics do not provide a clear position, and can be interpreted to support or refute the claim that the Internet is a solitary activity, harmful to social relations with others.”
Of course, that assertion is from 2002. And in 2003, when Wellman and some other people asserted that “Internet use is adding on to other forms of communication, rather than replacing them,” it was still before the Web 2.0 revolution.
So it’s hard to know what we can really say about the extent to which the internet is making us losers. There’s a lot of evidence, however, that conventional wisdom might be off on this one. I stumbled upon a recent article reporting that “watching TV has no relationship to [teens’] levels of physical activity.” If that doesn’t defy conventional wisdom, I don’t know what does. So maybe internet use has no relationship with having no life. I don’t know.
In my Science Fiction class this year, I had one brave student admit that for the whole of his sophomore year, he’d been addicted to World of Warcraft, an online RPG that’s about as immersive as you can get. He said it was all-consuming. He’d think about it when he was in school, and he start playing as soon as he got home, taking a break to eat dinner and to do homework before resuming and staying up late.
“How did you stop?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “One day, I just woke up and realized that I was totally wasting my life.” He said he didn’t regret it entirely; he’d met friends from all over the world via World of Warcraft. But just like me back in 8th grade, he was aware of whether or not he was living his life like he wanted to be living it.