The importance of virtual worlds in an uncertain future

Red Pill v Blue PillThe most credible scenario for humankind might be one of the most important reasons we need swallow the red pill and get serious about virtual worlds now.

This is an essay about how virtual worlds like Second Life and High Fidelity might be a place of refuge if human civilisation ceases to progress along the expectations of the standard narrative: a world where things ‘just keep getting better and better’. In it, I discuss

  • why the future will probably not look like what we know from science fiction,
  • several examples of where human progress has led us backwards instead of forwards,
  • a brief summary of the global problems we face and how our future might play out,
  • the positive outcomes of such a future, and the things we can choose to protect what we have
  • how virtual worlds might act as an insurance policy for our greater social lives in a future of relative scarcity

I hope that reading this post gives you cause to reconsider your relationship with not only virtual worlds, but also the physical world in which we live today. Whilst it makes for depressing reading at times, I urge you to remain cautiously optimistic. Whilst the science fiction future is very likely not in the cards, we still have a choice between (a) a managed transition to a lower standard of living or (b) a global collapse the brings out catastrophic consequences to human society.

Based on a few negative reactions inworld to the views and assertions I am sharing in this post, I’ve held back on publishing it. Upon reflection, I’ve decided that not writing about this topic (whist thinking about it almost every day) is tantamount to saying “You can’t handle the truth!”

Still, I know that whilst much of what I’ll get into is well-known in educated circles and may come as no great surprise to many, I can also appreciate that many people escape to virtual worlds in part to temporarily abandon the sometimes grim realities of our physical world.

So, as a final warning before I open up my can of existential whoopass on your otherwise peaceful repose, I shall quote the famous choice given by Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix:

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill—the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.

The ‘Star Trek’ future is highly unlikely

In my earlier post, I highlighted the many future predictions made by the eminent scientist Dr. Mishio Kaku, and how we experience many of these things in Second Life today, decades and centuries before Dr. Kaku suggests we might experience them in the physical world.

With all due respect to Dr. Kaku’s intellect, charisma, achievements and his place at the very bleeding edge of theoretical physics, promoting such an optimistic vision of the future, without couching it in the context of the challenges we face in getting there, is irresponsible for such a high-profile representative of the scientific community. Whilst it is tempting to believe in Dr. Kaku’s ‘Star Trek’ scenario, it is wrong to blindly assume humankind will ever see this utopian vision of the future as any more than science fiction.

This saddens me. I, like most people on the planet still do, also once dreamed of a world where ‘progress’ was assumed as the only possible future in the best of all possible worlds. The facts, however, suggest that it is very unlikely we will ever enjoy many of the things futurists like Dr. Kaku describes.

Why not? Because Dr. Kaku’s predictions are likely to only materialise in a world absent of the existential problems we now face. The only setting in which his predictions can materialise is a utopian world that simply does not exist. We need to pull our head out of the clouds, swallow the bitter red pill and start facing up to facts, if we are to have any hope of surviving as a species, let alone boldly go where no one has gone before.

“The worst mistake in the history of the human race”

Seeing the future clearly sometimes depends on one’s perspective of the past. Historian John Green explains the Agricultural Revolution in the following 11-minute video:

In the video, Green highlights a few of the negative outcomes of the agricultural revolution. This view might be foreign to those who believe in the notion that human evolution is characterised by a slope of continuous improvement where we and our environment just keep getting better and better. They aren’t, and dispelling that myth might go a long way towards waking up a possibility that tomorrow might not actually be better than today.

Allow me to compress nearly 15,000 years of human history in the following paragraphs to share an example of how human innovation can sometimes not make things better, before I discuss where we’re likely heading.

Around 15,000 years ago, around the end of the last great Ice Age, neolithic humans ceased to be nomadic followers of herds. Retreating glaciers created valleys that flooded to become fertile river deltas. Humans, for the first time, adopted a viable alternative to the hunting and foraging lifestyles that were the basis of their subsistence for roughly 190,000 years.

Between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago, humans gradually transitioned from wild harvesting of naturally growing wheat and barley in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia to the deliberate cultivation of crops. As Green states, this development was mirrored in several areas around the world. Around the same time, our relationship with animals changed from herding to husbandry of the ancestors of modern cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.

So far, this all sounds like the kind of progress befitting such an intellectually superior species like homo sapiens (or “wise man”). However, human societies changed dramatically once they transitioned from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles. This shift to agriculture, wrote author Jared Diamond, was the “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.

Once we started farming and raising domesticated animals, the resulting food surplus increased the size of our population in unprecedented ways, but our quality of life plummeted.

It only took a few generations for the tribal groups in which we had accustomed ourselves to living in grew beyond Dunbar’s number of 150. Thus, our ability to keep track of our social relationships did not keep pace with the size of the settlements developing around us.

Reciprocity, the egalitarian world order predicated on sharing everything, enabled us to socially co-exist in small groups of 10 to 50 people for over two-hundred millennia. Reciprocity, without the institutions to mandate it, ceased to suffice in a society where people no longer knew each other personally. We therefore found the need to organise ourselves around hierarchical political structures to govern our behaviour, just to keep the peace.

Our investments in the land we settled led us to develop the concept of personal property that was before unimportant in nomadic cultures that carried everything they owned with them. This paradigm shift lead us to gradually view our environment – and the creatures living in it – as things beneath us that we could own and exploit. This view was different from the views held by most traditional societies of the Americas before encountering Europeans. In the main, traditional American societies saw themselves as part of, not above, the laws of the natural ecological system that enabled them to survive. It was by flaunting these laws that many traditional societies collapsed whilst others survived (more on this later).

The need to will our investments to our heirs led to patrimony to protect male parental investment. This led to a radical shift in the status of women. Women transitioned from partners in subsistence to resource producers, whose primary role became supplying farming’s intensive labour requirements with more and more workers to cultivate the soil. Thus, women became another possession for a man to earn and defend, along with his house, slaves, and livestock. As more and more people settled around agricultural centres, the more mouths agricultural centres needed to feed to propagate themselves.

As the food surplus that mushroomed human population exceeded the labour supply to continuously produce it, we co-opted weaker societies to toil the ground for us. This new phenomenon of human capital led to never-before-seen class distinctions between land owner and land worker. In its most inegalitarian form – the need for human capital became the justification for slavery.

The mixing of dense populations from distant lands, animal domestication, and trade networks gave rise to the spread of endemic diseases never before seen in Palaeolithic human remains. Our stocked granaries and dead animals attracted rats which served to further spread infectious diseases. The mono-diet, back-breaking labour and endemic disease reduced our life expectancy below Palaeolithic norms. Crop fluctuations, due to the vagaries of weather and mono-crops acting as buffets for pests led to famine rarely seen before mass agricultural adoption.

Our increased fertility and rapid population growth, combined with a new hierarchical social structure, gave rise to a male priestly class and the specialisation of labour. A political class of chiefs that lived off the labour of the new peasantry required the justification of theocratic rule through a divine connection with the Gods, which was supported by the priestly classes through the development of organised religion.

All of this ‘progress’ led to an incessant demand for more land, water and resources, resulting in the grouping of settlements into alliances, eventually leading to the formation of states. These states warred with other states, either to acquire resources they lacked or plain megalomania intent on the expansion of territory and power through religious and political mandate.

As trade and treasuries grew, states developed systems of currency to pay their armies and to enable the markets to feed the populations that supported them. Territory was expanded through either negotiated state annexation or imperialism, leading to the rise of empires. Imperialism led to the ability to use exploit the resources of weaker states, for the raw materials which enabled industrialisation to change the world.

In the ever-expanding group of bad things that looked good, industrialisation resulted in the mechanisation of labour, a boom in productivity, an agricultural revolution, and the development of modern medicine. Whilst the benefits of the industrial revolution are certainly abundant, including your current ability to read the words on this very page, there were also significant drawbacks. These factors inexorably resulted in the population explosion and growth-at-all-costs capitalism that dominates the way things work today.

But wait, wait… life is so pretty good today isn’t it? We have modern medicine, literature, art, cars, computers, airplanes, the internet, mobile phones, washing machines, virtual worlds and gatchas and so on… surely I can’t be arguing that the world today isn’t way better than when we spent our days foraging for nuts and berries? I mean, what Luddite would deny that Palaeolithic fossil evidence suggests the murder rate was 10%; that we had nasty things like infanticide as a societal norm; and, that we sometimes abandoned our elders or the lame when they ceased being useful.

Yes, it is undeniable that we have immensely benefitted from the explosion of innovation that touches our daily lives in nearly every way, especially over the last 70 years. At the same time however, people today die younger and younger from the diseases of civilisation and there is evidence to suggest we are only recently reaching life expectancy that we enjoyed in Palaeolithic times (and that’s mainly limited to the developed world). Palaeolithic humans enjoyed an abundance of leisure time unparalleled in both Neolithic farming societies and modern industrial societies. They also had more gender equality, with more flexible divisions of labour and more joint decision-making. And finally, as John Green points out, they enjoyed a lot more scoodlypooping too.

On an existential level, we have induced, and are now subject to, changing environmental conditions to which we cannot adapt fast enough. We are effectively shitting on our own doorstep. As a result, Diamond foresees a dramatic reduction in living standards in the very near future.

Ironically, as we find ourselves needing to transition to a post-fossil fuel economy, our immediate local environment will become our new world. We’ll see a return to small-scale farming and foraging, thereby experiencing a sea-change in how we occupy our time, as we transition from an industrial service economy to an agrarian subsistence economy. We will work and live locally as modern conveniences, private property, the jobs we do, and recreational travel may become distant memories to most of us, or rarely enjoyed vestiges enjoyed only by the once very rich, or the very well-prepared.

The potential collapse of human civilisation

If we’ve learned anything from evolution, it is that the only constant is change. The scientific term we know as ‘evolution’ is often confused with the idea of “things getting better and better’. Natural selection only responds to changes in the environment. ‘Progress’ is seen as an increase in complexity, division of labour, consumption in culture, and GDP. We assume, incorrectly, that progress is merely a continuation of what has happened for millions of years. A more accurate view is that the last 15,000 years is a mere blip in geological time. The earth has been here for a very, very long time before us (4.54 billion years), and will continue to be here for a very, very long time after us (depending on how one defines the Earth, at least another 7 billion years).

Things fall apart, and our time too will end, but more likely announced by a whimper than with bang. Far from a total extinction event like an asteroid wiping us off the planet earth, or a War of Worlds style visitation by hostile aliens bent on our annihilation, or a Mount Toba-like volcanic super-eruption… our end will be slow and gradual. Humans may in fact survive for millennia to come – adaptability is one the most defining characteristics of our species. The civilisation we’ve built however, will most certainly not be as long-lived.

Less like a Chicken Little and more like a canary in a coal mine, the assertions I make are well backed up by very credible evidence. The sky may not be falling just yet, but it is most certainly changing in irreparable ways. Dr. Kaku was himself one of the early proponents of this version of the future, was warning us about global warming way back in 1991, long before he started to imagining how we might one day build teleportation machines. Perhaps his long-term plan is to have us teleport to another Class M planet.

Much more likely than a movie-like doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilisation, would be just a future of much lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values. Such a collapse could assume various forms, such as the worldwide spread of disease and wars, most likely triggered by scarcity of the environmental resources on which we depend for our survival.

This chilling but credible scenario is painstakingly illustrated in examples of past societal collapses, by historian Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, which set out the five factors that have led to the collapse of earlier civilisations before ours:

  1. environmental damage
  2. climate change
  3. hostile neighbours
  4. relationships with trade partners
  5. and in every case a fifth….human response to environmental problems

Diamond convincingly argues that we are living in a time in which we face the collapse of our global civilisation, not just our own. He suggests that there are 12 ticking time-bombs we face, any one of which could spell our ruin. This means that we must solve all of these problems within the next few decades or face catastrophic consequences.

In this short video, Diamond tells us about the existential problems we now face, and the many advantages we have that earlier societies on the brink of collapse did not:

Even if we can solve or halt the effects of these problems, requiring an unprecedented coordination of global political will and financial investment, the world of the future will be a dramatically different place than most of us expect.

Our ‘Paradigm of Progress’ will finally shift to a more accurate vision of humanity’s existence on the planet Earth, characterised by impermanence, just like the 99% of the species that came and went before us over the last 3.8 billion years that life has existed on this planet (e.g. from prokaryotes, to eukaryotes, to trilobites, to plants, to arthropods, to amphibious vertebrates, to reptiles, to dinosaurs, to mammals, to… us).

How our winding down might play out

At current growth rates, we could have over 12 billion people living on the planet 100 years from now, which is much less than the mathematical projection (which is about double that), but is roughly around the Earth’s carrying capacity.

It is unlikely, however, that we’ll ever reach that number. Well before 100 years from now, human activity will drain essential resources past peak production, including drinking water and water for growing food.

We will see rising global food prices well beyond what we are accustomed to, as water resources and dwindling arable land becomes more and more scarce.

The erosion of our topsoil (one inch of which took 500 years to naturally develop) on our dwindling arable lands will lower crop yields, which will lead to peak food production, dwindling supply in the face of growing demand, spelling the end of affordable food.

We’ll experience the peak production of oil within the next few years, and see the end of affordable fossil fuels over the next decade. This will make transporting ourselves, and necessary supplies like food, water and building materials affordable to very few. Rising oil prices will lead to the abandonment of the suburbs, as populations either flood urban centres or form agrarian collectives to survive.

Rising oil and natural gas prices will make food become desperately difficult to obtain. This will likely be the catalyst that brings about a significant population die-off due to the 3 big shortages: food, water, and oil. Before oil enabled the “green revolution” our global population was roughly 2 billion, which suggests that 5 billion people are supported by a food surplus that is unsustainable.

Population Curve

Shelter will take a massive hit, as global warming will continue unabated. Climate change will melt our polar ice caps raising water levels worldwide, eroding most of our coasts, displacing millions.

Ocean acidification, caused by the uptake in CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere will lead to the massive die off of sea, seeing the end of fish, potentially affecting between 400 and 800 million people who rely on our ocean’s product for survival.

Resource wars over remaining arable lands, water and oil, will generate unstoppable debt, more environmental damage, and the displacement of millions of people, creating massive migratory pressures as the poor invade richer areas.

Whist all of this is happening, we’ll be experiencing the economic collapse of a financial system that is already built on unsustainable debt – leading to hyper inflation, devaluation of property, and the bankrupting of states and their citizens. This will likely lead to the toppling of governments and the unenforceability of law.

Chaos and anarchy will ensue. Local authorities governed by might will, like the land lords in the so-called Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, will likely rise to fill the leadership vacuum. Potentially, all of this may happen in a very short space of time – potentially on the scale of years – lubricated by our globalised interdependency.

As Diamond points out often however, these things don’t have to happen as drastically as hypothesised. We still have the choice to choose between a managed transition or an uncontrollable collapse. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: we are going to need to be able to respond to our critical global challenges with foresight, discipline, and a necessary change of what we hold as inalienable rights and values today.

Silver Linings and the Legacies of the Internet

On the positive side, we might necessarily become much, much, more in tune with what really matters to us – including getting back in touch with the nature that remains. We’ll become considerably more aware of how to feed ourselves and how to protect ourselves. We’ll increasingly come to appreciate our loved ones, our arts and crafts, our relationships, and what it really means to be human.

At this point I’m reminded of a theme song…

No phone, no lights no motor cars,
not a single luxury,
Like Robinson Caruso,
as primitive as can be.

Before you imagine a life not worth living, consider that one of the very few cool things we’ve made that might just survive is the Internet (assuming we can continue to electrically power computers, routers and the networks connecting them). The Internet was designed specifically for enabling a means of networked communication after an event like a global thermonuclear war, so it should surely survive a transition to a post fossil-fuel based economy, right?

And if the internet survives, maybe virtual worlds will too. It is conceivable that virtual worlds may be the last refuge in which we can enjoy at least a facsimile of the lifestyle we once enjoyed and the elusive future of a lifestyle of once we dreamed. I’m not the first to make this connection.

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One offers a prescient glimpse of the role virtual reality might play in the future I’ve painted above. The novel is set in 2044, after

the exhaustion of Earth’s fossil fuels has led to longstanding global scarcity and massive aggregation of urban sprawls. While social proximity is at its highest ever, people take refuge in the OASIS, a free-to-use and comparatively idyllic massively multiplayer online virtual reality simulation that easily consumes much of human attention and investment.

Some might argue that playing around in a virtual world might the least of our concerns in a world where we struggle for basic physiological and safety needs. Still, I don’t buy into the hopelessly pessimistic idea that we will make a return to the caves. Instead, I see a hybrid of our current social development without the added trappings of modern civilisation.

Will we still have needs to socialise and express ourselves? Of course we will. Will we still have gaps in our physical / emotional lives that we might seek to fulfil in our virtual spaces? Conceivably many more. Might we still need, like the fictional characters in Ready Player One, wish to escape our limited existences by leaping headfirst into virtual reality? Oh, most definitely.

In the wake of transition however, unaffordable oils results in unaffordable electricity, and the internet doesn’t work very well with an unstable power supply. Further, we will need an abundance of engineers and electronic components to keep up and replace hardware infrastructure in the face of constant decay. We’ll also need to relatively easily transport engineers to support the nodes.

Furthermore, our internet today might not be as redundant as it might have been back in the ARPANET days. In truly massive networks, the problem of topology makes redundant routing inefficient. The routers spend a lot of time advertising changing routes and keeping one another updated on low reliability links. Since the mid-1990s, ISPs and backbone organisations have pursued economies of scale reducing redundancy to working limits. Thus, the internet today is hierarchical, not massively parallel and redundant.

Regardless of whether the choices we make lead us to a managed transition or societal collapse, investment in critical internet infrastructure is potentially considerably more important than building highways and other international transportation systems. We need to see significant investments to protect wired, fibre optic and microwave links. We need to have plans in place to keep up routing equipment, and the accompanying critical software services like DNS, email, web hosting, authentication and authorisation, storage and database servers. It is likely that if any of these systems and services were to fail for a significant time, the internet as we know it would collapse.

And what about companies like Linden Lab?  How might any single company (yes, I’m aware they have several co-located data centres worldwide to run Second Life) manage the transition? Would we even have a virtual world we can rely on in a post-fossil fuel agrarian-based world full of marginally connected local economies?

When I imagine how a virtual world might survive a transition, I believe that perhaps Philip Rosedale’s High Fidelity, with their approach to distributed computing to help offload the computer power to run complex, nuanced and decentralised virtual worlds on our own computers, might in fact be more likely to survive. It is also arguable that High Fidelity’s augmentationalist approach (e.g. 3D audio, low latency, mirrored body language and facial expressions) might be more attractive in a future in which we live in smaller social units with limited exposure to the greater world.

Regardless of the shape of virtual worlds to come, it is highly likely that in an age where social contact becomes more localised and recreational travel becomes a luxury, virtual worlds, and how we conduct ourselves within them, will be a critical way in which we experience the world we once knew, and could have possibly been.

4 thoughts on “The importance of virtual worlds in an uncertain future

  1. A fascinating essay, Becky. Much as I don’t particularly want to, I’m inclined to agree with your sense of foreboding as to what the future holds – though I also agree it’s important to be optimistic.

    I think a key phrase here is ‘lower standard of living’. If we continue to measure our life-satisfaction through material wealth and convenience then this is indeed the right term to describe the state to which I agree we probably have to transition in order to avoid a much greater collapse. That state, however, has much to commend it. If we were able to start measuring our life-satisfaction through mindful connectedness to our environment and to the people we love and value – if we could start living through moments rather than through things – then we might just find this ‘lower standard’ ultimately a much richer and more rewarding existence than the one we have right now. I don’t have any great optimism that this will happen any time soon and think in all probability that attempts to maintain the status quo of power and wealth distribution will probably see consumerism pushed down our throats until society’s last gasp; that said, human beings are – as you say – incredibly resourceful and flexible.

    It’s interesting that you use Star Trek as that fading dream yardstick. I’ve long been interested in the visions of the future we were sold and in which we needed to believe during the postwar period. For me, Star Trek was all about co-operation and self-actualisation, and its transcendence of materialism was the thing that attracted me to it most of all. When people talk about Star Trek coming true it usually makes me smile – albeit sadly – because they’re mistaking the technology as ‘the thing’ that is Star Trek rather than the vision. Perhaps a new standard of living will be forced upon us, then, but perhaps it will bring about a new appreciation of the things that surround us; perhaps, in fact, that Star Trek vision can only end up occurring if our cheap toys (brought to us on the backs of the exploitation of others, as they always have been) are forcibly taken away from us. I certainly can’t see many people giving them up voluntarily.

    So I’m going to continue to hope for that Roddenberrian future. There might be only the tiniest of likelihoods that it will happen, but, in a world in which religion still dictates public policy, I feel even a 1% possibility represents a more rational belief system than many cling to 😀

    Thank you for writing this.


    1. Thanks Huck. Yes, when I said “lower standard of living” I solely meant material wealth and convenience; anyone who’s traveled to the developed world has realised it’s completely possible to live without A/C and a 2 car garage. And yes, I can imagine a much richer and more rewarding existence as a possible outcome of this lowering. Also, that’s an astute distinction you’re making between Star Trek’s technology and a vision of a more cooperative and self-actualised world. I, like you, would love to see that vision materialise – and one of the coolest things about it is that it’s totally within our grasp and much sooner than the tech! We don’t need cold fusion or FTL drives to be happy, we just need to love and accept one another.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s