Thursday, March 5, 2009

Internet City: The Internet Made Real

Virtual reality is here. But it's not where you think it is.

In the news a few months ago was the story of the woman arrested for hacking into the account of a fellow gamer in order to "murder" his character in the virtual reality of an online role-playing game. Incensed over his character's abrupt divorcing of her character, she virtually killed him.

In the news that same week was the story of a man who purchased a virtual space station for $100,000 off of eBay. That's a pretend space station, purchased off of real eBay, for a hundred thousand real dollars, by a real person.

Then there's the true story of the woman who filed for divorce because her husband—no, pardon me, not her husband, rather her husband's virtual character—had been having an affair with another virtual character in yet another online game.

My first thought on reading these articles was, "I thought reading a mystery novel was escapist. But these online role-playing games are taking escapism to an extreme. How far we've come, to deceive ourselves so greatly about what is real."

But my next thought switched it all around. "No. These people are not losing touch with reality. They're intensely in touch with the reality of the day. The most extreme escapism that we're experiencing is not virtual reality at all. It's something else altogether. It's the Internet itself."

And it hit me then. The Internet is not a book. It is not our computers. It is not a server. It is not the e-mails we receive or the people, the very real people, we are in contact with in its network. It is an illusion. A City of Illusion, if you will, that we all agree to honor and treat as real as we visit it.  So in a way, it is real.

And because we treat Internet City as real, we have a host of new problems to deal with, just as we would if we all lived simultaneously in two cities at once.

And with the new problems, new solutions arise. The solutions only have meaning in Internet City. But we take what happens here so seriously that we can, in real life, be arrested, find a mate, make friends, spend money, and make money based on our actions in the City. So it's very, very real. A very real illusion.

Intellectual Property on the Internet

How do we define it, now that we're no longer dealing with a finite number of copies whose distribution follows traceable paths? We struggle to manage content's distribution. On the World Wide Web, a single article becomes, in a flash, a million articles, and those million articles are instantly all over Internet City in forms that can be copied, printed, retyped, redistributed, modified, and otherwise claimed by anyone. Where lies the property? Who owns it? Intellectual property in Internet City remains undefined.

Identity on the Internet

In Internet City, we must act not as physical people, but as personas that own no bodies, no faces, no voices. We have to simulate our physical existence in this virtual world, using text, emoticons, avatars, and images. These are not like clothing or makeup or speech or gestures; they do not merely enhance us or help us express ourselves; they constitute our substance whenever we enter Internet City. We are effectively reduced to our avatar and our font in Internet City.

Security on the Internet

We police our crimes differently in this virtual world. Just as in the physical world, in Internet City we fear harassment, invasion of privacy, fraud, false identity, and theft. But in Internet City, the citizens, organizations, and businesses, not the police, provide the first line of defense. It's the American Wild West all over again in Internet City.

Society on the Internet

We must learn new rules for social behavior. In physical life, we hang out in real time with people who are like us--our age, or our background, or our educational level. Or we mingle with people who live, work, travel or shop in the same place. So when we speak to someone else in physical life, we know we're standing on common ground, even if that ground is merely a shared plot of time and place. That common ground tells us what we should say--and what we shouldn't say.

On the Internet, we hang out, literally, with everyone. When we say something that seems perfectly innocuous, it never is. From the perspective of someone who isn't standing on the same common ground, it's loaded with meaning, problematic, and maybe even offensive. And if it's not now, it will be in ten years, twenty years, a hundred years. In Internet City, social rules are in constant flux, because the inhabitants are.

Eternity on the Internet

In physical life, your statements and actions are felt locally and reverberate outward in ever-diminishing waves of influence, until they disappear into the aether. In Internet City, they are cached forever.

Yesterday on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno, President Barack Obama made a quip he later regreted--he implied an insult to the Special Olympics. Later, he apologized. But because his quip is now a permanent resident in Internet City via news articles, blogs, and streaming media, and because Internet content is available to you year-round, any hour of the day, anyplace you enter the City, the impact of Obama's joke is much larger than it would have been twenty years previous. A hundred years previous, and most people would never have known he said it.

President Obama is a public figure. But what about the exchange of words you had with that driver in the parking lot? What about the secrets your grandmother told you about what she did when she was a child? It all may find its way into Internet City--and eternity.

We're just at the beginning of these changes, and I've only tapped the surface. Many transformations have yet to happen.

That pretend space station that the man purchased off of eBay? It will earn the man real advertising dollars, just as a website that takes the place of a "real" bricks and mortar store earns money from affiliate links. Virtual reality role-playing games...Internet City...these are no illusions, really. The virtual world is as real as our careers, as real as corporations, as the economy, as marriage, as real as any social construct we could devise. And it's no less powerful for all that it's still unbounded, unregulated, and undefined.

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