We sit on the cusp of a new world fraught with astonishing possibility, potential, and peril as people shift from face-to-face to virtual interaction. If by “virtual” one means “online,” then nearly a third of the world’s population is doing so already. More than 300 million Web sites and numerous online applications, including e-mail, chat rooms, video conferencing, computer games, and social networking, keep over a quarter of the world’s nearly 7 billion humans busy—in some cases, obsessively—interacting virtually.
In 1938, a carefully crafted radio broadcast caused millions of people to question their ability to differentiate the real from the virtual. Many of these listeners experienced emotions far worse than doubt and confusion—they were terrified. Orson Welles, via radio broadcast, presented a highly realistic, news-style depiction of an alien invasion in an adaptation of the novel The War of the Worlds. Though the program was intended as entertainment, those who had not heard the lead-in to the show thought the broadcast was an actual newscast.
So many people panicked and fled in their cars that highways were flooded with traffic. Others aimed their rifles and shot at water towers that resembled spacecraft, or wrapped towels around their heads to protect themselves from potential alien mind-control. Even scientists were fooled. Several geologists rushed to the alleged scene in New Jersey to examine the fallen meteorites surrounding the alien craft. In sum, a well-crafted virtual story galvanized a large population.
The War of the Worlds calamity highlights why today’s virtual revolution is particularly potent. In 1938, there was a clear distinction between media producers and media consumers. In order for The War of the Worlds to reach people’s homes, corporate support was required. The show’s producer, CBS, was one of the very few organizations that had access to airwaves. Because only a handful of program directors decided what types of stories would be broadcast, maintaining rational control over media content was possible—though not foolproof, as the broadcast’s hysteria proved. Contrast that with today’s world, in which consumers are also media producers. Try to find a college student without an elaborately constructed Facebook profile. It won’t be easy.
Students constantly update photographs and diary entries for the world to see. Similarly, YouTube videos, produced by anyone with a Web connection and a digital camera, can receive worldwide attention just hours after being produced. The people who use the Web also shape the content of the Web. Sometimes those people become multimillionaires—for example, the creators of the game FarmVille, a simple Facebook app that may have more farmers than the planet does.
Users average three hours per day online. In countries like South Korea, the average is much higher. Digital interactions among people are becoming ubiquitous at work and play. The vice president of Digital Convergence at IBM—that they have one is notable—predicted that all of their employees will have avatars in five years. Some projections claim that 80 percent of active Internet users and Fortune
500 enterprises will have a Second Life presence in the not-too- distant future. If present growth rates hold, the number of Internet users worldwide could triple in four years, as will their time spent online, with the largest growth occurring outside of the Western world. Certainly, more and more people benefit from virtual interaction every day, which suggests a tipping point will be crossed, as popular social venues move from physical to the digital worlds. We are at the early stages of a dramatic shift in “cyber-existence” — think of it as the difference between 2-D and 3-D, between the merely interactive and the fully immersive.
Disruptive as it may seem, the shift to an ever more virtual world—of which the Internet was only one step—may be something close to inevitable, given how humans are wired neurophysiologically. Driven by imaginations that have long sought to defy the sensory and physical constraints of physical reality, humans continuously search for new varieties and modes of existence, only this time we’re doing it via the supposedly cold machinery of digital space.