Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"Toxic immersion"

I just finished Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, a book by Edward Castronova (University of Chicago Press, 2005). It raises a number of interesting issues, some of which I may address in future posts.

Today, I want to talk a bit about an issue Castronova raises toward the end of the book: “toxic immersion.” (Synthetic Worlds, page 238). He describes toxic immersion as “losing people to a space that, by any standard of human worth, dignity, and well-being, is not good for them.” Castronova unfortunately does not provide many details on what, precisely, he means by this. He does note that it would consist, at least in part, of having “synthetic worlds” (i.e., virtual realities) “become permanent homes for the conscious self.”

It is already apparent this could happen in various ways. As Castronova points out, the most extreme option is a Matrix scenario in which our bodies are maintained by machines while our minds roam virtual worlds. (Synthetic Worlds, page 238). Another possibility – raised by a British Telecom forecast – is that human consciousness would leave its physical host and migrate into cyberspace, or the version of cyberspace. (2005 BT Technology Timeline). Or there might be a less drastic scenario, one in which we spend much of our time plugged into cyberspace (or the future version . . . ) and the rest interacting with the real, physical world. Or . . . many others.

But I’m really not interested in "how toxic immersion occurs" scenarios. What I found interesting about Castronova’s take on toxic immersion is that he suggests it could justify state intervention to protect people from an experience "that, by any standard . . . is not good for them." (Synthetic Worlds, page 238).

I find this suggestion interesting because it reminds me of something I wondered about a few years ago, and then forgot about, in the press of dealing with other issues, other problems.

It occurred to me, a few years ago, that there could be some very interesting parallels between the way societies might deal with immersion in virtual realities and the way societies currently deal with drugs. Drugs (at least certain drugs) and virtual realities have something in common: They can both take us away from the real, physical world. Drugs do this in various ways: by blurring the edges of the real-world, by blunting our ability to experience the real-world or even, in the case of hallucinogens, transforming our experience of the real-world. Virtual realities go even further; they can take us away -- conceptually, anyway, from the real, physical world.

Historically, many cultures have had no difficulty whatsoever with the real-world-evading and/or -transforming qualities of various drugs. Indeed, some embraced the real-world-transforming qualities of drugs, incorporating drugs into their religious ceremonies. Other cultures, however, have historically rejected the real-world-evading and/or -transforming qualities of various drugs. As we know, this latter view has triumphed over the last century or so, and we live in a world in which access to drugs is carefully controlled and unauthorized access is punished as a crime.

It occurred to me, several years ago, that virtual realities can raise many of the same issues as real-world-evading and/or real-world-transforming drugs. Castronova's comments reminded me of my reflections on that issue because he clearly believes a "descent" into virtual reality would justify, as he says, "paternalistic" intervention by the state. Why, I wonder? Why, (I hope) you ask?

When I thought about this several years ago, I speculated that we might see a world in which the use of virtual reality was treated in a fashion analogous to the way we treat the use of (certain) drugs. That is, access to virtual reality would be . . . what? . . . controlled? licensed? monitored? penalized? . . . all for "our own good," as Castronova would have it.

What would justify this? If we reject, as I do, Puritanically-based knee-jerk reactions to any vaguely-hedonistic experience, what remains? The historic arguments for criminalizing drugs (as aggressively articulated by Harry Anslinger, the first U.S. "drug czar," in the 1930's) were that (certain) drugs (i) caused people to become violent, (ii) damaged users' physical health and/or (iii) resulted in their becoming parasites on society because they used drugs instead of working to support themselves and their families. (Alchohol somehow escaped being consigned to the outlawed "drug" category even though many/all of these "justifications" could be applied to it, as well.)

I can see similar arguments' being made with regard to the use of virtual reality, which currently consists primarily of multiple-user online games. When I first thought of that possibility, I was thinking primarily in terms of justifications (ii) and (iii) because I could see people's becoming so immersed in virtual reality that they tended to let other things slide. We are already beginning to see some of this, along with a societal reaction against it. As you may know, there have been a few instances in which people have died apparently as a result of playing online games without taking breaks (for food and sleep?).

These deaths, along with other not-really-identified evils resulting from intensive online gaming, have given rise to concerns about "online game addiction" and produced at least one effort to enact legislation that would limit the amount of time people could spend playing online games. I could be wrong but this looks to me like a first step, maybe a small first step but still a first step, toward what I was speculating about several years ago: treating the use of virtual reality as analogous to drugs, regulating the usage in various ways, maybe even eventually prohibiting usage of virtual reality by all/some segments of the population.

And what about factor (i), Harry Anslinger's favorite: the premise that the use of (drugs) virtual reality makes people violent? Well, I have noted, over the last year or three, articles appearing that link online game playing to increased violence and agression in the real-world. Although research to the contrary has also appeared, it looks to me like the online-games-cause-violence theorists are getting more play in the media. And perception is what counts. Harry Anslinger, for example, got marijuana outlawed by claiming that it caused people to becoming violent, very violent . . . incredible as that may seem today.

So where am I going with all this? I'm not really sure. I'm not saying that virtual reality/online gaming is analogous to (certain) drugs that (presumably) have undesirable effects which are sufficient to warrant their being controlled or outlawed. I'm not saying that at all. What I am suggesting is that there are perceived functional parallels between the two that may well result in virtual reality's being treated in a fashion analogous to the way we treat (certain) drugs.

So, who knows . . . maybe in ten or twenty or thirty or fifty years we will have a "Virtual Reality Control Strategy" and a "War on Virtual Reality."

What an absurd and depressing thought.

No comments: