Chapter Twelve: Future Roads For The Human Psyche

IV. Virtual Internet Communities

Internet virtual communities were mentioned briefly in Chapter Two as instruments of cultural globalization; here the focus will be on their relationship to psychological reality. Critics of VICs (Virtual or Vicarious Internet Communities) will have it that they are unreal in some damaging way, and offer a distorted version of reality that can cause the stunting or inappropriate development of young humans' psyches. Specifically, people worry that VICs may encourage violence, maladaptive sexual behaviour, or drug-taking. Such fears may not be without foundation, but only to the extent that VICs offer a group environment which may lead youngsters astray in exactly the same way as do some types of social group in the 'real' world. Reassuringly, the class of sites loosely described as 'social media' which have grown rapidly in the last ten years alongside the more fantastical or game-playing type of site are more closely representative of real-world sociality and its rules than their predecessors. Perhaps some gaming experiences (distinguished from VICs, at least so far) may go too far in terms of depicting or encouraging violence or sex; but that is not the world of VICs, which – so far at any rate – seem to be mostly inhabited by grown-ups or near grown-ups, and are surprisingly like the real world, with explicit rules of behaviour, trading economies in which real value is created or lost, and real outcomes in relationship terms, although – again, so far – these have to be conducted in the 'real' world once they go past a fairly basic level of contact.

VICs, including fantasy worlds such as World of Warcraft, and interactive games as they currently exist are studied in Appendix Three. Here we will speculate on how they may develop in the light of the availability of the sorts of cognitive enhancement described above.

Individuals 'playing' in fantasy worlds or socializing in VICs sometimes represent themselves through avatars, which may have human form but may also take other forms, particularly in fantasy worlds. In many VICs there is nothing to prevent a person from representing themselves as closely as they can in their avatar, but normally there is no compulsion for one to do that, except perhaps on sites whose primary purpose is dating, where the organizers will go to some lengths to prevent impersonation, for obvious reasons. On some sites, though, individuals may 'date' each other through their avatars, without any intention that the relationship will come to have a real-world parallel.

It seems likely that there will come to be a cleaner distinction between faithful self-representation and imaginary representations, and not least because cognitive enhancement is going to permit a much wider range of experience while 'on-line'.

Currently, the inhabitant of an avatar does not experience sensory input directly from the avatar. Visual and auditory inputs are of course present, but they are generated by the software running the site. This will change. Just as for robots (described above), people will be able to share the sensory experience of the avatar once direct wireless or cable communication is possible between the brain and the remote device. In the case of VICs and games, it will be the player console or local computer which generates the signals that bypass the sensory interface of the player (eyes, ears, skin etc) and are received directly by the sensory processing module of the brain.

As well as receiving direct input from the 'senses' of her avatar, an individual will also be able to receive input from the senses and cognitive processes of other avatars involved in social interaction (group activity) in the VIC. Currently that information is available only to the limited extent that the avatar can see, hear or touch other avatars (just as in real life). Evidently, it will be easier to receive information from the mental processing of other avatars than it will be to receive such information from conspecifics in real life (because it is already in communicable electronic form), and this is why collective cognitive activity is likely to take place first and by preference in electronic spaces. It will happen between 'real' individuals as well, but considerably more sophisticated technology will be required for that, and may be overtaken by a process of migration of human minds from our heads to computers (which by 2030 will be more powerful, more flexible, faster and better at communicating than we are).