Are Mobile Web Devices Turning Us Antisocial, or Merely Shifting the Conversation?

2705240882_b4db3777f8 One of the engines driving the astounding growth of virtual worlds is the innate sense of possibility. Players can be anything, quest anywhere, and rise to the top in combat and charisma.

But is the fantasy role-playing mindset creeping over into our everyday lives? A columnist for St. Louis Today argues that our fascination with virtual environments may be making us into a generation of egotists.

Is the increasingly graphical world of mobile phone technology and Twitter-on-the-go turning us into antisocial monsters, or is it merely shifting the forum for discussion? Are we moving away from a community of ideas, or are we virtualizing it? Let's take a look.

Masters of Our Own Virtual Empires

Virtual worlds are fun. We enjoy entering them and playing in the suspended disbelief they provide. But as technology increasingly makes virtual worlds available on everything from mobile phones to iPods, our preoccupation with becoming champions of the virtual world appears to be running up against the reality swirling all around us.

Writer Patricia McLaughlin wonders whether the availability of virtual worlds on the Metro and in the home means we're increasingly spending out time outdoors stuck to a display screen:

They're everywhere now, people oblivious to the world around them because they're texting, scanning their e-mail on their iPhones, humming along with the music on their iPods. People frozen in mid-stride in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking the door to the post office, holding up the line at the bureau of motor vehicles.

They're not being rude. They're just not there, so they don't know you're there either.

The constantly-wired nature of our culture means that our gaming doesn't stop when we leave the living room – it's all around us, in flexible forms, providing a continuation of the fantasy world that once monopolized only the computer or a gaming console.

Edward Castronova notes in his book Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality that the real-virtual balance may be shifting as technology becomes more pervasive. People may opt to continue their session of vampire battles outside the home, and given our finite supply of attention, providing more focus to your cell phone screen means giving less attention to the living, breathing environment around you.


The End of the World As We Know It?

What does this disconnect mean? McLaughlin takes a stab at it:

What happens to all that, now that all this technology is training us to be some place other than where we actually are? What happens to civility when we're too busy chatting or texting or scanning our e-mail on our iPhones to be present to the actual people in whose presence we actually find ourselves?

What happens to public space when nobody in it recognizes the existence of anybody else?

This seems a little paranoid. Though we have virtual environments and social networking and our standards of social conduct are certainly changing, the advent of mobile virtual technology is hardly leading to the downfall of Western civilization.

There is definitely a real-virtual balance, and some people definitely step over that line, but it's hardly the pandemic situation laid out in the aforementioned article. If anything, the current Mobile Metaverse trend simply highlights a growing generational gap between those born into the "video game age" and those who came before.

Whether a fad or a long-term transition, society is learning to speak a new language and coming to grips with new social standards. Even the Oxford English Dictionary's 2009 word of the year – unfriend – is based in social virtual environments. The bulk of OED's 2009 words have something to do with the increasing merger of technology into our social "outside" lives.

The Twitter generation adjusted rapidly to webspeak and the reduction in personal privacy that comes with letting the world know what you had for breakfast. Those who came of age before the widespread use of social networking regard the entire scheme with suspicion and adapt at a slower rate. The generational gap becomes a technology gap.