Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Message of the Virtual World Medium

My view on technology has been heavily influenced by the work of Marshall McLuhan. Although he died in 1980 and never directly addressed current mediums such as the internet, social networks or virtual worlds, his perspective is still very relevant today.

Two of his ideas are especially useful in framing how we think about virtual worlds. The first is that each successive technology extends one or more biological human capabilities. The concept is simple. The wheel extends the leg; the alphabet extends speech; paper extends our memory; and so on. Virtual worlds extend multiple human capabilities. Avatars extend our physical bodies; realtime video and audio extend our voice and our sense of sight and hearing; and virtual identity extends our singular wallet name identity. When a new medium becomes dominant in society it can shift the balance of our senses. The alphabet, for instance, shifted the dominance from sound to sight. Shifts in sensory balance impact the underlying perspective through which we perceive the world.

The second idea is, “the medium is the message” which means that the overall influence of a technology has vastly more impact than any particular product, vendor or content. Its influence doesn't just include the technology itself, but the entire service environment that surrounds it. For instance, the automobile medium includes highways, gas stations, the oil industry, the aftermarket, etc. Our pervasive use of the automobile is vastly more consequential than anywhere in particular we drive. It has contributed to revolutionary societal change, ranging from the rise of the suburbs to wars in the Middle East. Another example is the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which advanced human ability to think abstractly. That baseline enhancement of human potential is much more significant than any particular book that's ever been published.

So what’s the message of the virtual world medium? I don’t think it’s been voiced yet. Virtual worlds are used by maybe a million people worldwide. Compared to the approximately 1.5 billion users of social networks and smartphones, virtual worlds barely show up on the map. New technologies succeed to the extent that they provide those who use it with a quasi-evolutionary advantage over those who don’t, or what is now referred to as disruptive change.

So far, virtual worlds have not provided the type of clear-cut advantage that propelled smart phones and social networks to ubiquity only a few years after their introduction. The main limiting factor is that existing technology doesn't integrate virtual worlds with the rest of our physical and virtual lives. Imagine if you could launch into a virtual world as easily as you enter into chat on Facebook or rez into a multi-media enabled VR conference room from a GoToMeeting link. Two mundane examples, but I believe that it will take those type of relatively pedestrian use-cases to pave the way for virtual worlds to become a mainstream medium with the potential to expand human capacity. Virtual worlds can not change the world until a critical mass of people spends part of their lives within them.

From my own personal experience, creating a “second life” within an open virtual world can actualize latent potential for creative expression and provide significant insight into the human condition. Unfortunately, like falling in love, it is a very subjective transformation that can not be communicated well to those who have not experienced it for themselves. I hope that the next wave of virtual worlds will make it easier for newcomers to participate and better support the integration of the experience with the rest of their life.

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