Somewhat old news, but the United States recently surpassed a population of 300 million (the world's population currently tops 6 billion). When I was born in 1955, the US's population was only 166 million and the world's was 2.78 billion. Many other economists, sociologists, environmentalists, and politicians far more informed than I (well, perhaps except for the politicians....) have pontificated about the implications of this growing population relative to the organization of human life and the depletion of the earth's resources. I don't want to add any noise to the cacophony already there, but from my perspective as a computer scientist, I expect that one thing this means is that, over time, people will increasing live, play, and work in virtual environments.
Ray Kurzweil's intriguing book, The Singularity Is Near, offers his prediction of the growing indistinction between biological and non-biological life (I'm reminded of Orsen Scott Card's entry to Wired's short stories: "The baby's blood type? Human, mostly"). I'm skeptical except for perhaps in the long term (think hundreds of years). In the shorter term, virtual worlds such as Second Life are, I believe, the sign of things to come. Second Life currently has a population of over one million virtual citizens, and is home to a flourishing economy (linden dollars are the hard currency of the realm, currently running at 250 linden dollars to one US dollar) and a vibrant cyber society. The Second Life Herald even offers daily news about interesting events in that virtual world. The denizens of Second Life represent a microcosm of society: there are entrepreneurs, families, and companies, tourists and players, the virtuous and the villains (both of whom seem to play at various times in a vibrant underworld where all the things you might think that are there are, well, there). I am told that the biological counterparts of a few of the virtual citizens are even able to earn a living in the real world because of their work in the virtual one.
Consider then: in a world of shrinking resources, limited space in which to live, and with chaotic political and economic circumstances that are far outside the control of most individuals, reinventing yourself in a virtual world is not necessarily a bad place to be. Second Life is relatively new on the scene, but expansive metaverses such as the World of Warcraft are evidence that people can be drawn deeply into these virtual worlds. Setting up a home, a job, a persona, even a personal look is far easier, far lest costly, and far more malleable in a virtual world then in this one, and thus the emotional appeal to a life in such a world is compelling for some.
The human spirit seems to lust for freedom and open space. When one physical frontier closes, we seek another; when all such physical frontiers close, then living in a virtual world is enticing, for it is a manifestation of a seemingly limitless frontier.
I'm a fan of the British series Red Dwarf (actually, I read the books before I ever saw the TV show). I was particularly delighted by the plot of the second volume, Better Than Life in which the characters in the first book slowly come to the realization that they are actually living in a game called Better Than Life, a game that is fiercely addicting simply because it is, um, better than life.
The US At 300 Million
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