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100 Qs for the Future – Will our world be virtual or real?

September 2, 2011

This is Question 67 from the “100 Questions for our (somewhat dubious) Future” series.

Will our world be real or virtual?

Back in the days when humanity had a few pelts for clothing, a rudimentary understanding of fire and some vague notions about round stuff rolling better, it’s hard to argue existence was anything but real. Every morning you woke up knowing you might be:

a) Stood on by a woolly mammoth
b) Unable to eat, unless you killed your dinner
c) Eaten, if your dinner killed you
d) Completely at the mercy of RUTH (Random Universe Theory) or JOE (Joys of Evolution) or both
e) Unable to find (or read) a good book

As human society advanced, it continued to be convincingly real as the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Persians and various other nations had a red hot go at conquering as many people as possible. While Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed and others may have found a little time to contemplate things beyond the physical realm, life continued to be pretty tangible until around 1926 (1) or so. While radio could definitely tell a good story, television could show you somewhere else without physically taking you there.

In a quirky turn of history, we’ve spent thousands of years building bigger and more crowded cities only to find technologies which reduce our personal interaction. In 2011, if you wish to you can:

1) Communicate hundreds of times a day via e-mail, text, webinar, phone, etc.
2) Upload the latest books, blogs or deep insights into life at your leisure
3) Buy your dinner without getting off your backside
4) Educate yourself on-line (in more ways than one), without interacting directly with any of your fellow students
5) Search for life partners without leaving the comfort of your desk

With the advent of Facebook, Linked In and other similar sites, we have now reached the point where our private and business networking can occur without meeting a single human being. In addition, online gaming sites offer a number of virtual worlds which can only be described as unreal (pause for dual meaning comprehension).

As more gadgets and services remove the need for venturing outdoors or meeting people face to face, what will our future lives look like, and will they have any basis in reality? Surely we have nothing to fear – as humans have an innate need to tangibly experience life and prefer the physical presence of those they are interacting with. If this wasn’t the case we’d be seeing things like:

a) Extraordinary growth in obesity among developed nations (2)
b) Extreme texting being related to aberrant teen behavior (3)
c) People addicted to on-line gaming to the detriment of their real lives (4)

OK,… at least we’re not seeing people so distracted by their phones or communication devices that they’re:

1) Unable to have a decent conversation without interruption
2) More likely to have a life ending accident (5)
3) Stuck watching TV more than exercising (6)

If I could pull myself away from my TV long enough to address all of my phone messages and texts, I’d be able to find time to determine whether this varies by age group – but do you really think our children (particularly teenagers) are LESS distracted?

If we accept the 20th and 21st centuries have seen a sudden surge in virtual activities, we have to consider whether it will continue, plateau or reverse. While I can see some valiant attempts to push society back towards experiencing reality, there’s a decent chance that ship has sailed. While there may be differing adoption rates based on wealth, it appears the trend is towards less reality and more virtual experiences.


Our world is heading towards an extreme shift in how people experience their lives. The boundaries between our real and virtual worlds and experiences are already beginning to blur. This will create opportunities and challenges but don’t be surprised if you see the following before 2050…

a) Creation of profit driven, televised virtual sporting leagues populated by virtual players and competing with real leagues for our attention
b) A new psychological affliction known as reality confusion
c) Virtual parliaments in many developed nations
d) Expensive virtual reality systems being used to experience virtual tourism
e) Smaller homes with greater technology allowing virtual rooms


2 Comments leave one →
  1. adurrell permalink
    September 3, 2011 9:50 am

    Ok. I’m a bit nervous for this ‘virtual future’. What happened to kids playing outside for hours???

    • Justin permalink
      September 5, 2011 7:56 am

      Looks like they’ll be playing outside but really be inside! 🙂

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