This was a directed writing assignment for Communications 412Q, a special topics class on the "Information Superhighway" as it was called at the time.
Today’s libraries are wonderful. If I’m ever bored, I can go to the library and look up information on some topic that I always wondered about but never spent the time to investigate very deeply. When I need to do research for work or a class, I can usually track down the information I need in the library, but it may take a day to find everything I want. The CD-ROM databases are helpful in the search process, but their listings are incomplete. Then when you find out about a source you might want, you begin your quest to find it in the library, if indeed the library has a copy on hand. Sometimes this can be very frustrating.
In the future, with the virtual libraries that we will all use at home, everything will be much more convenient. Your personal navigator program will search through massive databases and bring back its findings to you when it is finished. Patrons will encounter no more ‘unavailable’ messages when they seek out information -- no ‘try inter-library loan’, no ‘this book is checked out’, no waiting for the library to open. Everything will be ‘available’ to everyone, all of the time. Text, audio, video, and computer simulations will all be tied together. It will be dazzling and entertaining to learn a subject that you might have hated learning in school. And at any time, when you need help or want to explore a topic further, you will just click a button and that additional information will appear in front of you.
I enjoy playing games, both party games and computer/video games. Party games let people interact with each other, expressing their personalities and tastes, and sharing their experiences and knowledge. Computer and video games can plunge you into absorbing, fantastic worlds where you take on new roles and challenges that you may never face in real life. I’m not talking here about Pac-Man and simple Nintendo games. I don’t know if you have seen some of the new multimedia games that have appeared on CD-ROM lately, but by today’s standards they are truly amazing. As we become adjusted to any new type of game, our expectations for the next one increase dramatically. So far the imaginations and abilities of game designers have been up to the challenge. They keep awing us with their latest breakthrough ideas and innovations. The best games are those that let several people plunge into these virtual game worlds together. Then, people all share in the stimulating, imaginary experience, expressing their personalities and interests as people do in party games, but thoroughly enjoying the setting as well. The Information Superhighway, as are many on-line networks now, will be greatly populated with people playing such games.
Besides how much I think I will enjoy the Superhighway, I think about what effects it will have on humanity in the long run. I often think about where out society is headed, and whether technology is improving our lives or making them worse. You mentioned that the last two chapters of Howard Rheingold’s book, The Virtual Community, reflect on how our society might change. I regret that I haven’t spent the time to read this book -- not a single page. I hope to read it in the future. But I will offer my own thoughts on how our lives might change.
Human progress over the centuries, as I look at, has been a continuous trend of greater control over and separation from the physical world, which we are dependent upon for survival. We have our air-conditioned, insulated homes to give us comfortable shelter; our machines and robots to remove much of the back-breaking and tedious work; our fast cars, jumbo jets, and space shuttles to take us quickly anywhere; our cellular telephones, stereos, and television sets to communicate information over the distances of time and space; and our high-tech medicines and nutritional diets to give us long, healthy lives. The human mind has created all the arts of music, poetry, painting, dance, literature, theatre, and the motion picture. We have organized ourselves into ever larger societies governed by customs, laws, and institutions. There is no doubt that we humans have become total masters of our environment, as long as we are careful not to destroy it.
With the installation of the Information Superhighway, people will gain another powerful tool -- a tool to let them have absolute control over what information goes into their brains, and with virtual reality, what physical sensations go into their brains, as well. These capabilities will be incomplete at the beginning, but over time, I think they will be fully developed. When we do have such great control over what we learn and how we perceive things, what will we do with it?
Will we become junkies to contrived, artificial stimulation? Every stimulation we can imagine will be there in the artificial realities we will create for ourselves. If we remove all the physical barriers that we encounter in normal life, will we exist solely to satisfy the desires of our basic instincts? Are we truly animals?
One thing that I think will be in danger is our patience for dealing with our fellow human beings. When the machines that act as our windows to the world will give us everything we want instantly and precisely, why should we put up with people’s imperfections? The machines will become our companions.
The more optimistic view is that humans will advance to an existence of totally enlightened thinking. Like the creatures of pure thought encountered in the science fiction of Star Trek, will we evolve beyond the emotions of fear, anger, and jealousy? (Back to the negative view, will we have any emotions at all except for the feeling of pleasure?) Albert Einstein said that his greatest ideas came from visualizing them in his mind. In an environment of interactive multimedia, will we abstract our communication to the presentation of imagery? We could add another dimension by allowing mental control for manipulating of this imagery through electronic interfaces wired to our brains. Would this enable us to think faster and more precisely?
As I stated earlier, humans have abstracted themselves from their environment. How much room is there for the creation of new ideas, completely separated from the real world? Will the new forms of abstracted music, imagery, sensation, and communication, flower into higher forms of expression and existence? This would be Plato’s world of the perfect forms and ideas, not possible on the physical world we know today. Or will we find that we are nothing, empty, without a living environment from which to draw experiences and meaning? In the end, I think we’ll find out really what the human spirit is capable of.
Yes, I know, it’s a long way from the building of the Information Superhighway to discovering the meaning of man’s existence, but this seems to be the road we’re headed on. And, we’re picking up speed.