I tried out this online game called "Second Life". I can't say I played it long enough to get a feel for it, and it was really slow on my computer. I was dragged into it after seeing todays installment of Rocket Boom in which a woman talks about how she has made a business designing and selling clothes in the virtual world, but can cash the money out and live on it in real life.
I remember going on a walk through Forest Park in Portland once with two friends and thinking about virtual reality. I wondered if some day I would live in a virtual world, and I found this pretty scary. How can one tell if one is in a real world or a virtual world? Well, in a virtual world, the rules are set by code. So even if all sorts of things dramatically improve, the world only contains the rules of the code that creates it. So, by doing science experiments, one can determine if one is in a real or virtual world. Anyway, that's a pretty academic concern and maybe not even all that well posed.
But what this clumsy, somewhat annoying half hour experience trying out Second Life reminded me of was how we make compromises and trade in things for rather sad replicas of them perhaps eventually forgetting what the original inspiration was. This is the negative aspect of technological evolution, huge expanses of uncontrolled wilderness get traded for city parks, the massively complicated social ecological structures of natural life get traded for zoos and botanical gardens. What these new acquisitions/creations have that their predecessors lack is controllability. We can predict, control and mold them to our desires/needs.
Now here's the stretch that I don't know if I can make clear. I'm reminded of a picture of physical laws described by Nancy Cartwright. Instead of laws, she thinks that there are things called "nomological machines". They are sort of set-ups which produce repeatable results. Good experiments. The point is that as we supposedly understand more about the natural world, we are also creating conditions such that it is understandable. And though this doesn't mean that we aren't gaining true knowledge of how the world works, we are making a value judgement to prefer the predictable to the unpredicable. But what may be lost in the process are those things that are not currently within our understanding. Thus it becomes crucial to learn all we can about whatever it is that is important to us. Because whatever cannot be put into the new language, whatever it may be, perhaps economics, or perhaps c++, will likely get destroyed. We may have loved the earth and the great mysteries and interacted with them and even based our lives around them, but only as such a high value is placed on controllability is there the new need to "understand" them, by mathematically modelling them.
Thus with virtual reality. We sacrafice reality for controllability. No, those trees don't really look like trees, but hey, we can move them wherever the hell we want, and change their color and all sorts of aspects of them. We've lost the wonderful complicated extremely unique, endlessly interesting trees and gained a pale replica which can be controlled. Perhaps with enough effort, someone can make something as interesting as a tree, but most won't. The ability to control the rule book which is so thrilling and fun for those who are masters at it, results in a net loss for others- a loss of those things that those specific rules are not so good for.
Anyway, we can all coexist I suppose. All these different worlds. One should just be careful to be aware of what is being lost at each step even though new things are being gained.