People often ask, “If you could be born in any place in history, where would you choose? Ancient Greece? The Italian Renaissance?” If I could choose any period of history to live in, I would choose this one. Right here, right now. Some of the most important changes in the history of civilization are currently underway, but from our perspective, it is hard for us to see it.

Virtual reality technologies will touch almost every area of our lives, work, love, friendship, entertainment. But more importantly, virtual reality has the potential to fundamentally change who we are as humans, our relationship nature, with each-other, and with ourselves.

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One of the interesting things that we have to look forward to is the formation of virtual cities. With the development of the internet, we saw the development of virtual communities. With the development of “internet-based virtual worlds,” we saw the development of early virtual cities. And in the future, we should expect to see the development of true virtual cities; not the silly, uninhabited internet virtual worlds of today, but rich and vibrant cities, full of people and life, not unlike real cities. . . . And in a sense, they will be real cities.

People will go to virtual cities for the same reason that they move to big cities in the real world. We congregate around centers of activity because “proximity matters.” That is, your opportunities are limited if you are off in a corn field somewhere. People move to the city because there are better opportunities, there is more to do, and people are (at least, reportedly) more cultured.

Although we should expect to see the development of virtual cities, we should not expect to see the development of a single, unified virtual city, Marshall McLuhan’s global village. The limitations of physics make this dream an impossibility [1]. As a result, virtual cities will be tied to particular geographical locations, that is, to real cities.

Virtual cities will be more than simply places where people gather and interact, based on common interests, language, culture, or ideology; virtual cities will be semi-permanent settlements, which will serve as the medium and context for social interaction.

We build cities in virtual space, presumably, for the same reason we wear clothes in virtual space. “If the virtual world was not very much like the real world, what would we do, how would we interact, and for that matter, how would we function?” The city provides a useful organizational structure – places, boundaries, settings, and activities – a comfortable and familiar environment. But more significantly, it plays an important role, helping to extend the fabric of “social life” into virtual space. Thus, virtual cities will not be the totally fluid and dynamic places we are told to expect, people want (and need) structure and familiarity.

The formation and development of virtual cities will be an interesting development, which will undoubtedly lead to important changes in commerce and social interaction. Yet, in the long-term, the development of the virtual city may have more far reaching affects.

The initial development of cities lead to a number of startling and unforeseen changes. Perhaps most notably, it lead to (or was synonymous with) the development of agriculture, writing, specialization, social stratification, and organized government and religion. That is, it lead to cultural, social, and technological development.

In addition, it lead to the development of a new psychological complexity [2]. Or to put it a little bit differently, the formation of cities lead to the development of what we call civilized man (or “city man”). This change may be perhaps best illustrated by way of comparison, a comparison between a simple farmer and a sophisticated urbanite, or a child and a teenager. The farmer is a simple man who only knows his work and his family, and enjoys the simple pleasures of life. In contrast, the sophisticated urbanite is worldly and self-reflective, and lives in a complex social world filled with different social roles, strategies, viewpoints, and activities.

Yet, it is hard for us to imagine that the emergence of the virtual city will lead to changes on this scale. Changes in social and economic activity, yes. Important changes in culture and worldview, yes. Whole-sale changes in patterns of social interaction, possibly. Changes to our basic psychological makeup, doubtful.

Yet, with the emergence of the virtual city will come new agents of change: virtual genetics and social engineering; increased proximity, diversity, and leisure time; new activities and new playmates – the A.I. These new technologies, in concert with important changes in business and social life, have the power to radically redefine what we mean when we say the word human.

Virtual genetics and social engineering, in particular, may have far reaching affects, and may be used to alter patterns of social interaction and influence human psychological development. That is, virtual genetics and social engineering may lead to “significant refinements in the human condition.”

With the formation of virtual cities we should expect to see dramatic social and cultural change, brought by changes in daily activity and the development of the virtual economy. And historically, new technologies, trade-goods, or changing social dynamics, result in cultural change. These changes, coupled with new technologies – virtual genetics, social engineering, and nanopharmacoloy – may bring things to a critical mass, resulting in new variations of thought and activity, the world has never seen.

Putting untamed speculation aside, the development of the virtual city promises to be an important development in human history. And if so, the development of the virtual city will likely be looked upon, by future historians, as one of the most significant events since the dawn of civilization. Or perhaps, the virtual city will the birthplace of something new. Perhaps it is the dawn of civilization.





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[1] “. . . the vision of a single networked Virtual World, in immersive real-time, is a vision that can never be achieved . . . promoting the development of regional communities around central servers.”
See /index.php?itemid=30&catid=4
The Cooper Radius: “Distance still matters.” M.S. Cline

[2] As discussed in Walter Ong fascinating book, Orality and Literacy. It is a must read.



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msc 02/11/08