‘Is it real or virtual and does it matter?’: Part II

By Phil Youngblood

I remember reading a projection in the latter part of the last century to the effect this century will be known for biotechnology and virtual reality.

I am more inclined towards thinking this century will be known for the effects of climate change and population growth and shifts, but certainly on the technology side I would agree with that projection so far.

Back in the late 1900s, though, I remember wondering how we would get there, virtual reality-wise. On the biotech side, scientists were using breakthrough methods to sequence DNA base pairs and a draft of the human genome was announced in 2000, many years ahead of when we thought we would be there (completed in 2003). But virtual reality then was a clunky helmet in a video arcade. So what has changed? A lot, with more coming soon.

This year I am writing a series of articles about virtual environments, which I have defined as any technology that enables us to communicate other than face-to-face, in-person. In this article I continue the discussion of what it means to be face-to-face and if and when it matters.

A recent article in the New York Times and the San Antonio Express-News described how 20-somethings already have one foot in virtual reality and one foot in the physical world. It describes a typical night out – see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/nyregion/out-on-the-town-always-online.html – bouncing from face-to-face conversation to smart phone – e-mail from sister about dinner – back to conversation – text from friend about plans next week – back to conversation and eating – check online game to see if partner had made a move yet – back to conversation – check Facebook – just like that.

“It’s a generational thing,” one of them explains. “I could be out with my friends, and we’re all on our phones, still carrying on the conversation, and it’s not weird to anyone.” Another explains, “You’re passing in and out of consciousness, listening for key words… letting the ancillary parts drift off.”

No one is forced to use a smart phone like this so why is this becoming the norm? What is the draw and what are the benefits and consequences? A third of young adults admit they sometimes use their phones to avoid interacting with others. But is this really new behavior? There are many ways to do this in a social setting. One person in the article admits, “The phone is what we do when we don’t know what to do.” Is this any different than an awkward silence or standing around looking bored?

On the other hand, my students and others say they feel comfortable being “connected” in multiple ways. One person in the article describes this as a “thirst for awareness.” On the other hand, some young people admit social media is another form of social media and they are antsy that someone else is having more fun than they are and they do not want to be left out. “It’s like, I’m here but what else is going on? Is there something better, cooler, that I’m not in the know about?”

More profoundly, one person explains, “I don’t think of what’s here and what’s not here as separate.” For non-20-somethings this can be disturbing. As another youth shares, “I’ll be out with my mom and if I look at my phone, she says I’m being anti-social. I say, ‘I’m being social — just not social with you.”

Does this sound like you? Or are you shocked by this behavior? I would like to hear from you.

In Part I of this discussion I wrote I would share opinions and research and concepts on the convergence of virtual environments and the traditional educational environment. I think I will make that the subject of next year’s articles. There is much happening at UIW in that regard that is both exciting and significant in how it will impact the way we educate at UIW. I am looking forward to sharing it with you.

This is my seventh article in this series. I have written about the impact of social media, thinking and writing in 140 characters or less, what I have learned from live and virtual birds, when face-to-face matters and when it does not, and the issue of dead virtual accounts.

E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems program, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

Phil Youngblood


Leave a Reply