Aug 2, 2009

On Virtual Change

As I write this I am 71 years old. It is 2009. About 25 years ago my sons and I brought home a loaner Commodore 64 “computer” that played ping-pong and some other things that were recorded on tapes. The kids were about 10 years old. The machine was a novelty for me, but in a very few years they became an essential tool for their generation. I learned a bit of Basic language, and I enjoyed the way it meshed with my earlier training in Algebra.

Long before this, I was exposed to military “mock-ups” that taught people to maneuver ships and fly jet planes without the expense and risk of involving real accidents. I tagged along as games became more interesting and realistic, and realized that some games were gaining potential for visualization of future planning for behaviors as well as for my field of construction. For years I have joined in discussions of how to initiate behavioral changes, with relatively little measurable success.

At this point, two things have blossomed in my mind. What began as a novel approach to designing a house, or learning to fly an airplane, has evolved into a technology where it is possible to become personally immersed into an entire new world. The experts insist that if a person can experience a change in behavior for about three weeks a new habit will be formed. Immersion in a virtual new world provides the opportunity to invoke changes by providing vicarious experiences that would be almost impossible to provide for large numbers of people at negligible cost. Imagine a world where “conflict resolution without resorting to violence” was the norm and was the basis for success, however that was defined. Early virtual worlds focused on silliness and violent behaviors to attract and stimulate children. It takes time for ideas to mature. I picture a time when my grandchildren will live, and interact, in at least one other world, moving out of one and into another as comfortably as stepping out of the door at home and entering their school environment. As a matter of fact, the potential exists to do exactly that. Education may evolve into elimination of buildings and campuses and become interactively available worldwide without opening the front door. The hazards are obvious, but not insurmountable. Misdirection and misinformation are not strangers to our present methods. I would go on and describe uses that virtual reality is being used for virtual surgery, etc. but as fast as my two fingers will type there are new applications rising. The greatest risk is that of logical assumptions leading to “unintended consequences”; that IF a certain behavior is chosen, THEN a certain result will always occur in “real life”. Part of the maturation of this concept requires field testing of each parameter, and recognizing that a certain percentage of each behavior will have an unpredictable anomalous outcome.

The second thought is the reason I say “grandchildren”. As recent as my latest high school reunion, I discovered that less than half of the people I know in my generation even use e-mail regularly. My children use the available tools as they arrive at tested usefulness, but my grandchildren use the new technologies as quickly as they become available, “warts and all”. Also, the infrastructure of worldwide application is only becoming available to the developing world and not yet available to the poorest of the poor.

Many of our “industrialized” behaviors must change, and quite soon, if we are to avoid the consequences of economic disparity. We claim to desire “democracy” in the world while thoughtlessly accepting that 86% of those worldwide potential voters live on less than $2 a day. We can only support our capitalist idealism by disenfranchising most of the other inhabitants. We have allowed anonymous corporate ownership to replace the former responsibility of personal capitalism. Most of us have been duped into believing that our current anonymous capitalistic system still encourages invention and innovation, which it does not. The present system is only interested in return on investment which ultimately encourages concentration of power and control and which restricts and resists experimentation.

We have sufficient resources to support “happiness” throughout the world, but generating the political will to enable serious behavioral change is going to require more than nice words. Walking in the other guy’s virtual moccasins will be a way to understand the task in front of us, instinctively, without having to actually send each of us to another continent.

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