English Composition 3
7 December 2003
Impact of Virtual Reality on Human Identity and Relationships
It is impossible to imagine contemporary civilized society without well-developed computer technologies, which were created to ease all kinds of human activity as well as to enhance human identity and relationships with the society. However, as with any essential life phenomenon, virtual technologies have detrimental effects. Last decade of the twentieth century, as well as the beginning of the new millennium, produced new diseases of civilization, resulting not only from air pollution and urbanization, but also from total “virtualization.” How can we explain the disease of “virtualization”?
People who became acquainted with the virtual reality are not capable of stopping to use it because it gives the illusion of enormous opportunities to an individual. In her essay, “Who Am We”, Sherry Turkle argues that such people would agree that virtual reality allows people to “express unexplored aspects of the self” (678). She means that if there are some aspects of individuals that they are shy to demonstrate, they can do so by resorting to virtual reality, where they can act without a fear of judgment. Therefore, she argues, people can overcome shyness by simply spending time in virtual reality. Virtuality also allows people to be creative by crafting multiple virtual selves. By covering under these multiple selves, people can quickly achieve success in romantic relationships, which would take a lot of time and effort in real life. Generally, frequent Internet users might argue that virtual reality is beneficial because it takes people away from their difficult problems. However, these defenders of virtual reality do not realize that running away from the tough “real” world does
not solve existing problems; on the contrary, it aggravates them. Resorting to virtual reality does more harm than good. By disconnecting people from the real world, virtual reality leads to such psychological problems as isolation, loss of social contacts and communication skills, sense of false reality, and depression. The relationship between isolation and other psychological troubles is circular: the more isolated the person is, the more psychological disorders he possesses.
Recent developments in technology, especially Internet, have isolated people by breaking their connection with the physical world. The virtual reality that traps Internet users requires them to pay full attention to the computer screen in order to follow what is going on there instead of concentrating on real events and people. Internet users usually do not communicate verbally with anyone because that takes their attention away from the virtual reality. While using Internet, people spend their time sitting alone in front of their computer. All they have to do is to stare at the screen and move their hand a little to navigate the mouse and type responses in chat rooms. A film The Matrix provides an effective example of such isolation. The movie starts by depicting Neo’s room, which is full of digital gadgets. The room is messy and stuffy. It is dark – the absence of sunlight shows how isolated Neo is from natural environment. In the scene, Neo is asleep in front of his computer, with his headphones on. The sound of music does not disturb his sleep. However, when a message pops up on the screen of his computer, he wakes up. It shows that Neo is so connected to the virtual reality that he does not respond to natural environments anymore. It is noteworthy that Neo’s apartment number is 101 – the numbers that digital systems are made of. This is representative of how strongly Neo is tied to the virtual world of computers and Internet. Neo wakes up tired – most likely he has spent a long time in front of his computer and has not
talked to other people. Therefore, Neo’s persona shows that physical separation leads to mental isolation from others. Losing contact with other people, Internet users usually become
more and more drawn into virtual reality. These people start to forget the events that happen in their surroundings since what matters more is the virtual reality of the chat room. Their interests shift toward the computer reality. It is as if an invisible screen is built between these people and their environments. As time goes on, frequent chatters are preoccupied more with “friends” they have met online that the real friends they possess. They start perceiving the “real” world as just a chair and a table, on which there is a computer and a mouse with a pair of speakers. To prove this isolation, Clifford Stoll, in his essay “Isolated by the Internet”, refers to a study that shows that “greater use of Internet was associated with […] statistically significant declines in social involvement…”(650).
Clifford Stoll also mentions that “…The best predictor of psychological troubles is a lack of close social contacts” (651). Isolation leads to numerous social problems. Isolated people lose contact with family, neighbors, and friends much easier, thus losing an essential support system. As Stoll describes it, “the effect of electronic communication is to isolate us from our colleagues next door” (654). He cites an example of two colleagues who communicated extensively online but failed to recognize each other at work, although they sat only five feet from each other. Although this example may seem paradoxical at first sight, it truly reflects the reality of online communication, which takes away the human aspect of communication, making it impersonal and remote.
As Internet users become more and more isolated from society, they lose communication skills that are crucial for “real-life” interactions. Nowadays, e-mail messages substitute a lot of human interaction. However, “E-mail […] prevent (s) us from learning basic skills of dealing with people face to face” (Stoll, 651). E-mails “allow” people
to communicate precisely what they need by giving them a chance to think over what they want to write. Nevertheless, precise communication includes not only expressing thoughts in
clear words, but also intonations, facial expressions, and gestures. E-mail messages cannot possibly provide all of these human means of communication. Therefore, there is an atrophy of normal communication skills and emotions that most human beings possess. When Internet users have to interact with others in real life, they experience difficulties because they have already lost their communication skills and abilities to communicate by expressing emotions. Failure to communicate expressively causes a natural reaction of withdrawing further from the society, which leads to even greater isolation.
Isolation from the real physical world forces people to shift their lives toward the virtual world, in which they create different personas and use those to communicate with other Internet users. Therefore, there is a false sense of reality in the minds of these people. Plunging into false reality causes people to lose control of their real world, where they live and interact with others. It is true that this virtual reality might seem comforting because people are able to construct it in a way that pleases them the most. However, people have to return to their everyday reality in order to stay in control of it.
Thus, the inner and outer harmony of an individual is distorted, and psychological problems appear. One of them is depression. By definition, depression is a clinical condition, in which external factors cause an individual to have prolonged feelings of helplessness, sadness, worthlessness, and internal pain. Usually people who resort to virtual reality already possess some mental problems, such as low self-esteem, fear of judgment, and feeling of worthlessness. In the virtual reality, especially in the MUDs, they create a world that seems comforting and secure for them. When people get off Internet and realize that the sweet reality of imagination is over and they have to deal with the harsh reality of their life, they
tend to feel disoriented and helpless. Clifford Stoll refers to a study that has proven an “increase in depression by about one percent for every hour spend online per week” (649). Stoll also cites an example of a Pennsylvania college student, Steve, who spends most of his time online in the MUDs. Steve confesses that when he is playing online, he is “in control of my [Steve’s] character and my [Steve’s] destiny in this world” (qtd. in Stoll). However, when he is not online, Stoll writes, “he’s held back by low self esteem. Shy and awkward around people, he’s uncomfortable around women and doesn’t fit well in school” (652). Therefore, Stoll’s example proves that people who resort to virtual reality to escape their problems tend to feel even more depressed after returning to the “real” world. Sherry Turkle writes that “players [in the MUDs] commonly try to take things from the virtual to the real and are usually disappointed” (682). Since resorting to the virtual world is their escape from the difficult real environment, how do they deal with the realization that escaping reality does not take away the problems? For human beings, especially for insecure individuals, returning to a harsh environment creates additional stress, which elevates the levels of depression. Each time individuals are brought back into the world where they feel left out, the symptoms of depression become worse. They realize that they have wasted time online enjoying themselves