real + virtual worlds


From Facebook to video games to GPS, we spend most of our waking hours connected and we’re always on the grid. How does that impact our relationship with the natural world and the way think of the environment, privacy & personal space? As technology touches every aspect of our lives, how is our understanding of the world around us evolving?

Vincent John Vincent is the CEO of GesturTek, a company that has been revolutionizing the way we interact in virtual spaces. He says that virtual spaces are our environment now. The ability to creative virtual worlds have come to pass in the last 20 years,” he says, “and it really has changed our sense of environment, because our environment now is in the computer world.”

Brian Shuster has built his career on increasing the proximity between those virtual environments and the so-called real world. “People are going to be spending their time in front of the computer anyway,” he says. “Is it better that you’re doing it in a platform that’s designed, really, to … at the end of the day, be as fulfilling as a real world experience?”

But are virtual worlds limited to the digital realm?

virtual cityTom Rand, a clean technology researcher, argues that we’re already living in a completely virtual world. If you’re living in a condo on the 30th floor with A/C blaring and ordering your food from take out, that is a fabricated environment.

“There’s an entire ecosystem out there that is beginning to shake, and we can keep that at bay for a certain amount of time, but eventually you’re going to try to order takeout food and it’s going to be very expensive or not there. And so that virtual world will begin to collapse,” he says.

With all of our mobile devices and networked spaces, we’re constantly on the grid and locked into this new, virtual, “always-on” environment, and we’re only starting to come to grips with the risks inherent in that.

“There’s research coming out showing the interest that governments have in having these devices track people even though people are not aware of it,” says Avner Levin, director of Ryerson University’s Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute. “So, that’s a scary thought. That leads to these dystopian visions of what kind of world we’re going to live in.”

Vincent shares similar concerns. “Having security cameras everywhere in our lives is an issue. Whether we should have them there, whether the information they’re picking up about us – where we are, what we’re doing.”

With all these innovations keeping us permanently connected, what becomes of our personal, private space? Does it still exist?

“The big fear is exactly that,” says Levin. “That there isn’t going to be any kind of private space that I can say, ‘That’s my personal space.’”

connected globeAs the online and real world gradually merge and overlap, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred between private and public space. As a result, Rand believes it’s crucial “to think hard about where we’re living and how we’re living.”

Mark Siddall, an evolutionary biologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History, believes that as technology moves inexorably forward, we have to be careful in how we apply it and how we monitor negative externalities. “Well, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” he says.

Clearly, the environment, from our natural resources to the place we call home, to the online worlds we’re populating, is a radically different place than it was 20 years ago. As the landscape of our lives continues to evolve over the next 20 years, how are we going to find balance?


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