INTO THE AGE OF WONDER
The last chapter closed with the claim that one only needs a slight projection of today’s synthetic world technology to envision some quite significant implications; because of this, most of the forward-looking material in previous chapters has been kept fairly tightly connected to near-term developments in technology and markets. And in one sense this deliberate failure to telescope has not been very costly in terms of insight, because we already have an understanding of the long-long-run implications of synthetic worlds. The ultimate meaning of “virtual reality” for the human race was articulated very well by its early visionaries (e.g., Gibson’s Neuromancer, 1984; Stephenson’s Snow Crash, 1992; Rheingold’s Virtual Reality, 1991). Their visions were far in advance of implementation, however, so that when technologically savvy people first imagined what synthetic worlds could be in the end, no one was able to imagine what they would be in the beginning. The “virtual reality fad” (Laurel 1993) faded off soon thereafter. Ironically, just as it did, game developers began developing the first significant applications, in a completely different area of our culture (for more on this, see the appendix). The seeds they planted have taken root. And with the implementations that have emerged in just the last decade—crude compared to the synthetic worlds imagined by the early visionaries—we can already see social and cultural tension on the way.
Indeed, because we have now taken a few steps down the road from vision to ultimate implementation, we have a slight advantage over the earliest of visionaries. Human culture is a complex system, and in the evolution of complex systems, knowledge of initial conditions is critical to getting an accurate sense of future developments. We now have some information about the initial conditions governing the evolution of synthetic worlds, and this can help us make some important distinctions. Early visionaries contrasted the state of humanity with,