Cyber-space provides inauthentic analog for real world life

Credit: Ashley Chan/ Credit: Ashley Chan/

Last week, Pugwash joined forces with the Humanist League for a joint discussion about the differences between the real and virtual worlds.

It’s possible for people to spend the majority of their time in a virtual world making friends, achieving goals, and building a life, all in a video game or some other form of alternate reality. Are these actions somehow lesser when compared to their real-world counterparts? Is there a danger involved with the virtual world?

One of the very first points made was to change the wording of the subject matter. By calling our physical world the “real” world, and the online or technology-driven world “virtual,” the language itself was already putting the physical world above the virtual one.

Instead of using real and virtual to refer to the distinction, it was proposed that we should refer to them as meat-space and cyber-space, so as to put them on a more linguistically even level. This proposal was enthusiastically agreed upon by all present.

Along with changing the terminology, many argued that the line between the cyber-wold and the meat-world isn’t a clear one. It’s not a distinct binary when you can be sitting in class, listening to a professor lecture, and then glance down and be communicating with someone across the hall or across the world. Even using e-mail to talk to people blurs the line between the cyber- and meat-worlds. This is only one reason to prefer the meat-world to the cyber-world.

Without devaluing the experiences in the cyber-world, they are still based in the meat-world and rely on the meat-world, whether through electricity and server-space or because as humans we need to take care of our physical bodies.

Despite relying on the meat-world, the cyber-world can still offer meaningful experiences. It can also offer completely pointless experiences, just like the meat-world. Playing Flappy Bird and playing Portal offer different levels of experience in the cyber-world, just like fast food and a nice restaurant do in the meat-world. Social interaction is an area over which the meat-world has the upper hand.

Humans communicate through so much more than just words, and losing out on body language, tone, and other meat-world features make cyber-world interactions somewhat lacking. A counterpoint is that cyber-world interactions could become equal, with advances in technology.

From letters to phone calls to Skyping, and next to virtual reality, technology is making the cyber-world more and more immersive. A concern with cyber-world interactions is their possibility for anonymity. Without the social cues and accountability that come in the meat-world, does the cyber-world encourage productive debate?

On one hand, anonymous online communities have allowed for marginalized groups to come together and share in interests that might be looked down upon in society at large, which could be beneficial. On the other, losing out on social mores and reverting to rudeness is a serious concern.

An interesting point was made that humans have been using various cyber-worlds for millennia, counting books, plays, art, and even further back to oral tradition and religions or mythologies. Escapism is an essential part of being human, biologically built into the human experience as dreams. Whether escaping into a book or a video game, it’s the same root concept.

The only problem comes when it becomes difficult for the escapee to tell the difference between the cyber-world and the meat-world. One example was of someone who drove into pedestrians, thinking they were still playing Grand Theft Auto. Problems arise when people can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, and live in their own reality unshared by the rest of society.

Perhaps if everyone were able to transition into a cyber-world and leave the meat-world behind for good, then it would be acceptable, as there would still be a shared reality within the cyber-world, and no transition problems moving from one to the other.

However, this brings up pragmatic issues that occur even in less-extreme scenarios. With two split worlds, meat and cyber, a question of access arises. Like most technology, the rich are able to use the cyber-world more than the poor, and as we come to rely on the cyber-world for more and more, this disparity would become more apparent.

While having inequality is not a new thing, moving our lives into the cyber-world could exacerbate the problem. Even if all currently foreseeable problems could be solved, humanity has a way of jumping in first and asking questions later.

For example, while we’re not particularly well-suited to drive two-ton killing machines at 60 mph, but we managed to make do, especially with seatbelts and other later additions.

Entering into cyber-world might be the same way — while it might be bumpy, eventually we can use it to our advantage.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science. This article is a summary of last week's discussion on cyber-space.