When Technology Becomes Too Much

What is Fidelity?

Something has “high” fidelity when it closely resembles the real thing. Sound systems like to claim high fidelity which means the sound they produce very closely resembles the original recording. Today’s technology has provided high fidelity simulation for various tasks. Fighter pilots are able to train various skills without the cost and risk of actually flying a jet. Surgeons are also able to practice procedure in a simulated environment, without putting patients at risk. Simulation and mimicking real life situations is very useful to help us perform real tasks.

What happens if we simulate poor behavior? What if the simulation is so real or addictive that we prefer it over face to face interactions?

While his wife, Sue, watches television in the living room, Mr. Hoogestraat chats online with what appears on the screen to be a tall, slim redhead.

He’s never met the woman outside of the computer world of Second Life, a well-chronicled digital fantasyland with more than eight million registered “residents” who get jobs, attend concerts and date other users. He’s never so much as spoken to her on the telephone. But their relationship has taken on curiously real dimensions. They own two dogs, pay a mortgage together and spend hours shopping at the mall and taking long motorcycle rides. Their bond is so strong that three months ago, Mr. Hoogestraat asked Janet Spielman, the 38-year-old Canadian woman who controls the redhead, to become his virtual wife.

The woman he’s legally wed to is not amused. Sitting alone in the living room in front of the television, Mrs. Hoogestraat says she worries it will be years before her husband realizes that he’s traded his real life for a pixilated fantasy existence, one that doesn’t include her.

The real Mrs. Hoogestraat is no stranger to online communities — she met her husband in a computer chat room three years ago. WSJ

I consider myself an internet junkie of sorts and have tested out most popular websites and technologies. Second Life is no exception. I have also played games such as World of Warcraft where similar stories can be shared where people have closer relationships with “avatars” than with actual human beings. Second Life is interesting because it resembles a video game but there are no missions, goals, tasks, etc. It more closely simulates real life but in a more dream-like state. Characters can fly, you can change the way you look whenever you want and it is not uncommon to find fantasy creatures roaming about. You can choose to just explore, buy things for your avatar, make things to sell, buy land, develop land, have religious meetings or debate, visit a dance club to listen to live music and mingle and much more.

So let me pose a question. Is it harmful to do something in a virtual world that you wouldn’t normally do in real life? Do our interpersonal skills suffer if most of our socialization is through virtual avatars or even facebook wall posts?