Imagining the Internet Project
  Responses in reaction to the following provocative future scenario were assembled from a select group of internet stakeholders in the 2006 Pew Internet & American Life/Elon University Predictions Survey. The survey allowed respondents to select from the choices "agree" or "disagree" or to leave the scenario unanswered. Respondents were encouraged to provide a written elaboration to explain their answers; they did not always do so, but those who did provided richly detailed predictive material. Some respondents chose to identify themselves with each answer; many did not. We share some - not all - of the responses here. Workplaces of respondents whose reactions are shared below are attributed here only for the purpose of indicating a level of internet expertise; the statements reflect personal viewpoints and do not represent their companies', universities', or government agencies' policies or positions. Some answers have been edited to share more respondents' replies. This is a selection of the many carefully considered responses to the following scenario.  
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descriptionScenario Five:  Virtual reality is a drain for some...
By the year 2020, virtual reality on the internet will come to allow more productivity from most people in technologically-savvy communities than working in the "real world." But the attractive nature of virtual-reality worlds will also lead to serious problems for many, as we lose people to alternate realities.

Compiled reactions from the 742 respondents:
56% agreed
39% disagreed
5% did not respond

Below are select responses from anonymous survey participants. To read reactions from participants who took credit for their responses to this scenario, please click here.

That is in the nature of it.

Well, yes, but aren't some people addicted to "real life" in equally unhealthy ways?

DUH.

This is a very real danger.

Not a big problem.

The appeal of virtuality will lead to problems for some, as existence in virtual spaces becomes increasingly available and possible. Social resources will need to be shifted to address these concerns.

We will have to alter our notions of virtual and real. Human beings began to alter the real a long time ago - whatever the word "real" means.

How sad, but it's reality for the future.

Greater productivity may be illusory.

And they will claim they are not lost, but they have found their true world. And there will be serious debate about that.

Augmented reality will be more common than virtual reality.

There is a growing addiction in the making.

Sign me up.

The top addiction problem that will be addressed is our addiction to technology and computers.

The alternate realities we create are part of our "real world."

"Lead to"? Check out MRPGs now - inhabiting a virtual world at the expense of the real one is already an issue.

It's this way today – ever played "World of Warcraft"?

Anecdotal evidence regarding suicide among those who play a lot of games seems to support this.

This is already happening. I am trying to reclaim the time I used to spend reading but now spend tooling around on the Internet. Not only will we end up feeling drained but more and more of the "facts" we think we know we will be unable to identify where they came from. Without being able to recall where we read one thing or another we will become more vulnerable to misinformation.

People will also be forced to use the internet and technologies more which will create a cycle of dependency and obsession over remaining connected for as much as possible.

Virtual reality effects are exaggerated, however, non-face to face exchanges of all kinds, including sex, will grow.

We already see evidence of this with MMOG's like World of Warcraft and Everquest (referred to by many as Evercrack). However, AIrtual companies, development shops, etc., will put virtual reality to good use.

We already are losing people not only to VR, but to interactive spaces, and the divide between passive media consumers and interactive media users is widening. The place to look is at teenagers and pre-teenagers, and the signs are ominous, not only of their weight problems, but of sharp divisions in cognition between young people who are awake and engaged, and young people who seem consumed by an odd listlessness, a dullness that nothing, not even interactive media and VR, can penetrate. I'd argue that soon entirely separate school systems will be necessary, because there will be little crossover in that divide.

Yes, just as people are so easily lured into the quicksand of drugs, people will also be lured into virtual worlds where they can experience the power that is denied them in the real world. So sad, but I see it coming.

The people we are losing and will lose will be the youth of our country. Now, I realize that I sound like an aging individual...bummer. But the fact is that "screen time" and I mean TV, gaming consoles, PC's, etc., appears to rob children of basic developmental processes. I witness limitations in the ability of younger individuals to think creatively, abstractly, and spontaneously. Does anyone tell their children to just "go outside and play"? Virtual reality is created, conceived of, and presented by someone else...through the programs and AI it is delivered to another human...seems self-limiting.

Too many people already have a serious problem discerning fantasy from reality, not to mention that they don't want to interact with other human beings. I see that this as a serious problem. I grew up when people were killing themselves because they believed that they were their characters in D&D - VR will just fuel the fire.

There will certainly be VR addicts, mostly in gaming and porno worlds. But I doubt VR will replace the office.

This is especially true in the area of men and pornography. It is wrecking lives today and careers and as it becomes even more realistic it will destroy families and committed relationships by making this stuff so easily accessible to so many that may have addictions to this stuff - the same as gambling.

Until smell and tactile sensation is fully integrated into virtual reality, not a major problem - and I don't believe true five-sense virtual reality will be available in 2020. In addition, such a problem may only exist for the set of addictive personalities who are already abusing various escapes

People are addicted today to many different things. People were addicted to things in the past and will continue to be addicted to things in the present. Addictions will continue and change with the times.

People do not get "lost" in alternate realities. People choose to participate in alternate realities because they find it an efficient way to communicate with other people and build communities. This dystopian view of "getting lost" was also prevalent when the Internet first became mainstream. However, people have not gotten "lost" on the Internet, even when participating in alternate spaces such as MOO's (MUD – object-oriented) and MUD's (multi-user domains). If the VR structure is especially appealing to some, they will incorporate participation in it as part of their daily lives. The VR communities will supplement "RL" (real life) with respects to entertainment, work, and social support.

Those who are inclined to serious addiction will always find something to be seriously addicted to, whether it is watching sports, tending to a garden, or living in alternate realities. People who spend time in Everquest were surveyed about whether they thought of themselves as citizens of the real world who sometimes play in Everquest, or citizens of Everquest who sometimes play in the real world. Something like 60% responded the latter.

There will always be a minority of people who are addicted to whatever there is to be addicted to. So, it will be alternate reality for some. This problem is overblown.

We already lose people to alternate realities. I've known at least three people who fabricated enough of their life online that they just had to suicide that life in order to retain their real one.

There are limits, and human interaction is essential for most of us; only those already disconnected will drift off totally.

Can you imagine an implanted chip that allows a person to enter an alternative reality anywhere or any time? Nightmarish image.

This is already the case and it will increase with more-immersive environments.

Drug addiction will continue to be a bigger problem than "internet-related" addictions. Only if virtual reality mixes with meatspace chemicals will the problem become more reality than sensationalist hype.

People are designed for community. The pendulum will swing but ultimately we will find the need for others.

Every new technology brings new problems and this is unavoidable. The measure of our societies is how we deal with the problems. Criminalise or socialise.

I agree about the productivity. However, I think the addiction problem will happen for a very small minority.

Virtual reality is dead. Everything is virtual. If by VR you mean persistent virtual worlds, or synthetic worlds, the question would be different, and so would the answers be.

I don't think this will be too large a percentage of the population.

A real problem will be the loss of some key social interaction skills for some.

I don't know that computers are any more addictive than other obsessions that trap people in their grip - it's just that we tend to be more suspicious of computers than we are of alcohol and drugs and gambling.

This seems to be already happening for some even with today's online games, and by 2020 today's most enthusiastic gamers will be well up the age scale

I agree this will happen, but I'm not sure it will by 2020.

Human behavior sophistication/discrimination will help to maintain sanity.

You can see it happening already in the anti-social behavior depicted by our children who consider a playdate to be each person taking their turn using the PSP or GameBoy.

But so what? Some people have always chosen "alternate realities" such as meditation, drugs, and even just eternal irresponsibility.

There is in my opinion a single-digit percentage of the population that might be effected as described above.

I definitely see this as an issue. Each new "big thing" sees people who go overboard with it and leads to addiction. Virtual reality can certainly be abused, as can other ways to "escape" reality such as drugs, alcohol, etc.

The pervasiveness of virtual realities will allow people to create multiple identities, however the human connection and the need to fit in with others will continue to be issues for most. Thus, those who do not have strong personal and human ties will be easily lured by the attractive nature of the virtual-reality worlds but at the cost of true lasting relationships.

If it's virtual, it cannot be real. So this prediction is just a stupid formulation. What is sure is that the value will remain in the reaction to other users. The virtual world has no value if it does not bring a user benefit in the real one. But we can nevertheless be faced with misunderstanding from some customers

Yes, we're already seeing that by the "Evercrack" and similar MMO games that take people away from the "real world" in terms of entertainment and socializing. Teen-agers rush home after school and IM with each other (although are they just IMing with ways to meet each other later?). Everything done beyond moderation can be addicting, whether it's Internet usage, going online in a virtual world or drinking to excess. Advances in virtual world technologies will only add one more thing that people can get addicted to. On the other hand, I do agree that virtual reality will allow more productivity for people in tech-savvy communities, as it will be easier for them to work without the distractions of the typical "physical workplace." As much as had been argued about the need for in-person meetings and the "water cooler," I don't think it's as important as people are arguing.

Gaming is already being associated with mental illness. Cell phones and iPods are today's cigarettes. The over stimulation many young people face will cause them to burn out faster.

I don't agree that this is bad. The line between this reality and virtual reality will increasingly become blurred. But it won't make a difference. Money will be the same in either reality, as will love and human contact. Ultimately, many people will juggle two lives, while some who are unable to cope, will settle on a single life - either in this reality or in virtual reality. That number will be a small percentage, and I suspect will be little different from the number of people who use drugs now as escapism.

We're already having problems with people becoming addicted to online worlds - chat rooms, online gambling for teenagers, blogging for adults - yes, the problem will be worse.

Look at the insular world that is being created by iPods, noise-reducing headsets, and personalized video players.

I am afraid this is a likely scenario with people being lost to virtual worlds.

The sensations that can be delivered via electronics and mechanics will exceed the sensations created by drugs.

Reality is relative anyway.

How will those who live in poverty and diminishing opportunity today not be bitter and more activist in the future? Terrorism within our own population will be the cause of the biggest drain and those lost in virtual reality (whether computer- or wealth-simulated) will probably be the first victims. This is not a threat, but seems a sad possibility all around.

The internet is already a huge black hole for time.

The workplace will not change that much in 14 years.

Virtual reality will never surpass the fantasizing power of the human mind! It might as well be said that chronic daydreamers are "imagination addicts."

The question is irrelevant. Anything can be addicting and detrimental, and for many VR already is. So what?

I doubt that it will be worse than it is now. If, on the other hand, we dramatically improve our holographic, smell, and haptic (touch) capabilities, virtually reality could indeed become increasingly threatening to real world relationships.

Not only addiction, but time-wasting on a level rivalled only by television. We've seen studies of work-unrelated 'puter use in the workplace; at home, by all ages, not just Runescape-addled teens, the computer sucks time from front porch neighborliness, home maintenance, physical activity, community involvement.

"Real world" person-to-person jobs will always be important. There will be those who seem to prefer the alternate reality that technology brings them, but there numbers will not be significant.

There are many people who can't handle technological progress, from a while back, like fire, wheels, cars, guns, etc.

As this is happening with teleworking and IM/chatting already, the more impressive the presented reality the more this will happen.

It's already happening with young people. They live online in ways they can't possibly stomach offline. If they can find a way to make money from these activities and they can keep most of them hidden from whomever they choose, they will continue to retreat into their cocoon.

We see this trend in gaming already.

This one is obvious. They don't call it "EverCrack" for nothing. MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) are extremely addictive; we're already there.

As we are learning from the gaming generation, online activities can encourage social behaviors. Addiction is a possibility, not a probability.

Virtual reality by 2020 will likely be fully immersive - possibly to an extent made possible only by network connections to brain circuitry. But we will NOT see it in business except in narrow niches. As for addiction, we've heard that song before about video games.

There will always be a portion of the population who will be "addicted" to something - but I don't think this will become rampant.

Moral panics have accompanied every new medium so far. Psychos as well as Lud-omaniacs will continue to abound, but will not be the product of virtual reality.

For most people on the planet, living in the "real world" is no bargain. That's why we have Disney World and Las Vegas. Virtual reality will be a much less expensive and safe way to escape the everyday burdens of life - a much needed improvement over drugs, alcohol and what is otherwise truly self-destructive behavior.

Whilst some will become addicted the majority won't, virtual reality will come in many different forms, holograms, virtual screens projected into specific areas of control, (reality today) and any surface or non surface people want to communicate, VR will become a communications and life aid

Many people are already addicted to virtual realities (such as online games). Increases in immersive technology will only increase the problems. However, I believe the promises of VR at those levels are still further off than 2020, given the slow rate of global technological advances taken as a whole (e.g., disparity between industrialized and Global South nations w/r/t technological infrastructure).

One could write an essay on this one. A short answer is that people will be no more or less in alternate realities than they ever have been.

In my opinion, this is happening on many levels already.

A dooms day technologically deterministic view like many we have seen before.

Participation in virtual-reality worlds has and will continue to have limits, similar to those of real worlds. The life cycles of community formation and dissolution will mark online worlds just as they do offline worlds. Moreover, as the novelty of virtual-reality worlds wears off, participation in them will hold steady or even decrease, thereby containing addiction to them.

The greater problem will arise from the increasing knowledge and economic gap between those benefiting from the technological savvy and those "left behind in the real world."

People will increasingly not notice the technology, reality will include technology, the concept of VR will seem odd.

Look to current consumption of online games. While these participants are arguably different from the mainstream, in their early uptake of new technologies for one example, other populations have demonstrated "addictive" qualities with social software that is not online gaming.

Virtual reality will disappear, as it ought to for a long time already - the internet will be more and more part of everyday life, certainly not a disconnected and separated entity

This scenario will doubtless play out for at least "some," but I'm not sure it will for "many."

I think we have a good example already: a table of teenagers all sitting and talking on their cell phones rather than to each other.

Humans control the technology. Sure, some of the virtual reality applications will be good enough to imply reality, but it is still a virtual reality, the key word being "virtual."

We have to pay more attention to the impact of VR. Our world is going to be untrustable - e.g.: we can't trust photos or video as the images there can be fake. This is going to be a serious social impact to our world.

Even children make the difference between their tales and the reality. And they can switch at will.

It is happening right now with many playing MMORPGs. If you have the best spaceship in a community it does matter, and you won't be so sad that you can't have the best car in the real-world neighborhood.

Virtual reality would be in "real-life" reality as much as telephone, radio and TV. Fears and prejudice about it would be finally displaced. Everybody will know the difference between face-to-face and online communication and will use it as a tool to grow their support and work networks.

Addiction may be the case with some, but only very limited occupations can shift online. This scenario concerns a limited, privileged number of people.

I haven't seen much promise for this proposed "virtual reality" idea. Either the technology hasn't evolved enough yet, or we haven't found any practical application for it. I do think that ubiquitousness of computing and connectivity will help productivity, but when the systems go down there will be generations of people who don't know how to use a phone book.

It's not clear that ICT has increased productivity in general, so why would VR on the internet increase productivity?

Real world and virtual world will have strong fights. In 2020, the heat of the battlefield will be over and we will be licking our wounds.

This seems inevitable. To not recognize this as truth is to hold that legal alcohol will result in zero hangovers. On the other hand, heroin and cocaine were once legally purchased from English pharmacies and the country didn't turn into gutter-dwelling addicts. Addiction will remain addiction - whether it's alcohol, gambling, drugs or a fantasy life.

The broader concern is that we are human-machine instead of human-human, losing the commons, losing the community.

Serious addiction is most likely as virtual reality takes over gaming and recreation. It will work well for some people but the majority will prefer the real world.

Gamers already exhibit some of these problems.

It's already happening today - I watch my 14-year-old son lose himself every day in a virtual reality-based game. At the same time, he is incredibly productive in that world, building and creating.

Not my cup of tea, but judging how my students behave re technology, this is a serious risk for some people.

Technology doesn't always increase productivity.

There will be a problem; indeed there already is a problem - but the way this is phrased is over-stated. Plus, addictiveness will be very limited.

We already have this problem with religion. The central issue is one of personality and behavioural defects.

To be lured by such things is certainly a part of human nature and this can be damaging if it is not balanced.

People will still be interested in real life. For fifty years, large numbers of Americans sat in front of the TV every evening from 6 PM to at least 10 PM. Is the Internet so different?

The terminology here is troubling: The tidy divide between "virtual" and "real" has never existed, and/or long ago became very blurred. The hysteria about "addiction" is a kind of moral panic around technology that we saw with TV and phones - telephony itself permits "virtual reality" after all! It is nothing new. But the idea of teenagers, especially, descending into some unholy hell of virtuality where all is pleasure, where there is no responsibility, and they die because they forget to stop and eat, is just plain silly.

This trend, whether it happens by 2020 or not, portends danger to individuals as well as to our societies. The "addiction" to gaming that we see setting in among increasing numbers of adolescents and young adults reveals their vulnerability. Only yesterday, a local newspaper ran a story of a grandmotherly woman who spend 12+ hours a day online in "Second Life"; it appeared that her avatar was more dominant and more important to her life than her real persona.

I don't disagree with the addiction prediction, but I do disagree with the productivity increase. Most people who use a computer still double-click on hyperlinks; they are a long way from being able to benefit from collaboration in a virtual world.

Parts of this are true - but we have always had among us on earth those whose reality varied from the observable. I don't think that will increase much.

Virtual work makes workers more effective but does not substitute for real world activities. Virtual world trap is less dangerous than drugs and Disney movies.

One only needs to look at the gamer community to understand that there can be too much of a good thing. Nevertheless, I think that only a small percentage of the population will face this problem.

The medical training virtual medical center currently set up in "Second Life" is an interesting example of virtual-world training supporting increased productivity and efficient use of resources in RL. It was not envisioned or directed by the games' owners, simply set up independently like the rest of the Second Life VR, and used for this private purpose. Addictive personalities may indeed have problems with this as such VRs continue to become more "realistic," and potentially more appealing than RL. On the other hand, by finding like-minded individuals unlimited by geography, these persons may also be afforded human connections and interactions rather than being isolated. Ultimately, I suspect it is a net/net situation or nearly so, as individuals with this type of issue might well have become "addicted" to video games in the '80s or '90s, or Home Shopping Network, or gambling, or something else some other time.

The amount of people who are involved in online games and communities will swell as the technology gets cheaper and easier to use.

We know that people do best with FTF (face-to-face) relationships. This fear has been around for a while, going back to at least MUDs (multi-user domains).

We already experiencing this type of issue with the dissemination of chatting and webloggers, exposing some web surfers to the so-called e-addiction, but this type of addictive won't be in any manner a threat to society. Let people have fun with that virtual reality.

We have yet to find evidence of any kind of real "media addiction," why expect we will find one related to virtual media?

I fully agree on this issue and the best example regarding addiction problem is in Bangladesh.

It is already happening, South Korea being the unfortunate pioneer.

Virtual reality is booming, but people can make the break from it so as not to be addicted. Some technologies can be exported, and this could cause workers to be affected and uncared for.

I believe this will happen more and more in the homes, where people disconnect from their environments and immerse themselves in VR worlds.

As with other "new" fads like hula-hoops, hopscotch, television, video games etc, the Internet and VR will lose much of their addictiveness, and will be commonly used for specific purposes in specific timeslots.

The real community will always play a big role. Until we have virtual family/child raising, children will always be raised directly, and direct communication will be seen as a standard. Virtual communication will grow, and addiction will be a problem, but I don't believe to the extent you're stating above.

Virtual reality provides no more addiction than obedience, gambling, video games, television, caffeine, or sugar.

Virtual reality was a wet dream in the '90s and is irrelevant these days. The whole notion of disembodiment has been proven wrong. This will be also the case in the two decades from now.

Yes some people will have addiction problems, but I don't think it will be necessarily worse than any other addicting environments, e.g., casinos, that exist today. I think the virtual reality worlds will draw people together just as email, the Internet, chat and multi-player online games do now.

While I suspect that some will be affected negatively by additions to virtual-reality worlds, I don't believe the "many" will be beyond the "many" who suffer various addictions today (many addictions are to substances which also allow access to a world "different" in some sense from the one to which people attempt to escape)

We are human beings. The tangible world is still the escape from technology.

I believe the rate of "loss" to this kind of phenomena is basically fixed. I'm also skeptical about how real these experiences will feel.

No question on this. But I do wonder why we assume this is such a bad thing, or so much worse than many of the alternatives.

The "virtual reality" world indicated above will be that of computer games. The addiction to interactive computer games is likely to increase. Other than that, I do not think that virtual reality will have a big impact on society in 2020

More si-fi! Yes, VR will be better than today and provide benefits - but people still have to eat and buy food i.e. they live in the real world.

This is already happening with many virtual reality games, and that will likely attract the most attention. The more insidious virtual reality is the virtual reality that already engulfs many people, the virtual reality of news and media that surrounds us today. This is not called a "game" but in fact it is the biggest game.

If our experience with trekkies, gaming addicts and Internet junkies are predictive, people will completely lose a sense of reality or knowledge of how to interact with other people. By the same token, spoken and written communications will be reduced to blurbs and sound bytes, and newspapers will more closely resemble texting-style English.

E.g., gambling or prescription drugs on line right now.

There is no research to support the idea of large-scale addiction problems now and there is no reason to believe VR would accelerate the problem. Further, it is unlikely that VR will take off.

Work is not progressing well in this area - the only two internet-based applications that most people use - email and web. This isn't anywhere close in R&D and hasn't advanced at all in the last few years. People don't want to pay more for communication and will be less likely to do so in the next 10 years - don't think "virtual reality" is even the right concept.

Again the scenario is misleading by combining professional and private use. Addiction in private use will come from marketing, as we see now with videogames, not from the nature of technology nor the inclination of the users.

This will not be measurable in any meaningful way.

The prediction is that by 2020 world travel, as we know it today, will not be possible - there will simply not be the oil to freely move around the globe. Virtual reality will be the way we communicate globally and "travel." I am not sure that addiction to virtual reality is necessarily any more harmful than other addictions, and most people are not going to be lost to alternate realities.


 

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