The Brave New Virtual World

The first computer I ever used was an early IBM with two, count them, two 5.25 floppy disk drives. Before I was given a work computer, I typed my handouts and quizzes using a typewriter with a correction ribbon. The top part of the ribbon was black ink; the bottom part was whiteout. So, I could hit the correct key and backspace using the white-out ribbon to fix my numerous typos. I would then take my typewritten pages to the duplex machine and make copies for my classes. When I figured out how to use the IBM, I could type my quizzes, correct my mistakes, and save my work. Wow. I could create an error free handout and print copies using the roll of perforated paper in the huge printers of the day. The switch from the typewriter to the IBM made things a bit easier for me. But, my work life did not really change. I just did things faster. As technology continued to advance, my life was affected more deeply.

When I switched jobs, I obtained a brand new Gateway computer. The floppy drives were gone, replaced by larger hard drives and 3.5 inch hard disks. Not only did the Gateways have word processing programs, spread sheets, and databases, they allowed me to communicate in new ways: e-mail and websites. My job changed tremendously. I was working at a new learning center/computer lab, and just about everything I did at this new job was connected to the computer. I used a database program to assign tutors, I made promotional materials with graphics (not easy back then), I used e-mail to arrange meetings, I created web pages, I entered test results into the Student Information System, and I trained students on how to use these kinds of various programs (few could afford to buy their own personal computer). Working on the computer was exciting. It revolutionized the way I worked and played.

We do things today using our computers that we could not have dreamed of doing 30 years ago. The computer has changed how we communicate and interact with others. The computer has also affected our values, i.e, what we find valuable. We create technology, but technology in turn, creates us. For example, before computers (BC), “family” was far more important to most Americans. My mother’s family lived on a farm outside of a small town. Get up at dawn, eat, feed the chickens, gather the eggs, tend to the garden, milk the cows, sow/weed/harvest the corn, eat some more, then sleep. Repeat with variations depending on the season. If you did not plant, fertilize, weed, harvest, can, and care for animals, you probably starved. Most of the day was spent with the animals, the crops or the family. My mom’s family may have seen others in school, on a trip to town, or at church on Sunday. What did they do for fun? My uncle’s favorite pastime was listening to the St. Louis Cardinals on the radio or maybe it was fishing in the river. My dad grew up in a small town and then lived with relatives on a farm after his father died. TB and other deadly illnesses were common before vaccines and penicillin were invented. Women commonly died while in labor, children died in childhood. There was no air conditioning, cars and trucks broke down frequently, and there was no day care. Life was much more in people’s face back then. People had to help each other to survive. While family was important so were neighbors when the rain did not fall, the house was hit by a falling tree from a storm, or the tractor broke down during the harvest.

Today, we are on the verge of another revolution. Various virtual reality systems, like Oculus Rift, are now on the market. They are impressive, but in their current form, they won’t have a much greater impact on our lives than my early IBM had on me. But, in the future, virtual reality will change things in unexpected ways. And, I suspect, life will even be less in our face than it is today. We will no longer be spending a large part of our lives in the World of the Internet per se; we’ll be living in a virtual reality that we can create and alter. This will be a BIG difference. What will the new world be like? I don’t know, but it will affect how we work, how we are entertained, how we communicate, and what we value. After Internet (AI) will be strange times indeed. Welcome to the Brave New Virtual World.

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