Thursday, January 13, 2011

Virtual traveller

the following was published by Global Study Magazine (2008) and appears on the web here, but is backed up on this site for my convenience. -TL

Thomas Leverett on the world of travel and life

As a child, I used to stare intently at photographs of faraway places, like Laos, Bolivia, or Yemen, hoping to travel there someday and meet people whose lives were very different from my own. My father, a photographer, would remind me that the invention of photography had made these places more accessible to people like me; before photographs, people could only describe in words, or draw, what faraway places actually looked like. And, then as now, only a few people ever were able to actually go to a wide variety of places.

Nowadays the internet brings these places closer with stunning speed. A video game set in urban Los Angeles a few years ago was a best-seller in Britain, where it seemed the cold, dark and wet winters made young people nationwide want to cruise the sunny streets of San Andreas. Live videocams now make it possible, even common, for people to see what is happening on any given street corner in New York City, Anchorage or Europe. And the quality of the cameras, the photography, and the effects are getting ever better. Cables carry increasingly higher-quality images, so it is becoming possible to send images that are clear enough to effectively convince someone that they are actually on a street in some given city, as opposed to watching a low-quality movie feed of the same street. An old friend of mine across the ocean recently invited me to use Google Earth's new mapping photography, which will take you to a location and literally show it to you, and allow you to zoom in on it and see it better; she wanted me to come view her house and its new addition. I imagined the day when I could virtually sit at her table and have a cup of coffee, without so much as leaving my chair here. And then I thought, pretty soon I'll be able to do the same with anyone, anywhere in the world; technology will make any kind of travel available to anyone who wants it.

And, the makers of this technology have gone even a step further. If, when wearing only a helmet with glasses, I felt like the minute I walked, I was back in my own living room, now they have a sphere I could walk into that would take care of even that possibility. In other words, in this sphere, I can be presented with stunningly accurate three-dimensional representation of any city, say Moscow or Baghdad. When I begin to run, the ground beneath my feet begins to feel like ground feels when you run on it. The city around me adjusts accordingly and I go down its streets, into its alleys. For all intents and purposes, I could be convinced that I'm in that city.

So what will this do to the world of travel and life as we now know it? One can only guess, so I will.

First, the world will continue to get smaller, as we all become more aware of cultural differences in different parts of the world, and begin to adjust to them, or at least make the kinds of adjustments that people make in intercultural environments; the whole world will in effect be one intercultural environment, where geographical barriers will not prevent communication or contact, ever. The idea that one group of people has a distinct culture because they share an island, or a mountain valley, or a unique location, will be be gone. Everyone will have access to everything; though actual travel may be as rare as ever. For example, I'll be able to visit my friend virtually, have coffee, walk around a bit, get a tour of the new addition. And a young child, interested in faraway places, will only have to get onto the virtual reality to go there and see the places, while I, his/her father, will remind him/her that when I was a child, I couldn't do that. Culture, languages, accents, even food and music will no longer be defined geographically, unless it's for historical understanding.

People's sense of what is virtual and what is real will be forced to keep up with the technology. People won't like being fooled and will get sharper senses to notice when someplace looks like a city, as opposed to actually being that city. As technology gets better, people will have to get better, if they want to stay one step ahead of it.

Finally, the idea of culture and privacy of groups will evolve to be something people experience off-camera, in places where cameras aren't allowed or are blocked. Those of us who grew up reading George Orwell already get shudders when we imagine how few places there could be that will be like this. Yet it's part of human nature to want some privacy, and also to want a small group that shares something that others don't. I think that's why different and distinct languages will survive also; they'll just be more temporal, part of group identities that change according to people's needs, but are less likely to be related to a single "place" as we now know it.

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