The myth of virtual reality and an isolated society

In Facebook’s 2017 annual global developer conference the future was unveiled. It’s called Spaces, and it’s a virtual reality “space” hosted by Facebook where you and a Facebook friend can interact using 3D avatars. Pop on your Oculus Rift headset, and chat with a friend in a computer simulated environment. 

As soon as I saw the promotional video for Spaces in my Facebook newsfeed, I knew I had to share it with my two brothers. My brothers run a VR company that brings virtual reality to seniors in assisted living homes, so with a simple click on the button “Share” I was able to share something with my brothers that I thought would interest them. 

Then, I made the mistake of looking at the video’s comments. Apparently, because of this technology face-to-face interaction will disappear and future generations will be more socially awkward and more isolated. In short, virtual reality will bring about the end of the world as we know it. 

Yes, Spaces is the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. But is that a bad thing? Writing, the telephone, and television all brought about the end of the world as someone had known it. According to Plato, Socrates believed that writing was "words which can neither speak for themselves nor teach the truth adequately to others.” And yet here we are, roughly 2,000 years later, still sharing our knowledge and beliefs through writing. And I think we can all agree that we live in a better world because of writing.

Technology is a tool and it's how we use technology that's important. So far, technology such as writing, the telephone, email, and Skype have allowed to maintain connections, and make new connections, with people on the other side of the planet. That’s something that just wasn’t feasible when face-to-face interactions were the only option.

And frankly, face-to-face interactions are overrated. I think we’ve all had face-to-face friends of convenience, either in the school yard or in the workplace lunch room. People we didn’t have much in common with, but who we became “friends" with so we wouldn’t feel isolated. Maybe after school ended or you moved to another job you kept in touch with this friend because shared experiences bound the two of you together. But more likely the two of you went separate ways and didn’t bother keeping in touch in any meaningful way. Face-to-face interaction doesn’t mean you create a meaningful bond with everyone you meet. It doesn’t even mean you create a deep and lasting bond with someone you once considered a friend.

As an introvert who loves connecting with people, I am thrilled about VR. I like people, but I’m also socially selective because being social for a few hours often leaves me feeling tired. I would rather use my “social battery” with people I feel a connection with. I realize this idea that I don’t want to hang out and be friends with everyone I meet may seem snotty. But for introverts like me, virtual reality is going to make it even easier to use our "social battery” with people we feel a deep connection to instead of depleting our energy for surface-level chats with people we have very little in common with. The internet, and soon VR, allows us to create deeper connections based on interests and “sparks” rather than mere physical proximity.  

The day Facebook launched Spaces I had Skype conversations with two people I had never met in person. One chat was a getting-to-know-you conversation with a person I had had a lot of contact with in Facebook groups and who seemed like someone I wanted to get to know better. The second person I skyped with was also from a Facebook group, and we had scheduled the chat to discuss a possible business collaboration, but ended up having a nice conversation about entrepreneurship in general. If it weren’t for social media, a technology that people are claiming is making us socially isolated, I would never have met these two people. I live in the US, while they live in South Africa and Canada.   

Virtual reality and Spaces aren’t going to end face-to-face interaction, but they will make in-person interaction more important. Just like with pen pals who meet in person for the first time, VR means that the first face-to-face interactions of people who know each other will be more important and more powerful. Technology allows us to have connections with people who are on our same wavelength and who live anywhere in the world. And sometimes those online connections become off-line connections. This isn’t just theory, I first met a very good friend of mine on Twitter. We happen to live in the same city, so we meet up every few months (we’re both introverts), but our initial interaction, and the majority of our interactions, still take place online or through texting. 

If you believe in Dunbar's number and the concept that there’s a limit to the number of stable relationships a human can have (according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar it’s 150 relationships) then we can’t be friends with everyone. Why should those 150 people be acquaintances who are physically around us but with whom we have little or nothing in common? Wouldn’t life be nicer if we could choose people who bring out the best in us, that understand us and lift us up? New VR technology like Spaces isn’t going to isolate us, it’s going to bring people together who wish they lived closer. It’s not going to end face-to-face interaction, it’s going to make in-person interaction more important, something people look forward to, and something that people will fly across continents for. It’s going to allow people to interact with friends and family despite a physical distance, like with the simple click of a button I was able to share a video with my brothers. So please, stop saying technology will make us more isolated. 

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