As this year shapes up to be worse than 2021, something has become suddenly clear to me about the relationship between virtual reality and physical reality. Zoomers are even more virtual-dependent or virtually-existing than Millennials, who were already bad enough on that score. And Gen Alpha will be worse still.
Usually these discussions treat the virtual and IRL as merely separate domains, with some interfaces. But there's really an ordering where one is more fundamental, and the other is an outgrowth, parasitic, dependent, or otherwise secondary to the fundamental layer underneath.
For most of online history, IRL was primary and the virtual was secondary. Most of young people's conversations in the '90s were face-to-face or voice calls, which fall under IRL (more on voice calls later). That was not affected by them having online access. Online was only for stuff you couldn't already do IRL, and conversing with your friends and family was something you could and did already do IRL. Therefore, nobody had their friends and family on their AOL buddy lists for Instant Messaging, or their email contacts, both of which were instead reserved for accounts belonging to people some distance away who you had encountered only online (in a chat room, bulletin board, etc.).
During the early 2000s, the balance shifted more towards the virtual direction, while still having IRL as primary. In college, most students' AIM buddy lists now included their friends from around campus, not online-only contacts. Ditto for emailing their friends instead of calling them or dropping by their dorm room. Text messaging over a cell phone is, socially, the functional equivalent of IM-ing and emailing, and the opposite of a voice call or face-to-face chat, and texting IRL friends and family also took off during the 2000s.
This trend grew worse over the 2010s as users demanded even more virtual-dependent interactions with their IRL friends, family, and co-workers. This drove the growth of social media platforms, mainly Facebook but also Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, etc. By the later part of the decade, young people's social lives had dramatically shifted toward online interactions with accounts on social media platforms, rather than keeping in touch with IRL friends and family on a dinosaur platform like Facebook.
And now, as of the 2020s, this decades-long shift from IRL to the virtual has finally crossed the threshold where now the virtual is primary and fundamental, while IRL is relegated to secondary and parasitic / dependent status in young people's social lives.
Perhaps this crossover event just happened within the past month or so, rather than 2020 or '21. But I have never seen public spaces so deserted, even compared to 2020 when COVID hysteria was far greater. They basically never leave the house, unless they have to for work, and even then, they're still in online-mode while outside the home.
In 2020, I used to see girls out filming TikTok videos in public places like parks and outdoor shopping centers. That itself was treating virtual reality as primary, and IRL as dependent on it -- we'll only go to the park in order to film a TikTok video and interact with other accounts on that platform as a result of our upload. Or we'll only go to the park to take Instagram-worthy pictures. We'll only hang out at the Starbucks in order to bitch about some aspect of the atmosphere there, on Twitter / Tumblr / Reddit / wherever else. We can have a face-to-face conversation, but the topic has to be what some accounts are discussing on one of the platforms, or what one of my friend-accounts texted me, etc.
But by now I don't even see that level of IRL participation. All TikToks are now being filmed within their hermetically sealed domestic pod. (And maybe the gym? I don't know, never been to one.)
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This post is more of a preliminary one, just to note the crossover event where IRL has finally been driven into secondary status, and the virtual finally having risen to primary status. But to briefly preview where this mini-series is headed...
I'll follow this up with more about what distinguishes IRL from virtual reality, since it's not obvious. For example, most people would not immediately recognize that a relationship where most of your communication is through texting or other messaging tools is a virtual, not an IRL, relationship. That's because IRL, understood as referring to a real space, also goes along with "in real time". Two people in the same place at the same time. But virtual interactions do not require two accounts being in the same virtual space at the same time -- usually they are not. Voice calls do unfold in real time, though, which is why they never felt fake like texting, emailing, or DM-ing do.
The strangest development on that matter is the inability of Skype and Facetime to displace texting and its variants, despite the former seeming to be more techno-futuristic and progress-marking. However, it makes sense because they required communication in real time, and that is anathema to virtual reality. So something that would've seemed out-of-this-world in the '60s, like Facetime, plays second fiddle to a glorified form of pen-pal letters or playing phone tag on each other's answering machines back in the '80s.
And we'll also have to adjust what we consider "going out," "joining the crowd," "enjoying the hustle-bustle environment," "leaving the private behind for the public," and so on and so forth. Now that people's social lives are primarily online, they can "go out in public" by logging on to a public platform and interacting with the other accounts on there, even while remaining alone in their home.
But the flipside of that is that merely leaving their IRL domicile does not constitute "going out in public" -- their mind and behavior is still entirely centered on their online existence, whether it's stewing in what another account posted, or thinking of how to exploit their outside-the-home trip for online engagement (perhaps something as innocuous as leaving a post on their feed about what they picked up at the grocery store, to generate some attention and engagement). They don't tell their neighbor what they got at the store, and they don't share a picture of their hike face-to-face with their family member. Those details are uploaded to an online platform for other accounts to see and interact with.
Sadly, this means the total death of the brick-and-mortar danceclub among young people, its primary demographic. TikTok or its successors will be the virtual danceclub where they go to show their moves, see and be seen, get some quick validation, etc., but without actual physical touching or even proximity and feeling corporeally part of a single pulsating superorganism called a crowd. That will be the hardest IRL space to let go of for me, especially since we're in the restless warm-up phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, and that always means dance fever. Which is in fact happening right now -- but only online, via TikTok, not IRL in clubs.
Oh yeah, and no IRL relationships will ever be initiated spontaneously IRL. Whether for same-sex friends, opposite-sex friends, or romantic / sexual partners, everybody will have to pass through an online app's algorithm, after submitting their personal data. At the very least, you will have to "meet" first online, whether it's an explicitly designed dating app or just a generic social media platform. It will be accounts forming bonds with accounts, primarily. Secondarily, and occasionally, the accounts may take physical form and hang out as friends on the beach, or as lovers scratching their animal itch for sex, before disembodying once again to return to account form in the virtual domain.
Plenty more to say, some of it as per yoozh will be posts-within-the-comments-section, and others will be separate posts altogether.