The Free Exchange of Ideas vs. Censorship
Do you feel angry or even afraid when you hear that the government or other organizations are trying to control the content of your entertainment and your information?
There are laws and regulations that control the content of television, movies, video games, and to a lesser extent, the Internet. The rules have gotten more lenient over time, but they’re still there.
Why is the government trying to control the content of the Internet?
Many people are concerned that some of the content on the Internet exerts a bad influence on our children, and even on society in general.
Still other people are frightened by the sheer power of the Internet, and the unknown ways in which it may influence our future.
I don’t deny that the Internet has a powerful influence over us.
You might discount that influence, saying that everything and everyone we meet has an influence on us.
Still, the Internet is unique for it’s size, speed, and easy access to people everywhere. This gives the Internet the power to connect us to every idea and influence that exists.
And the Internet provides virtual communities where people with common interests “live” together.
Hopefully you and I make choices about which influences we let into our heads and hearts and homes.
There are plenty of things that I don’t want to see, or let my children see.
It’s not ridiculous to try and limit our exposure to hatred, violence, child pornography, terrorism, etc.
But it’s troubling to give the government the power to control what we see and hear.
Many people would like to live in a world without restrictions, not trusting government to always act in our best interests.
But what happens when violence or some other undesirable influence becomes so wide spread that we can no longer avoid it, and we can no longer keep it away from our children?
Here we are.
You can drastically limit these influences, if you get rid of television and movies.
But outside of tightly knit religious communities, most people aren’t willing to go that far.
And even with movies and TV out of the picture, the Internet, and its many communities remain.
The Internet is the most extraordinary, powerful tool, and like virtually any tool it can be used for good or evil. It brings us together, and it makes it easy to encounter any idea imaginable.
Virtual Worlds: The Final Frontier
But there is something new that has taken shape on the Internet, which may ultimately dwarf the importance of the Internet’s communities: Virtual Worlds.
Many people will dismiss these as nothing more than multi-player video games. We’ve had complex games for years, haven’t we?
The millions of people networking, sharing information, and living together through the Internet have irrevocably changed society, partly by making the Internet an integral part of our daily activities, and partly by changing our expectations of relationships, information, and commerce in a way that has carried over into brick and mortar parts of the economy.
So too the millions of people spending hours in virtual worlds will change the culture outside of the games, partly by making it commonplace for people to spend hours in virtual worlds, living other lives, and partly by changing the expectations that those players will have of their non-virtual worlds.
The numbers of people spending hours in these games is growing quickly.
Soon there will be hundreds of millions of people spending time in these worlds.
These worlds have culture, economies, and meaning.
The people who play these games find meaning in their identities and lives within the game, often more meaning than in their everyday lives.
Does it sound foolish or crazy to you?
The players in these worlds think about their time in the games as just living there.
Virtual worlds on the Internet enable us to lead simulated lives that we care about. This kind of experience has immeasurably more power to influence us than our relationships within the existing virtual communities, or the presentation of the same ideas in any other format.
(In Part II, we’ll explore Exodus to the Virtual World by Edward Castronova, which discusses the way that virtual worlds are structured, how the players experience these worlds, and the possible influence that this will have on society.)