In June 2007, Mother Jones published an article by Dave Gilson entitled "Even Better Than the Real Thing." More a point-by-point listing of interesting and potentially disturbing facts related to virtual worlds than a coherent article, this piece makes one thing very clear — regardless of how you feel or what you think about virtual worlds, they have an increasingly commanding, real-world presence. The populations of these virtual worlds are experiencing exponential growth, as are their very real economies.
In Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future, Jack Myers writes about virtual worlds as a passionate supporter. He is neither a dispassionate observer of the "explosive impact that the proliferation of Virtual Worlds is having on culture, society, and business today," nor, as I am, a curious but cautiously ambivalent one. In Virtual Worlds, Myers argues that "Virtual worlds and enhanced social networks allow us to explore new universes, expand our emotional range and depth, change the nature of communication and create different identities for ourselves."
Indeed, he is optimistic that virtual worlds will positively transform humanity. He compares our entrance into virtual worlds to "an amphibian taking its first tentative steps out of water and discovering how to breathe" and sees in them "the potential to radically alter the emotional code of the human race," demoting "the brain from its position of dictatorial power over our emotional well-being" and evolving the emotional DNA of new generations to "empower the heart and the gut to manage and control actions and decisions with the advice of the brain but not necessarily its consent."
Jack Myers is editor and publisher of the Jack Myers Media Business Report, and of MediaVillage.com. He has been involved in media business since the late 1970s, first as a sales executive for CBS-TV, then as a consultant and advisor for various media companies, agencies, and advertisers. Since 1999, Myers has become immersed in new media technologies with industry-wide forums on interactive television development, annual surveys on media sales organization and performance, and emotional connection studies. Myers is a board member of the Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, serves on the Dean's Advisory Board for the Steinhardt School at New York University, and is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
Having already disclosed that I am curious about the effects the proliferation and expansion of virtual worlds will have on society, but also cautious and ambivalent, I must say that Virtual Worlds was a frustrating read. The topic is very fascinating, and there is much to be studied, discussed, and debated in cultural studies and media courses at high schools, colleges, and universities around the world, as also around the dinner table. And because it is so pervasive, demands so much of young people's attention and time, and because it has the potential for a significant impact on our societies, cultures, and economies, it deserves, indeed demands, to be approached from a distance, from within, and from different angles. That is one of the frustrations of this book, namely that it is more a promotion and celebration of virtual worlds than serious study or discussion. Readers who have already decided that virtual worlds are not only fun and great, but that their impact will be wonderful and positive, will love this book.
Another frustration relates to sources and citations. The first three chapters are almost devoid of them, despite the fact that psychologists, scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists are invoked to make various claims. Myers writes that "[p]sychologists report a child's virtual self often reflects more about their core self-image than the self they display in their day-to-day behavior." He also writes that "[s]cientists, sociologists and anthropologists suggest that active social participation and involvement in online virtual worlds is a more constructive and healthy human experience than passively watching television, reading a book, or being in an unhappy job or relationship." I want to know which psychologists are reporting such things and what studies they conducted to arrive at their conclusions. Or which scientists (a very generic term), sociologists, and anthropologists made the suggestion that involvement in online virtual worlds is more constructive and healthy than the other activities referenced, and how this diverse group of experts came to their conclusions. Myers not only fails to provide any information on the studies behind these conclusions, but does not even provide us with the names of the experts involved so we can do our own follow-up reading.
Where we do get some more information, certainly more names, is where Myers gets to advertising, a subject with which he has significant experience. Myers writes that advertisers have really caught on to the role of emotions and connections in marketing, and names a number of companies that have aligned themselves with specific television shows to exploit this realization — Sears Roebuck & Company with Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Coca-Cola and AT&T with American Idol, FOX with MySpace, in acquiring it, American Express with the Tribeca Film Festival, Axe deodorant with disruptive media events in sponsoring them, etc. Some, such as Sears, have opened retail outlets in Second Life, and "[m]arketers and corporations are embedding themselves to explore these unexplored territories." But he makes the unconvincing and unsupported claim that this focus on emotional connections is "dramatically altering traditional creative and media strategies that have been sacrosanct in the ad business for decades."
Myers proceeds to set up a sharp dichotomy between intellect and emotion, between brain and, as he puts it, heart and gut. In making his argument, he makes some sweeping statements and grand speculations that betray not only his anti-intellectualism, but in invoking another well-worn but spurious dichotomy, the East/West divide, also essentialism and exoticization. "Eastern cultures," he claims, "and many revolutionary groups, typically have emotional influences at their foundation," whereas "western societies and cultures are brain-led, driven by mental rather than emotional decisions." I recommend reading up on Orientalism. Edward Said's work by that title would be a good start. Myers sees a move, through the long-range effects of involvement in virtual worlds, towards an emotional model, as opposed to an intellectual model.
Myers argues that virtual worlds are "bringing back to humanity the power and influence of the heart and gut," and that "[o]nline communities like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, Second Life, Cyworld and even dating sites are huge successes because they empower emotions and offer a welcome environment where the heart and gut can thrive." He writes, further, that virtual worlds will "welcome us into a new society that devalues the intellectual stimuli and rewards emotional connections," and that "success in these worlds will be based on emotional rather than intellectual skills." He then gives some advice to marketers: "traditional brain-based methods and behaviors will be useless. But advertisers who have retained emotional connections as the foundation of their strategies will survive."
Beginning with chapter four, Myers gets into more hard data on what companies and people are doing in virtual worlds and how money is made and spent there. This is where the book gets more interesting. And here we get more citations and named sources. He writes of stores and ad agencies opening up shop in Second Life and encouraging their clients to do the same. There are lecture series and business meetings held at Idea City, GSD&M's headquarters in Second Life. There are even businesses that exist only in the virtual world. There are concerts, discussions, promotions, and offerings. Especially interesting is the brief discussion of uses of virtual worlds by the University of California at Davis to simulate schizophrenia. Also interesting is MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach (MTV actually has more virtual worlds) and Wolfgang's Vault, a concert vault with an "inventory of more than 300 full-length concerts dating back to the Sixties."
Virtual worlds will, and no doubt already do, have an enormous impact on the the younger generations. We are living in a connected world, though mainly in so-called developed countries, where "[b]eing connected is what 16-32 years olds (sic) live for," according to Sky Dayton, the founder of EarthLink and now CEO of Helio. This demographic wants to be connected 24/7, and what they are connected to, aside from the friends they don't necessarily need to see in the flesh anymore, is companies salivating at the prospect of being able to reach their willing consumers, always.
In the last chapter, in closing, Myers returns to his vision of virtual worlds as gateways to an almost Utopian future where "expressing yourself is rewarded and where emotions, rather than intellect, define actions and relationships." He speculates that humans might even learn, though the use of virtual worlds, to develop "new powers of intuition, psychic abilities, mental telepathy and spiritual communications…by learning to elevate the emotions to a position of authority over the repressive forces of the brain…." He anticipates the emergence of controversy, where forces will seek to control these universes, but dismisses these forces by saying that they are merely "intellectual capital demanding to maintain its power over emotional will."
The only legitimate criticisms Myers allows are the concern that some websites capture too much of people's time, parents' concerns about how and where and with whom their children are spending their time, and safety issues. These are the issues that should, in my opinion, have occupied the bulk of the book, aside from factual and technical detail. Instead they are two or three sentences at the very end of the book, followed by another comment about "the evolutionary advances that are the promise of Virtual Worlds [and] offer hope for the future of human interaction."
Virtual Worlds: Rewiring Your Emotional Future concerns itself with a fascinating and increasingly relevant topic. Too bad the book is mainly focused on a Utopian vision of societal transformation through immersion in virtual worlds, with significant emphasis on advertising, though not with the dangers of a 24/7 connection between corporations and consumers, young people trained increasingly to be emotion driven, impulsive, and appearance conscious (building the self from the outside in). And too bad also that the bulk of the argument has very little support, in terms of sources and citations, so people can research and think for themselves. Or is that too intellectual an activity? If you are looking for a serious study of virtual worlds and their possible impact on society and culture, look elsewhere.