Culture : The not so virtual internet

peteThe Internet, the final frontier, where anything can happen in the safety of a virtual world protected by a barrier of anonymity and falsehood. Nobody gives their real name out on the Internet so it’s completely safe. If you meet someone you don’t like you can just block them. Never meet up with anyone you meet on the Internet. These were the so called unwritten laws of the Internet. All was tickity boo, until the little thing called social networking came along and changed the virtual world forever. The question is, is the Internet really so virtual anymore and is the Internet more real now that we’d like it to be?

The Internet is a strange place. A place where you have no idea if anything is really real or not. It’s a sort of wonderland-esque fantasy world, with all the pitfalls and perils that go with it. If the Internet were the real world, it would be a very frightening place to live indeed. We’re happy with our current world, we are aware of deception, credit card fraud, and the like. Now transpose the Internet onto our real world and I think many of us would live in far more fear than we do today.

“You drop down to the ground, almost dead, and it’s at this point that you realise that not only have you been cleaned out financially, you’ve also been poisoned„

Approaching a shop, you pop inside to buy an apple. The shop looks very clean and well presented, yet you can’t help thinking something is wrong. Regardless, you buy an apple, step outside the shop and bite into it. No sooner have you done so, but an email appears on your blackberry that your bank account has been wiped clean. You start to feel sick, really sick. You stagger forward to a bench. How? My life savings were in there. £3.55, was all I had to my name. Why am I feeling so sick? You drop down to the ground, almost dead, and it’s at this point that you realise that not only have you been cleaned out financially, you’ve also been poisoned. People walk straight on past you as if nothing has happened; after all this is common place in the InterWorld. Someone jeers that you should have kept your subscription to the AntiVirus current. You begin to slip away, but just have enough life left in you to see a pirate jumping past you and severely beating an old lady in the street. As soon as he has obtained what he wants he stops running and plugs the stolen article into a little machine. As he does so a neon sign pops up above his head and people start to queue up and begin handing over money for copies of what he has just stolen. Your eyes roll upwards to catch a glimpse of one of the many streets of disrepute of which the real world is now covered.

It’s a scary place indeed but in fact one with which we are all familiar. It’s even weirder to think that it’s in the landscape that I have made some of the best friends I could have ever imagined. I’ve known all the core contributors to GeekDeck for a year of a minimum, and consider them all to be close friends of mine. With some of them I talk exceedingly regularly, musing on science, religion and of course technology. We have a close connection. We share in each others joys and pain, just as I would to any normal person. However here’s the difference; excluding Mark (sorry dude), who I went to college with, I’ve only met one of the other members of the GeekDeck team in real life. Why? Well because they’re scattered all over the world, Finland, Canada, France. It kinda makes it hard to meet on a regular basis unless you’ve got your own private jet. The Internet allows for a virtual connection between two people that otherwise just wouldn’t be possible. Often it’s hard to attend events in the real world, but the Internet allows for a whole host of possibilities.

It’s here though that a distinction has to be made. The Internet is virtual right? It’s not real, yet the problem is it can have a great affect on us. The Internet may not be real, but the human emotions we plug into it most definitely are. In the beginning the Internet was very much a virtual place, the most human aspect probably being chatrooms. Oh those wretched chatrooms which always seemed to be populated by annoying little oiks, who had nothing better to do that insist on participating in scrolling competitions involved phrases about xxjh445’s mum. Nevertheless, people formed bonds with each other and would schedule times to meet up and chat; just like in the real world. Unlike the real world however, if things got too tense of hectic, you could literally just unplug. You could even vow never to go back on the Internet ever again, or just use another chatroom. The web is such a vast landscape that it’s like having the aforementioned private jet and being able to go anywhere your heart desires. It is this very notion that adds to the very metaphorical nature of the “virtual world”.

Around about 7 years ago I started a small photography group called DAP-G. A few members joined and for a short while we had a nice little group going. One of the guys who joined just happened to be skilled in the art of web development, PHP in particular. We got chatting and decided to build our very own website for the group. This guy seemed to know an awful lot about web development, but also about a much larger range of software called Open Source. He started to teach me PHP programming, something I had wanted to learn for a very long time, but hadn’t known where to start. As our conversations grew, it turned out he also knew about Linux. I’d had a brief encounter with Mandrake about a year or two earlier, but had never really used it much.

“I find it truly amazing that some people can shun the entire technological revolution„

It wasn’t long after that, that I got offered a job as a web developer programming in PHP. Part of my role was looking after the main web server, which it transpired ran Linux. I’d foolishly mentioned that I’d used Linux on my CV and was now put in charge of this shiny new dedicated server that only I had an inkling about. So I decided the only way I would be able to learn and use this weird OS, was to switch to it full time. So I ditched Windows at work, and began running RedHat9. The only problem was, my employers had just gotten themselves a nice new SBS server running Windows 2003. At the time RedHat didn’t have CIFS built into the standard kernel build, only the older SMB module. Determined to make it work I turned to my friend the guru and he spent an entire Sat morning replying with Yes, No, or Module, whilst I tried to recompile my kernel for the first time. To this day, I will never forget the patience he exhibited towards me that day.

We became very good friends and though the photography group died a death, we still kept in touch, talking pretty much everyday about pretty much anything and everything. When my fiance and I decided to get married I invited my Internet buddy and his wife to the wedding. For one I really wanted to meet him, it felt like I’d known him since school, secondly I knew he took great photos. So, we offered to pay for his flights and board, and he offered to take the official wedding photos for free. I really was touched. Since then he helped when my wife and I were made redundant from the web design company, putting my wife in touch with another web design firm in the States. He also came over and did the photos for my sister-in-laws wedding, this time spending a little more time with us, which was absolutely great. He sucks at guitar hero btw 🙂

I find it both fascinating hard to believe that such a good friendship was born from such a hostile world. It seems pretty ironic to me that in a virtual world where nothing can ever be quite what is seems, we are willing to invest our time and emotions into friendships and relationships that can mean more to us than some of our real world counterparts. The proliferation of technologies such as video conferencing and VoIP have started shake the foundations of the virtual nature. When everything was text based, you had no idea if you were talking to a man, woman or even a bot! With the addition of this new “media” the reality starts to increase. With the Internet becoming more and more a part of real life, can we still unplug as easily as we once used to? With the addition of social networking sites, people no longer hide their identity. In essence identities can’t be hidden as easily as they once were. Sure you can log in to somewhere as a guest, but the Internet is utilised for such a plethora of functions now, both corporate and personal, that staying anonymous appears to do you more harm than good.

“Oh those wretched chatrooms which always seemed to be populated by annoying little oiks, who had nothing better to do that insist on participating in scrolling competitions involved phrases about xxjh445’s mum„

In some respects I take my hat off to the technophobes who have managed to stay clear of this new “virtual real” world. In an interview with Christian Bale recently he spoke of himself being a little bit of a technophobe, and mused on how he kept his cell phone switched off most of the time and made a comment to the effect that he wasn’t interest in talking to people about random rubbish. Grinning, I thought to myself, “It’s a good job Christian Bale has never seen twitter.” I find it truly amazing that some people can shun the entire technological revolution. In some senses why shouldn’t they, people have been shunning popular culture for years, redefining themselves as minority groups with strong beliefs and motives. I think personally, I was made for technology, it seems to fit with how my mind works. To me, though not as “amazing” as some people believe it, I still think the Internet is an incredible piece of architecture. It’s moved so quickly from being a small experiment, to a text based frenzy to such a fully immersive environment, that I literally shudder to think what’s next.

Whilst I’m of the pro Internet stance, the speed of development and revolution still scares me somewhat. Are we getting to the point where the Internet becomes almost a reality in itself? Let’s not forget the people who develop very serious psychological conditions from overuse of the Internet and it’s associated technologies. Will we reach a point where people find themselves unable to break free? After all, if you could immerse yourself in a reality which was far better than your own, would you ever want to leave? Would you be happy living in a perpetual dream state. Is it so far fetched? The line is getting less and less defined. We are becoming a virtual world. I’ve often come across a situation where I scream out “edit undo,” in an entirely non technological situation. Is this just because I’m a geek, or do the advantages of the technological world lure my brain into thinking that virtual is just better? I asked my wife a while back what she thought of the idea of a “total reality” where the virtual world was perfected so much that it mirrored our “reality.” She said nothing. Thinking back to the world I described above I have to consider, do I really blame her?

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