06 May 2012

Virtual Ethics, Pt. 1: The Virtual World

The Virtual World
What makes a person a human is a matter of debate. People of varying religious conviction may argue that to be human is to be one of their god’s most marvelous creations. A geneticist would likely take the view that a specific set of instructions coded into the DNA distinguishes a human from other creatures. Anthropologists can identify with any one or a combination of many stances: the capacity for language; cultural identity; the presence of an ideological perspective; the use of tools; biochemical composition; etc. Regardless of which definition of human is acceptable to different people, many shared characteristics of humans are easy to agree upon. For example, the capacity for verbal and written language is recognized in all human cultures. Another trait that humans share, and one that is arguably tied to language, is the ability to create conscious thoughts - to imagine, if you will. Humans have an incredible capacity for imagination. As a long history of art, music, literature, and similar mediums lays testament to, we can escape the physical world by imagining a different - perhaps better - one.

Danish physicist Neils Bohr is rumored to have commented on the rapidly changing nature of technology, recognizing that advancements in technology grow exponentially as technology advances. In essence, he acknowledged that technology at any point in history will have advanced more in the preceding three decades than as a whole in the previous thousand years. Considering that he lived between 1885 and 1962, this statement is perhaps the understatement of the 20th Century. Since the invention of the personal home computer in the mid-1970s, more than a decade after Bohr’s death, technology has grown at such an exponential rate that policy writers, law makers, and the general consumer public have difficulty keeping up. In less than 30 years, the computer evolved from a large kit with no graphical user interface, put together by the buyer, to packaged deals with command line interfaces to hand-held and extremely portable devices with enormous processing power and advanced graphics. To put it into perspective, today’s cellular telephones have more computing power than any of the primary systems that composed the U.S. space program during the Apollo missions[1]. Mirroring vast improvements in electronic hardware, software developers have pushed the limits of the types of data that computers can take in, process, and render back to the user.

It should come as no surprise then that people use technology as another form of imaginative escapism. Just like books, movies, theater, and other forms of art allow us to ‘escape’ our physical state, or take us out of the moment, technology allows the same through a variety of mechanisms: long-distance written or oral communication; video chats; virtual reality; games; etc. In the last several years, many virtual communities have surfaced which allow people to escape the pressures of the actual world through chat rooms, forums, message boards, social networks, and more encompassing environments, such as Second Life, Active Worlds, and World of Warcraft.

Due to advancements in and the increasing popularity of personal technology, more people are finding themselves involved to some degree in a virtual community. The mere presence of virtual worlds, including social networks, the seemingly constant introduction of new virtual communities, and the continuous upgrades and improvements to those that already exist are evidence of the importance of these domains. As a result, many of the same questions and concerns that interest anthropologists apply to virtual communities.

With that in mind, an examination of human virtual interaction is as telling in terms of moral and ethical interactions as any other human interaction. Thus, I shall conduct an exploration of virtual ethics, broadly scoped, with an emphasis on associated legal customs. In terms of typical human relations, behavior seen as unethical or immoral should have the same effect on an individual whether such behavior is conducted in the actual world or the virtual world. In essence, because any communication between humans is a real interaction, generally accepted ethics should apply.

Part 2 coming shortly. Stay tuned. --Randy 
[1] See http://ed-thelen.org/comp-hist/vs-mit-apollo-guidance.html for Apollo Guidance Computer architecture and specifications.

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