New technologies have made it easier than ever to connect with others, yet these same technologies surround us with digital distractions and demands, often isolating us from those around us.
This paradox is explored in two new books that examine the peril and the promise of virtual reality: Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality, by Elias Aboujaoude, and Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, by Sherry Turkle.
In Virtually You, Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, describes the ways we reinvent ourselves online. The Internet is a playground where we create who we want to be. We can post the most flattering Photoshopped profile pictures and edit profiles to only highlight or exaggerate our best qualities.
The problem with what Aboujoude refers to as our “e-personality” is its intense focus on ourselves. Our virtual reality becomes a platform to advertise our e-selves and provides ample opportunity for ego boosts.
Aboujaoude warns that the increasingly self-customizing world of virtual reality dangerously diminishes the emphasis on the other. In a “me, me, me” world, explains Aboujaoude, it’s easier for us to fall prey to narcissism and delusions of grandeur, leaving less room for empathy and compassion. In an environment where complex and sometimes difficult emotions are simplified into emoticons, we are at greater risk for abandoning reality, opting to acquire more Facebook friends rather than make meaningful connections in our real lives.
Turkle, a sociologist at MIT who’s also a licensed clinical psychologist and the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, also worries that we are becoming an emotionally handicapped society that relies too much on technology for real-life emotional fulfillment. In Alone Together, she draws on her research and anecdotes to illustrate how the lines between reality and virtual reality are becoming increasingly blurred.
For instance, she discusses interviews she conducted with children who were given a robotic pet. She observed that these children “experience[d] [the robot] as a biological pet” with real emotions, showing a lack of distinction between the virtual and real worlds.
Similarly, Turkle fears that the intrusive and pervasive role of technology in our lives is changing our definitions of community and intimacy, making us confuse solitude with connectedness. Like Aboujaoude, she argues that technology displaces our real and complicated emotions, diluting our emotional lives and compromising our ability to engage in life fully.
Neither Turkle nor Aboujaode are entirely suspicious of new technologies. Both authors recognize that these technologies are not going away; they just want to make sure we approach them with our eyes wide open. They highlight the dangers of technology in order to help us avoid these potential pitfalls.
They also believe that virtual reality presents opportunities for good. Social networks enable people to more easily organize against injustice; the Internet brings people together from different walks of life.
But creating a better online world starts with remembering our offline human selves—selves that are capable of compassion and empathy, enabling us to recognize ourselves in each other.