What happens when we blur the line between the real and virtual worlds?

Explorations in Ethics: A collaboration with the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Duke Magazine


When we move from the real world to a virtual space such as that of Second Life or World of Warcraft, we cross clear thresholds as we log in and “become” our avatars. We know our roles in virtual space, and we know that they change as we move from one space to another.

By contrast, hybrid reality systems blur the boundaries between physical and virtual space. For example, the social application Foursquare seamlessly connects GPS-enabled mobile device users to virtual elements such as online information and gaming. If you make enough visits to your local Starbucks, you can be designated that store’s “mayor.”

The transition can be so seamless that the “user” is not always aware he is part of the “game”—whether as data to be mined, a hit to be aggregated, or a consciousness to be influenced. This blending of the real and the virtual can alter our ideas about what counts as true experience and what things or ideas have value.

Does the “mayor” of Starbucks have some authority or responsibility toward her “citizens”? Perhaps not. But what about the duly elected head of a major city? He can control the physical space, but does he also control the virtual space?

Suppose you use your smart phone and receive a geo-referenced warning about the dangers of loitering in the dark alley you’ve just entered? Or perhaps you’re driving on a heavily potholed street when a note pops up on your mobile device informing you about the upcoming municipal bond issue to repave the city’s roads?

While hybrid reality systems democratize access and can enrich our collective experience as we move through the world, it is still up to us to extend our information literacy so we can evaluate ever-evolving media forms. We may not be aware of the consequences of our actions in this new information space, but we have a moral responsibility to be informed participants in the hybrid realities we are authoring together.

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