An equally inconvenient truth

We live in interesting, and rather disturbing, times.

The virtual bubble, rather than bursting, seems to be deflating like a hot air balloon wallowing and billowing on the ground, awaiting the inevitable moment when, bereft of shape and substance, it is packed away into a musty old crate and left to rot away. A fun experiment that ultimately proved to be too expensive, too niche and too optimistic. All that tech that we were so excited about – virtual headsets, new 3D worlds under development, and augmented reality for all, seem to have become rather embarrassing attempts to shoot the moon, and the companies behind them are quietly reassigning staff and resources to more profitable and accessible projects. New virtual worlds are ditching their pursuit of the all-round 3-dimensional experience in favour of the more traditional keyboard and mouse approach and all those technologies that we dreamed would change our world seem to be going the same way as 3D TV – a rather embarrassing and costly flop!

This is coupled with a changing social consciousness (unless you’re an orange-tinted American hotel magnate – in which case, please just file this under ‘fake news’ and move on to your own inevitable and ignoble extinction). With astonishing rapidity, a significant proportion of humanity appears to have come to the realisation that all those things the Voice of Reason and Common Sense have been telling us for at least the past 50 years is actually concrete fact. That we will indeed, possibly within our lifetime – and certainly within the lifetime of our ever more precocious offspring – witness the last of the polar bears, elephants, frogs, rainforests, coral reefs, honey bees, shoebills, mangrove swamps, glaciers, whales, polar ice, low lying coastal areas and fertile plains, as they march relentlessly towards permanent oblivion.

People, even schoolkids – who should really be enjoying themselves, falling out of trees in the great outdoors, rather than petitioning parliaments to do something to ensure that there will actually be a future great outdoors, with real living, breathing trees for them to fall out of, in the foreseeable future – are starting to get angry. And, even though I’d suggest it’s rather late in the day to get indignant about Maccy D plastic straws killing the orcas, I suppose that with enough impetus and radical action, maybe the breakneck speed at which we’re approaching Tipping Point can be slowed, even arrested, maybe?

However, it’s never that simple.

You see, all that amazing technology that we once thought would change the world for the better is indeed bringing change, only its not necessarily in the fashion we’d like. Every time we bid in an eBay auction, order an environmentally friendly recycled item off Amazon, watch a YouTube video about climate change, or even spend an evening doing nothing much in particular and dossing around in SL, we are unconsciously contributing to the problem. Every time we save the planet by not driving to the cinema and having a night in with Netflix, we’re playing a part in melting the glaciers at Kilimanjaro’s summit, and every time we upgrade our phone we’re depleting the earth’s finite resources of lithium, gold, platinum and helium… Forget recycling, the planet will likely die before we get around to reclaiming half the stuff we use and chuck away routinely.

But, who amongst us is prepared to pay the price of reducing our own personal technological impact upon the world around us? If they were to shut down the server farms that power the internet giants, depriving us of Google, Facebook, SL and bitcoin for five days a week, would we complain, or just shrug our shoulders and accept that it’s a necessary evil that comes with the territory if we want to reduce the fossil fuel consumption and crazy amount of atmospheric heat that are associated with these services? If we were to put aside any transport solutions that didn’t rely on hydrocarbons or battery power, would we be happy to walk or stay put instead? And, would we really enjoy a simple meal, grown in our own back garden over ordering a burger by smart phone, made from beef raised in South America on land cleared of ancient rainforest, flown 4000 miles across the ocean and packaged in a non-biodegradable styrofoam box created from palm oil by a minimum wage burger flipper, before being delivered to your doorstep via already clogged roads on the back of a dirty, polluting 2-stroke engined scooter?

I have a feeling that few of us would be prepared to make those sacrifices. We like our conveniences and our technology far too much to give them up, or even reduce our dependence on it. If for example, by logging in to SL for just an hour each week, rather than 15, you could reduce your annual carbon footprint by a ton, would you do it? If inworld designers were to close their Photoshop accounts, cut their processor use to the absolute basics in order to save the polar bears, would you put up with just having old clothes in your virtual wardrobe? If rather than using the fastest, most up to date graphics card for SL, you had to survive with slower, onboard, non-dedicated hardware, is that something you could tolerate if you knew it was stopping sea levels rising?

Those are surprisingly tough questions for us to answer… But, should they be?

I’m not judging anyone, and I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to taking natural resources for granted, but I can’t help thinking that the majority of those who are prepared to stage ‘die-ins’, civil disobedience and strikes would probably do the planet a much bigger favour if they ditched their mobile phones and stopped spending their down time paying online games and watching giant 4K TVs every night! The simple fact is that evolving technological change is inconsistent with preserving or improving the state of the planet, but we as a species have become so reliant on technology that we can’t countenance an existence without it – and although climate change, destruction of habitat, overuse of natural resources, growing population, plastic contamination, greenhouse gases, desertification, hyper-salination and an ever-growing IUCN Red List, along with a whole host of other – mostly human-generated – destructive forces are a complex and wicked problem, where our technological reliance is but a small contributor to the whole damned mess, and for which there cannot be any single simple solution, you have to admit that humanity has managed to deal itself a particularly unpleasant hand, and one which ultimately is highly likely to lead to it’s own demise. Somehow, idiotically, humankind has managed to shoot itself in the foot.

It’s a terrible dilemma. If we do without those things upon which we’ve come to totally rely, there’s a good chance we may well not make it… And if we don’t do without them, it’s a dead cert that we won’t!

Which makes writing about a virtual world that only exists thanks to modern technology, rather poignant in its irony.

s. x

Freed from the memory
Escape from our history, history
And I just hope that you can forgive us
But everything must go
Manic Street Preachers – Everything Must Go


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