August 25, 2004 · Richard Posner
First example: how technology will bring us to the world of The Matrix.
The matrix is a video online world that is so realistic that if one’s “avatar” (one’s electronic self, the player in the video world) is killed, one dies of shock. The current video online worlds, in which you create and manipulate your avatar by means of a computer screen and a mouse or joystick, are insufficiently realistic to cause many deaths; I know of only one, described in a great article by James Meek: ‘In October 2002 a 24-year-old man, Kim Kyung-jae, died of a DVT-like illness after playing an online game, Mu, virtually nonstop for three and a half days. “I told him not to spend so much time on the internet,” his mother told the BBC. “He just said, ‘Yes, Mum’, but kept on playing.” (According to Lance Stites of NCsoft the company has taken steps to encourage players to keep the distinction between real and virtual worlds clear. Now, messages appear periodically on screen reminding subscribers to “stretch your legs and see the sunshine once in a while”.)’ But already there is a video game in which you wear a headset that enables you to manipulate your avatar by brain waves. More matrix-like still is a technology under development whereby chips implanted in the brains of paralyzed people will enable them to operate computers by thought alone: they ‘will have a cable sticking out of their heads to connect them to computers, making them look something like characters in “The Matrix.”‘ Implants.
Even in the current, primitive stage of online video world technology, literally millions of people are participating, many obsessively; the use of real money to purchase game money with which to buy equipment, clothing, and other assets in the video world is already a big business. A few years hence, people will be interacting in the video world by brainwaves alone, and in that “no hands” context they may forget who and where they are. The social consequences could be immense, and the political as well if government obtains control of the chips implanted in people’s brains to enable them to play and of the signals communicated to those chips. It will take many years to create a video online world as complex as that of The Matrix, where millions of avatars interact in a stunningly realistic simulation of a 20th century big city. But short of that, people will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the actual and virtual worlds in which they participate.
The law is slowly beginning to notice the video online world phenomenon; there is even a recent case in China in which an online player sued the video game company for allowing a hacker to steal the player’s virtual possessions!
The big question–what if any social controls should be placed on the evolution of video online worlds–is baffling and as far as I am aware has attracted little attention.