For over 200,000 years we humans only had access to the physical world, full of objects that we could touch, taste, hear, smell and see. In the 1980s, the Internet gave birth to cyberspace: a virtual computer world designed to facilitate online communication. In 1991 the web became public. A new technology that would fundamentally change human behavior.
For children who are growing up today, a time without computers, smartphones, Google, Netflix or Instagram is hard to imagine. A time of boredom, when we had to memorize phone numbers and ask complete strangers for directions. With the ubiquitous use of social media and digital devices, the web looks and feels like the real world today. The separation between reality and image has collapsed.
We now live in hyperreality, a world in which simulations of reality appear more real than reality itself. The concept of hyperreality was first coined by the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard in simulacra and simulation. Baudrillard defined hyperreality as “the creation of a real without origin through models”. When Baudrillard first proposed the theory of hyperreality in 1981, it was viewed as a highly provocative and controversial idea. Today, hyperreality is an integral part of modern life.
The pandemic has expanded the online world
In many ways, the current lockdown is the greatest social and psychological experiment ever conducted. At the height of the pandemic, more than half of the world’s population – 4.2 billion people – was partially or completely locked. Our way of life has changed. Human interaction has been replaced by digital pixels that are broadcast over the internet every day. Predictably, people spent a record amount of time online. Zoom now has 300 million daily subscribers, compared to just 10 million in December 2019. Twitch saw viewership grow 56% per quarter. And Amazon’s profits have tripled as the pandemic accelerates the shift to e-commerce.
Perhaps more importantly, digital platforms like Zoom, Twitch, and Amazon have been around for years. Technology has not changed, but our relationship with technology. The global lockdown was clearly a catalyst for the mass adoption of e-commerce, online payments, and video conferencing. For the first time in history we managed to move society, or at least a large part of it, online. Many people have developed new habits in the digital world. Under these conditions, the virtual world begins to compete with the physical world for time, resources and attention.
The rise of virtual sentences
We spend most of our time online on devices while staying in the physical world. The next level is the virtual world, a fully immersive computer-simulated environment in which people are represented by digital avatars. Right now, the virtual world is most visible in the game industry. Games like Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox have already created complex worlds where people can create new identities, explore new opportunities, and hang out with friends. The explosive growth of gaming is driving important developments in the virtual world.
The virtual world even has its own economy: 2.5 billion people spend 100 billion US dollars on virtual goods. Contrary to popular belief, gaming is not a form of escapism, but a chance for people to connect with friends and strangers on a deeper level. From a commercial perspective, global brands are striving to enter the virtual world. Recent attempts include partnering with Nike League of Legends, Gucci’s $ 10,000 virtual dress, and Balenciaga’s runway show in a video game. For companies with global reach and physical distribution, the virtual world represents an untapped opportunity for 10 times sales without having to manufacture physical products. The brands that create compelling virtual offers – not digital ads – will undoubtedly shape society in the 21st century.
Welcome to the hyperreal
On the last level we enter hyperreality, a state in which the physical and the virtual world converge. Where we can no longer distinguish between the two realities. More importantly, however, the distinction doesn’t matter as people infer the same meaning and value from the simulated world. One of the first examples is the virtual influencer Lil Miquela, who has 2.9 million followers on Instagram. AI-powered soundcloud rapper Fnmeka with 8 million followers on TikTok. And Genius, an avatar company that believes that everyone needs an avatar to represent themselves.
In another area, porn has long been at the forefront of technological innovation. Unsurprisingly, pornography is one of the few industries where virtual reality (VR) has gained wide adoption. An estimated 60% of the top virtual reality websites are porn sites. Psychologists warn that VR porn can separate people from reality. Hyperreality enables individuals to avoid life’s hardships and replace them with a world that is perfectly tailored to their own tastes. In a similar way, we are starting to watch the creation of sex doll brothels around the world. Although sex dolls sound like an excerpt from a cyberpunk novel, they threaten the future of sex workers. In many cases, customers choose dolls over humans in order to satisfy their fantasies. A recent study from Finland suggests that humans are more friendly to sex with a robot than with a human sex worker.
The global pandemic has further blurred the lines between the physical and digital world. We now see the virtual world competing with the physical for resources. In the next ten years, the two worlds will grow together and create a state of hyperreality: a simulation of reality with no origin. Although it can be easy to dismiss hyperreality as a kind of science fiction fantasy. We just need to look at the radical changes in human behavior and technological adoption during the current lockdown. In truth, elements of the hyper-real have already entered mainstream culture. This point becomes even more significant when you consider that the leaders of the new world – Gen-Z – are equally if not more comfortable on the Internet. To quote Marshall McLuhan: “We shape our tools and then our tools shape ourselves.”