By Peggy Mihelich
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(CNN) -- The virtual worlds depicted in the movies "The Matrix" and "Minority Report" can often seem far too real in today's world of computers, e-mail, instant messaging, MP3 players, cell phones, laptops, Wi-Fi and RFID.
Many of us can't get through a day without scanning, dialing or logging into a digital world so deeply embedded that living without 1s and 0s seems almost unthinkable -- and maybe impossible.
"We now live in an era where the technology is becoming mandatory instead of a choice. ...We have found ourselves tethered to our technology in a way that has really changed our lifestyle," said Larry Rosen, co-author of the book "TechnoStress: Coping with Technology @Work @Home @Play."
In 2004 the Census Bureau estimated that 62 percent of the U.S. population owned and used a cell phone. The IT consulting firm Yankee Group estimates that figure will reach about 82 percent by 2009.
About 73 percent of Americans age 18 or older use the Internet, up from 66 percent in January 2005, according to an April 2006 survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
The Department of Commerce estimates e-commerce sales at $25.2 billion for the first quarter of 2006, an estimated increase of 25.6 percent from the first quarter of 2005.
"The Internet's become a mass phenomenon in this country. It really has had an impact on how people get information and stay in touch with other folks," Pew researcher John Horrigan said.
The virtual world also has given millions of people a place to express opinions and ideas they are often too afraid to voice in the real world.
"When you are sitting and communicating in the virtual world nobody sees you." Rosen said. "Tons of research shows that when you are not visible you feel more inclined to say things that you would never say face to face."
The virtual self
The Web's anonymity factor has helped transform social patterns.
"There're so many ways to meet people on the Internet and you don't have to try so hard," said Andrew Engle, a 32-year-old Atlanta-area audio technician and member of the social networking site MySpace.
Social Web sites have become the ultimate marketing tool, "the virtuoso of yourself," according to MIT sociology professor Sherry Turkle.
A March 2006 Pew survey of online dating patterns found that 31 percent of American adults say they know someone who has used a dating Web site like Match.com or Yahoo! Personals. Many have found long-term relationships and married someone they met online.
But for all the successes of the social Web, there are limits to meeting and getting to know someone on the Internet.
"It's a nice way to communicate ... but what you are always doing is trying to make that person exactly what you want them to be," Rosen said. "And when you finally meet in the real world, it turns out they are not exactly what you've expected."
Online communities like "Second Life" and "The Sims Online" let members assume another identity -- a different name, job, spouse - separate from the real world. Online role-playing games like "EverQuest" and "Entropia Universe" let members create virtual economies where they can amass digital fortunes.
Turkle, who has studied and talked to members of these online societies, says many feel their virtual lives are better and more fulfilling than their real lives.
Identity play itself is not harmful, she says, but it can become harmful if it crowds out other aspects of life.
"All of this would be fine and interesting and no big deal except people are spending 80 to 100 hours a week doing it. And that's the problem," she said.
Loss of patience
Time in the virtual world takes us away from time spent in the real world. Though studies are inconclusive and ongoing, some psychologists warn that too much virtual exposure can undercut face-to-face interaction, lead to depression and isolation, and erode our patience.
"We don't have the tolerance any more to wait," Rosen said. "Listening to people talk slowly or talk, period -- we just can't tolerate it."
A recent Associated Press poll found that Americans start to feel impatient after 5 minutes on hold on the phone or 15 minutes in line.
Technology has brought us to a world where we have to have it when we want it, and we want to have it all simultaneously.
"Kids now can talk to you, have their iPod stuck in their ears, be on MySpace and ... [instant message] five people," Rosen said. "They don't even think of it as technology. They think of it as air. It's just there."
E-mail lets us send a quick response, and IM lets us carry on a real-time conversation with someone halfway around the world - a great and inexpensive convenience, but a behind-the-screen form of communication.
Technology may free us from our desks, but it can also become a digital leash, making it harder to relax.
"When you're missing all those [spoken and visual] cues ... you have to read between the lines effectively," Rosen said. "And we do a lot of that, and we do misinterpret very easily."
Rosen notes that despite the drawbacks, technology has at least gotten us communicating. Pew's research even suggests the Web can foster deep communication.
"The Internet plays an important role in helping people reach out to their social networks in times of need," Horrigan said. "People use the quick e-mail to maintain their social networks. And then when they need to reach out and get information as part of a big decision, they set those networks into motion to get the kind of support they need."
The digital paper trail
If we are growing closer online, it's a closeness that some people fear is being too closely monitored.
"We are on the cusp of creating a surveillance society in the United States," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Steinhardt says he worries that we're moving in a direction where our "every movement, our every action, our every utterance and, soon people will claim, our thoughts can be tracked and monitored."
Already, global positioning satellites hover over us, security cameras watch our movements, retailers track our purchasing patterns, our e-mail and Internet use can be monitored, and RFID tags -- tiny chips with antennas - let our cars speed through tollbooths without having to stop and pay.
Such advances often bring great convenience -- and leave behind a digital paper trail of our daily lives.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, is pushing for the creation of a privacy bill of rights to protect personal data.
"Our economy is increasingly data-driven," she told the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy convention in June. "We've dramatically ramped up surveillance in our efforts to fight terrorists who hide among innocent civilians. But every day, the news contains a story of how the records of millions of consumers, veterans, patients have been compromised."
A Federal Trade Commission survey found that from 1999 to 2003 more than 27 million Americans were victims of identity theft, costing them and businesses more than $50 billion.
Personal data used to be protected by "practical obscurity," meaning that public records existed on paper or in isolated databases in courthouses and government offices. The information was legally within reach, but accessing it usually took hours or days and a lot of leg work.
But that's changing, Steinhardt said. Communication, transaction and other public and private records have moved online, and they can be pulled together in minutes to create a picture of our lives.
Typing someone's name into a search engine or online phone directory can reveal where they live. Going to their local government Web site can reveal how much their house is worth - and how much they pay in property taxes. Checking another Web site can reveal how much they contributed to political campaigns.
Need for privacy
After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to secretly monitor e-mail and phone calls to and from the country to track people suspected of terrorist activity.
Security cameras are among the devices that can monitor our real-world and online activities.
USA Today reported this year that BellSouth, Verizon and AT&T provided the NSA with records from billions of domestic phone calls after 9/11.
BellSouth and Verizon denied it, and the newspaper later said it could not establish that they had ever contracted with the NSA to provide such records. AT&T has not denied the story but said it would not provide such information without legal authorization.
Steinhardt says laws are needed to establish rights of privacy and control over our information, as well as encryption technologies to keep our data safe.
But Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a public policy, pro-technology think tank, says technology is not the enemy and should not be feared.
"Each little front to stop technology is a losing battle and, frankly, a battle that should be lost because technology makes our lives better," Atkinson said.
Would we do away with e-mail, he asks, just because the government can track it? "Everybody would laugh because e-mail is a powerful, wonderful technology."
What's needed, he said, are laws that protect privacy but don't block technology completely.
"It is inevitable that the economy and society will become virtually and completely digital," he said. "Whether that happens in 20 years or five years or 50 years, it's going to happen."
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