I was traveling to a work conference in California. As I shuttled from plane to plane, from tram to moving walkway, to airport limo and finally to rental car, I pretended I was cargo. I tried to calculate the amount of money, engineering, and magic it took to move my carcass along with a thousand other slabs of meat from 50 states to a hotel in San Diego.
Even at a conservative $500 per person, for 1000 individuals that equals an expenditure of a half million dollars just to get us all in the same building to listen to boring speakers at the same time. That’s before we enjoyed the dry chicken dinners and stale breakfast rolls.
Then consider the technology. It was a little over 100 years ago that two men proved the scientific consensus wrong by building a heavier-than-air vehicle that had sustained flight. How cavalier we have become about that miracle. We waltz into a 60-ton jet and watch first-run movies as we are whisked from coast to coast in a few hours. We are traveling at 550 mph yet the wind doesn’t muss our hair.
At any given moment there are 5000 commercial planes in the air over the United States. Yet spending only a few minutes online, I was able to book a round trip flight to a destination three states away. It included four flights and a rental car, plus hotel and tourist destinations if I liked. My itinerary was coordinated to within minutes over five days.
I paid for it all with a little plastic card.
Then acknowledge the legions of people involved in making my journey a pleasure. Every step of the way, there was a highly-trained human flying, driving, shuttling, and pointing me to the right terminal, the right line, and the right seat.
Yet is all this really necessary? Is shipping our shapely bodies yon and hither still the most efficient way to conduct human interaction? After all, this ain’t the Oregon Trail.
Years ago I discovered a computer simulation called Second Life. The theory was that you could create a virtual avatar, then enter a virtual world and interact with other virtual beings, all representing real people.
The potential of this overwhelmed my imagination. For the first time in human history, you could command an avatar that lived in a nonexistent world.
Inside Second Life, you could assume any physical body you desired–tall, short, bendable, outrageous. You could be half human/half pixie. You could be any gender you desired, and even some that didn’t exist.
I was staggered at the implications. If you were old you could be young. If you were homely, you could be beautiful. If you were lame, you could walk. You could even fly.
How freeing! Could this new way of interacting with anyone, anywhere on the planet, at any time replace sitting in that conference room in San Diego? Instead, we could meet in our imaginary world, while lounging at home in our sweats eating fresh, warm toast.
Alas, the reality of this virtual world, like our personal jetpacks, has yet to arrive.
Perhaps it’s because we as humans still need that multi-sensory contact to fully communicate. In a virtual conference, even one where our avatars hover with nymphs over iridescent lakes of non-gender-specific sea creatures, we would still miss out on 90% of communication that is conveyed beyond words.
So for the foreseeable future, we must remain content traveling to our official destinations the old-fashioned way, avoiding eye contact while clutching our boarding passes