The COVID-19 outbreak has ushered shut-ins across the world as well as social distancing, layoffs, and all the uncertainty associated with those things. While there are many who remain foolish and ignore these precautions, the rest of us are closeted in our homes or, at the very least, are avoiding public areas save for the purchase of food and necessities.
The pandemic has encouraged what I refer to as ‘reality bubbles’. This is different than the information bubbles we often encounter, such as someone who only watches one news network while avoiding other sources of information. A reality bubble is the extent of our perception of the world. Your home, your immediate family and friends, your job, the places you frequent. The activities you enjoy. This encompasses your reality bubble.
In truth, your reality shares the same characteristics as mine. The laws of nature affect both of us, we both live on the same planet, we’re both using a device to read these words. A reality bubble, on the other hand, is what happens when you curate you experiences. Some things you cannot control — such as COVID-19 — but certain parameters can be tweaked. The media you consume, the food you eat, the people you surround yourself with, and how you spend your free time. (I loathe that phrase since it infers time is a commodity to be spent, but it fits this essay.)
The 21st century has made it easier for the creation and maintenance of such reality bubbles. Social media, more immersive video games, virtual reality, augmented reality — all are leading us toward the same paradigm shift.
Facebook and Twitter lets you decide who to follow, friend, unfriend, block, share, or report as offensive. You can decide exactly what shows up in your feed. Even the ads can be customized to your taste, if you interact with those you like and shop online, since the ads will be tailored to you as a result. This doesn’t complete the reality bubble unless you spend all of you waking hours online, but social media has become an extension of its users in a way that no other technology has before it. We’re attached to it; it has become part of who we are. We use it for news, friendship, laughs, venting, and for some, trolling and bullying. The distance and possible anonymity it offers encourages behaviors few would ever express in person. It has already prepared society for the reality bubble. I don’t mean that as some silly, conspiracy theory nonsense (They PLANNED this! Ugh). Perhaps this is where humanity was headed anyway.
This leads me to the Season 3 pilot episode of HBO’s science fiction show, Westworld. Without spoiling anything, the episode features a scene in a sleek apartment complete with pool and veranda. Only…as the scene develops, the audience learns the apartment is an augmented reality (AR) recreation of a posh living space. It’s still a wealthy person’s apartment, but the AR maintained a convincing illusion based on that character’s settings. Even though Westworld takes place in a future 2058, AR is available in our present. Not as immersive as that yet, true, but the potential is there. Another example of science fiction not necessarily predicting the curve, merely taking it as a given. The obvious takeaway is, if one can dictate what their surroundings look like to them — today one’s living space, tomorrow the entire world and the people and creatures on it — then we are well on our way to reality bubbles. Imagine tweaking your house to appear as a palace from Mycenaean Greece, with your spouse dressed like a noble in a boar-tusked helmet or Cretan priestly attire. And it’s so convincing, you prefer it over your home and spouse’s actual appearance. Then there’s the synthetic companions/lovers/servants/slaves in Westworld (and the real world), but I won’t get into that here. Suffice to say that would further enhance the reality bubble. Beings that would never disagree with you. Never tell you ‘no’.
Virtual reality and video games are becoming their own reality bubbles, where you interact with more and more immersive worlds. Or, like the current crop of survival games such as Ark: Survival Evolved, Conan Exiles, and No Man’s Sky, you must gather supplies to eat, drink, weather the elements, construct tools, tame pets to guard you, and even build a home to shield yourself from wandering dinosaurs, sandstorms, or harmful radiation. Some of these, such as Conan Exiles, requires you to login often to ensure your home hasn’t been destroyed by enemies/fellow players or simply decayed from the server due to inactivity, thus making room for other players. It’s entertainment…but with maintenance. Mirroring real life. As games become more complex and detailed, such maintenance will only grow. In future games many more times complex, players will likely buy bots or even hire other players to perform such maintenance. Again, this reinforces the reality bubble.
Now, apply all of these — social media, AR that allows you to customize everything you see, and immersive game worlds — and throw in a pandemic. You’re isolated and spend more time on social media, gaming, and so on. COVID-19 won’t last forever, but it will change how society prepares for and reacts to future pandemics. Self-quarantine and social distancing will become more commonplace and encouraged to avoid said virus’s spread. Society will never be the same. The psychological effects will reinforce the rise of reality bubbles.
In an era where facts and science are under fire from conservatives, Evangelicals, Flat Earthers, and anti-vaxxers; where people cry ‘fake news’ whenever they encounter information that runs counter to their opinion; when we have leaders calling pandemics a hoax and their followers agree — these too have accelerated the reality bubble for certain people. They’re already living in a social or information bubble. Technology will merely strengthen that. It will affect us regardless of political stripe or economic class. The end result could be an even-more isolated population, with xenophobia, wealth disparity, racism, and the other ills we thought we’d left behind in the 20th century gaining traction.
I’m a realist, so I’m not going to pretend some of this is unavoidable. The optimist lurking within me, however, hopes we enlarge those bubbles with empathy, knowledge, and compassion. Those things are what will help us survive COVID-19 — as well as ourselves.