The social train
This essay was inspired by an article titled A soft key radio and the Melting pot, written recently by a dear friend and fellow blogger. I hope to develop it further and use it as a backdrop story for discussing a topic that has been on my mind for some time — the impact of technology on morality. Stay tuned! 😉
“Welcome aboard”, said the tall girl as she greeted me in front of a funny-looking train — instead of tracks and wheels, this one seemed to be just sitting there idly as a dead metal shell on the floor of a fairly big room that looked nothing like a train station!
As I was trying to meet the eyes of my hostess, I was captivated by her long streaks of dazzling red hair falling down her shoulders. They were protruding from underneath what looked like one of those traditional conductor caps my grandfather — who worked for the old railroad long time ago — used to let me play with as a kid. Instead of the railroad logo, though, this one had Tranzt Wrld embroidered at the front with big golden letters.
Tranzt Wrld was one of a new breed of companies trying to add tactile interface to an aging platform — the ubiquitous Soccet — the global social network that long ago replaced the Internet. Soccet allowed virtually anyone on the planet to access any information in the public domain. More importantly, it let anyone connect and interact with anyone else in any other location on the planet — including the newly formed Moon base that by now hosted about 100 astronauts, scientists and other staff.
“We in Tranzt Wrld care a lot about providing realistic experience to our customers”, continued the girl as she was leading me inside what looked like an empty train car. As I started looking around I realized that despite the external appearance, inside it looked very similar to the train cars being used in the public transportation systems of the big cities like London — though now almost no trains were running as more and more people were tele-commuting in a bid to save the planet from energy overconsumption and greenhouse gas pollution.
Tranzt Wrld have realized that the tele-commuting removed an important piece of the social experience that started with the emergence of big cities and the invention of public transport. Apparently, the public transportation system provided a stage for social interaction with total strangers. Nobody expected that, especially since most people were complaining how public transport is unreliable and uncomfortable, but it seemed that real social interaction was happening under the cover of those complains.
This was all the more strange as at one point — with the advent of ubiquitous portable audio & video playback devices — it seemed as if people were genuinely disturbed by the close proximity of other people whom they knew nothing about and were trying to shut them off by playing loud music in their earphones while inside trains or buses.
I guess people like to look at their reflection in a mirror and what a better mirror for a complete picture that involves the soul too then other people! Maybe this could explain the differences in the number of people regularly visiting a psychiatrist between cities where public transport was highly developed and used by a larger part of the population and those where people preferred to commute in a car, especially when doing so alone!?
“Some people went back to the churches,” the girl explained to me, “but the majority is still longing for the trains and buses and have tried to find comfort in Soccet, only to realize that dealing with avatars is no replacement for physical contact!”
Suddenly she turned her face towards me and surprised me with her question: “Did you know that some people started fan clubs? They gathered donations to buy off train cars and buses from their cities. They were trying to turn them into hubs where people can gather to experience the closeness that a crowded train on the morning commute would offer 10-20 years ago.”
Drawn by her big and deep black eyes in which I was desperately trying to find my reflection as she was staring at me questioningly, I only raised my shoulders and muttered something along the lines “people do all sorts of silly stuff, I guess.” As if used to people staring at her like that, she moved on without showing any response on her face and again assumed her customer service role, all along explaining the history of Tranzt Wrld to me.
It was fascinating to hear how the founder, a woman named Lizette, met couple of genius college students working on a Virtual Reality technology that did not only provide realistic-like visual and audio experience, but found ways to simulate a wide range of tactile experiences, including smell and touch. Lizette somehow managed to buy the technology from them and after an unsuccessful attempt to use it to improve the avatars representing people in the virtual world of Soccet, she have come up with an ingenious idea.
Lizette realized that when interacting with strangers on Soccet, people don’t like to be represented in their home, work or similar environment. In most cities they already had a specific environment they were comfortable with strangers around them — the public transportation! This is how Tranzt Wrld was formed to implement a virtual version of the public transport — against all reason, people started “commuting” virtually to their “work place” without leaving their homes.
“You see, some people get our portable VR devices and join the ride from their homes,” the girl was handing out some papers for me to sign, “but that is nothing like the experience we can provide in the Tranzt Chambr,” she took the signed papers back and produced what looked like a monthly transit ticket, except this one was a chip card that would open the doors to any Tranzt Chambr for me.
Are you dreaming too?
I am curious about everything and this blog is my way to ponder the meaning of the hard questions of life, mind, culture, future...
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