The Virtualization of Man

The 2020 show Upload describes a fictional world where, when near to death, one can choose to have one’s mind uploaded into a digital universe, where it enables immortality with the added bonus of continual interaction with people in the real world. The upload is man’s great panacea for its long-standing enemy called Death. Mankind is already beginning such an “upload”, albeit one quite well before death for most.

There is the real universe, and there is the digital universe. The latter has proceeded from the inventions in the former, but – like student surpassing master – the digital universe in many ways overshadows the real universe.

Through innovation achieved by chasing ever more convenience, the late 20th century generations invented the most aggressively transformative technology to date: the internet, and with it a parallel universe now populated with “virtual man”.

The Virtual Man

Virtual man began as humbly as real man begins. Email addresses comprising a handful of numbers and letters followed by,, or the like were the first voices in the digital world and the first cries of the newborn avatars.

Jump 30 years later and few people are merely biological anymore. The virtual man consists of biological man’s emails, online videos, social media, writing, websites, Wikipedia pages (if so doomed), news articles regarding him, and all data collected about him by various sources. The sum of these internet objects is the digital man and – by many measures – the more important man.

Take Joe, the quintessential average man, as an example. Joe tweets something while enjoying a morning coffee and gets 19 likes and a couple retweets (the virtual world has its own language, too); later that day, however, Joe avoids eye contact with everyone on the public transit, says minimal words to the cashier at the sandwich shop, and passes with a mere nod to the security guard at work. More people know and have interacted with virtual Joe than biological Joe. By all accounts, virtual Joe is the more sociable one. After all, he does have more “friends”.

Though virtual man is often more popular than biological man, the former is often – though not necessarily – birthed with many of the same identifiers as the biological man: his name, face, friends, records, relationships, attitudes, and more may all be born into the virtual man.

A more curious situation occurs when virtual man diverges drastically from biological man. Sometimes, and perhaps more often than might be suspected, the virtual man shares few of the features defining the biological man who created him. This phenomenon, is best exemplified by the stereotype of the “internet troll”: a usually nameless, faceless virtual man who behaves more aggressively toward virtual society than biological society would tolerate. Other characters that might be encountered fitting this category of divergent people include the “fake” (a biological person who embellishes their virtual identity), the “bot” (a biological person who, through no fault of their own, cannot understand how to interact with other people online any better than an artificial intelligence does), and many other eccentric types.

The divergence of identity between biological and virtual man evidences something about the psychological state of the biological man, perhaps an unhappiness about his real life or fear of speaking freely under his true identity. In either case, the virtual life represents his aspirations to be someone else. At the least, the virtual world, including social media, video games, or other online entertainment, often acts as an escape – a ready sacrifice of real life for a more pleasant or exciting virtual life.

In the physical world, travel is relatively slow; biological man’s large mass couldn’t even theoretically move at the speed of light (it would require infinite energy to do so); but digital man gets quite close to this speed of light traversal of his universe on the norm. He can jump from one end of the world to the other and back in thousandths of a second. He can be duplicated and altered instantaneously. He can time-travel between present and past, freely jumping between current digital life and the past (endless archives of articles, videos, etc.). These virtual beings can interact with more people in a second than biological beings can in a day. They are the super heroes biological man always dreamed of being. Who wouldn’t give everything for such powers?

The Inversion of Control

Biological man finally found a way to duplicate himself – to make another, better “Adam” that man presumed he could control.

And, yes, it began as him pulling all the strings of this avatar, but eventually those strings were severed and the puppet danced by itself. If one looks hard enough, sometimes one can see the puppet strings on biological man, instead.

Gaming, though fun in doses, is highly addictive and has enslaved many a person into dumping more time and money into the virtual world than the real world. Strangely, the gaming world often breaks the “time is money” truism as it consumes both time and money without bounds. Every moment man spends in the the digital universe might as well be one lost in the real universe.

The greater the virtual man, the more the real man becomes slave to maintaining the virtual man: the more internet-attached or famous one becomes, the more real life must maintain virtual life. “He must grow greater, I must grow less,” (John 3:30) said John the Baptist of Jesus Christ, but today man says this of his digital self. Phone dings and vibrations become programmed cues to re-enter the virtual world, to distract from the real world. According to some studies, people check their phones some 50-60 times a day and average greater than 3 hours a day on their phones alone – not counting computer or other electronics usage. Such extreme usage of phones and computers has already been identified as the causes of numerous physical ailments as well: eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, insomnia, and many others stemming either directly from electronics usage or the physical inactivity it promotes. Entering the digital universe has its costs.

“Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition.”

Thomas Jefferson

Taken to its extreme, what once was a technology of freedom becomes a tool of self-imposed enslavement. Though voluntary, the eyes too rarely have the fortitude to pull away from the bright, electric picture of a butterfly to see the real butterfly above them. It has been said people now walk different because of the developed “skill” of walking while looking down at a screen. Some reports claim children are growing up with hunchbacks from excessive phone usage. Many say anxiety strikes when separated from their phones even momentarily. To what extremes will man torture his body for the illusory digital world?

The Abstraction of Man

The great trend through the last century has been that of abstraction – the expression qualities apart from objects: in art, music, far-off physics, education, literature, etc. By this process of abstracting, man has become skilled at separating out the theoretical from the practical, pulling apart the intangible from the tangible. And now this trend of abstraction has culminated in man himself becoming the abstraction. The natural man of carbon, oxygen, and other elements aims at little more than serving his digital, silicon half.

“When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

But what is to be done about man’s sad state, torn between digital and physical worlds? No better can man live in two worlds than man can serve two masters. While technology is useful and inescapable for the functioning of modern society now, man can choose to reduce his digital self in order to increase his real self. While many will need screens and internet galore to perform jobs and connect with friends and information far away, such things should find limited use outside of necessity.

Man must de-virtualize to heal the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual harms brought about by this virtual addiction. In rejecting what is less than real, man fully realizes himself as body, mind, and soul.

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Published by Christian Poole

Catholic | Father | Husband | Founder of ThinkingWest .com

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