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We often hear people say that someone, usually a teenager, is “living in a virtual world”. This suggests that the person is spending more time connected to a telephone or other terminal, immersed in a digital world. But why should the digital world be virtual? When we chat online with friends, although connected on a social network, the people we are chatting to are not virtual. Similarly, the digital map we use to find our way is far closer to reality that any old-fashioned paper map; we are located by a point, traffic jams and roadworks are shown; and by zooming in, we can see details. Another example is electronic payment, like bitcoins, which are based on computer exchanges, but which enable us to pay for concrete things.
This reproach of disconnection from the real world is particularly severe when it comes to video games. They supposedly take us away from reality. Obviously, video games allow us to experience imaginary adventures, and sometimes even share them with others in online games. But what’s new about that? Reading already allowed us to experience such adventures. Sharing imaginary worlds was even possible through role play and ancestral theatrical or childhood practices. Some video games are accused of being hyper-violent. Yet their violence rivals that of some of our childhood fairy tales. We insist on the fact that a jihadi or perpetrator of a school shooting was a video gamer. But some video games are so popular among young people that there is nothing surprising in that. Perhaps the essential difference between video games and more traditional forms of leisure is that they bring us into worlds that increasingly resemble the real world. Could this realism facilitate a transfer into true violence? Scientific research into the links between video games and violence remains controversial. The false impression of virtuality in the digital world likely comes from the immaterial nature of digital information, which has no substance or mass and is not bound by the laws of physics, even though the effects of digital transformation (such as data centres) are quite tangible. This absence of substance does not prevent physicists from using digital simulations to test their hypotheses in the real world. Scientists in many other fields, from biology to sociology, also use digital simulations.
The simulation reference can go very far, down to the “simulation hypothesis”, which holds that we ourselves are living inside a simulation. It is present in the Zhuangzi paradox, named after the Chinese philosopher from the 4th century BC - is he a man who dreamt of being a butterfly or is the butterfly dreaming it is Zhuangzi? This has also been the subject of many science-fiction stories, such as the 1999 film Matrix. This hypothesis has even been argued by philosophers such as the Swede Nick Bostrom. For him, our life is just a simulation. But that is not the issue here - the parents who complain that their teenager is living in a virtual world do not doubt for a second that they are living in a real one.
The omnipresence of digital issues in the news reminds us that there is nothing virtual about the digital world. When social media do not protect their digital data, our privacy is under threat. When online sales blossom, the traditional corner shop and supermarket suffer. There are plenty of examples. We tend to believe too much that the internet and the digital world in general are separate spaces. In fact, it is our real world which has become digital, and for this reason it can no longer remain outside the law; in it, we need to cultivate the moral values that we have been developing for centuries.
Serge Abiteboul is an IT researcher at Inria and ENS Paris, a blogger at binaire.blog.lemonde.fr and a member of the French Academy of Sciences.