The BOAC Fallacy
An article about why virtual worlds died reminded me of a pet theory, by virtue of not mentioning it as one of the possibilities. I call it the BOAC Fallacy, which stands for "... but on a computer!"
Yes, complete with the ellipses and italics. There's a recurring pattern I've seen in technology prognostication best shown by example.
By the mid-90s it was obvious that the Internet was going to shake up the newspaper industry. Prognosticators declared that everybody would get their newspapers online. To be clear, almost everybody predicted that they would get newspapers online. That is, people would use some sort of newspaper application that was laid out exactly like a newspaper, but on a screen. You could flip between pages on the computer, but after a couple of decades of web use, we can not help but hear that as "web pages" nowadays, but I'm pretty sure people meant pages laid out as a newspaper page, complete with headlines, with text under them, with "to be continued on page B7" at the end. Only the boldest of predictors might have hazarded a guess that the Letters to the Editor page might be affected. It was newspapers... but on a computer!
It is obvious that computers are going to revolutionize education. For over a decade now, people have been trying to manifest this revolution. Almost without exception, up until very recently, this has taken the form of putting what is still more-or-less a textbook online, presenting the lessons in a straightforward linear manner, then giving a quiz that but for the fact that it was on a computer could very well be handed out in a classroom as a normal quiz, and nobody would know the difference. The standard teacher/student relationship remained unchanged. If we're in a University setting, teaching assistants slotted in to the system exactly as they did in the normal teaching setting. It was a lecture-based classroom... but on a computer!
And getting to what reminded me of this again today, the idea of Virtual Worlds is that we can take the meeting places of today, bars, street corners, parks, whatever, and translate them into the computer world, and everybody will just come running. Social interactions just like the real world... but on a computer!
This is never how it works.
Computers do not simply replicate previous things. They have their own set of advantages (malleable interfaces, fast networking, amazing abilities to generate graphics), and their own set of disadvantages (limited physical feedback mechanisms, difficulty conveying face-to-face interaction nuances, amazing inabilities to understand the real world with vision or hearing). And they are amazing at taking a lot of small pieces and assembling them into a new "something" larger than has never been seen before.
Because of these unique aspects, when computing invades a new niche, it doesn't transfer it, it rewrites it. There's no real-world equivalent to a web forum. There's nothing with that pattern of interaction; you can find bits and pieces in the real world, but the physical limits of conversation or the temporal limitations of printing text or the need for an editor make it something fundamentally different. You can't get into a proper 100-message-long flamewar anywhere else, because you'd be edited away, or someone would throw you out by your ears. And we haven't seen proper offline point-by-point-by-tedious-point rebuttals in centuries. And those are just two examples.
The Internet did not put your newspaper on your computer. It redefined it. We have online news far beyond what was conceived of by most people in the 90s, but even the newspaper websites themselves are websites that have news, not newspapers that happen to be websites. And they're one of a sprawling ecosystem of news forums, blogs, aggregators like Reddit, email lists, Twitter, and so on. Real-time news, real-time reactions, real-time punditry by anyone with a keyboard. It is fundamentally different, worse in a few ways but better in most.
Education is just beginning its journey. It seems to be one of the stodgiest and most conservative fields around (despite its belief to the contrary), and the BOAC fallacy has held it in its thrall for at least 20 years, but at last the floodgates are just barely creaking open... but the full import has still yet to be grasped by very many people. Computers will not put classrooms on a computer. They're going to rewrite education. MOOCs are just the beginning of the dynamic, a la carte education coming our way, where the vast majority of education will take place at the student's pace. I expect that in 30 or 40 years, "2nd grade" or "6th grade" will either be meaningless, or vestigial designations that designate a student's age or the approximate average age of a given hunk of the cirriculum, such that rather than "being in 7th grade with a D in geography and a B+ in math", we'll see "a 7th grader with a 5th grade geography and 10th grade math", only even more granular. Computers can take small bits of cirriculum and weave them together for each student, and the old cohort system will be seen as backwards and primitive. It is fundamentally different, worse in a few ways but better in most.
And rolling back around to what started me down this road... what happened to Virtual Worlds is... everything. Online socialization didn't die with the Virtual Worlds. The "problem" is that the computer rewrote the rules again. We have aggregators, comments on YouTube, a million forums, instant messaging, email, personal websites, MMORPGs, and an endless array of other ways of socializing online. We don't need spaces blindly aping the real world, which, again, are klunky and limited because they fight the medium. Computers made something fundamentally different, better. (This time I'm not going to hedge. There's little to miss about the old Virtual World concept vs. what we have now.)
Keep your eyes on Google Glass and augmented reality; it's still years from full practicality but it's not just going to put a smartphone in your field of vision, it's going to rewrite how you interact with computers. Keep your eyes on education. Keep your eyes on computers in biology and medicine, beyond just record keeping. Computers do not translate something old into the digital era, they rewrite it.