Science fiction is often a leading indicator of innovation. In the Digital Era, the line between science fiction and reality is blurring. If it can be imagined, it can be built. The rapid innovation in the Digital Era has had significant economic, but also social and societal impacts.

The Star Trek franchise foretold such technologies as personal wireless communication and video conferencing. It also “invented” the transporter and the ultimate in virtual reality experiences, the holodeck. The holodeck programs, projected via emitters within a specially outfitted but otherwise empty room, created both “solid” props and characters as well as holographic backgrounds to evoke any vista, any scenario, and any personality — all based on whatever real or fictional parameters were programmed.

The modern development of virtual experiences is creating a form of the holodeck in today’s reality. They include everything from “free falling” to being attacked by giant robots to even working in virtual office where you can act out reactions to a bad day without fear of being fired.

But could everything become a virtual experience? From a social science perspective, there are some things that may not, such as: war and sex.

In a seminal Star Trek episode entitled, A Taste of Armageddon, the crew of the Enterprise encounters two warring planets that are fighting without traditional combat. The warring factions have done away with the messy travails of war, opting to fight via computer simulations. Those considered “killed” must report to “disintegration chambers” within 24 hours.

The leaders claim this to be a better form of war because it avoids destroying their civilization or ecology. The war goes on; the civilization survives. But when Federation officers are declared “casualties,” Captain Kirk must act, arguing it is the very messiness of war that makes it something to be avoided. Kirk destroys the simulators and disintegration chambers and suggests they start building bombs: finally creating a motivation for peace. The Digital Era is disruptive to the conduct of war, but science fiction has shown us that “Virtual War” does not work. No matter how virtual the experience, killing is still physical.

Science fiction has also offered glimpses of virtual sex several times. In Woody Allen’s Sleeper, set in 2173, all humans are either frigid or impotent. Perhaps too much virtual reality caused humanity to forget this very personal experience, but their solution is a deeper form of virtual reality. In Demolition Man, Sylvester Stallone is intrigued by Sandra Bullock’s offer of a liaison. However, in this futuristic society set in 2032, (only 15 years from now!) traditional sex is considered “disgusting” and has been replaced by “vir-sex” that produces high alpha waves designed to digitize transference of sexual energy. The Digital Era has certainly allowed humanity to be more provocative, but “Virtual Sex” replacing the physical?

These extreme bits of satire depict the inability to translate these ultimate personal experiences to virtual reality. In some cases, there is just no substitute for physical interaction. This is a complex piece of social science. In my earlier article Presenteeism in the Digital Era, I stated, “wherever we are we have the ability to be somewhere else,” however, “In the digital era, the line between absent and present is a bit of a paradox: absenteeism and presenteeism depend on your perspective.”

The concept of physical interaction, however, may be changing. According to Brian Yarbrough1, Consumer Equity Analyst for Edward Jones, millennials do most of their shopping virtually and are more comfortable with e-commerce. On the other hand, they visit the mall at least once a month, not to shop, but as a way to enjoy time with friends and family. Look at a coffee shop and you will see mostly young people gathered together. Whether at the mall or in a coffee shop, millennials are physically gathered, but may be multi-tasking on their electronic devices. They enjoy the personal contact even while being virtually elsewhere. From a social science perspective, there could be many different conversations going on at the same time. The Digital Era allows us to extend these conversations beyond those physically present. Well, I suppose “virtual” physical interaction is possible in the Digital Era — but some things are simply irreplaceable.


1 Yarbrough, B. P. (2016). How retailers are changing the way you shop. Edward Jones Perspective (November 2016).

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