On place, virtual reality and compatability

“Geography is destiny.”

I’m beginning to appreciate the versatility of this simple phrase.

I considered unpacking this year’s election as a prime example (just check out this map of voting patterns by the New York Times).

I’ll spare you. Let’s talk something fun and fluffy: long-distance relationships.

Even in this age of modern tech, when we can “face-time” without moving an inch or find a date through strategic swipes on our smartphones, place still constrains our personal lives. There are just some things we must “feel” to feel. All hail the power of touch!

Until we can upload our tactile senses or some form that connects our physical bodies to this “cloud” of communication, place will continue to matter. Touch is the last barrier, the inevitable next step in breaking the chains imposed on *love* by physical distance. We already store most of our social interactions in this bustling crosshatch of wireless signals and cable cords that span oceans, that bounce off space satellites spinning hundreds of miles per hour, that ping and vibrate and light up our screens. A new virtual reality communication network could make us more likely to commit and stay in long-distance relationships.

But is that a good thing?

I guess that depends on your theory of human compatibility.

If a person’s compatibility is just limited to a handful of individuals, each relationship should be treasured as a rarity. Loss aversion is logical. “There’s plenty of fish in the sea,” or “Good things fall apart so better things can come together,” are meaningless cliches we tell ourselves and our friends to make letting go seem less tragic than it actually is: losing your one and only (or very few). Virtual reality is a godsend for all hapless romantics.

But if you think humans are simply hungry for connection and will savor a bite of salmon just as much as say, a fresh shucked oyster, then virtual reality is a crooked scheme to hold people back, to distract them from life itself. If geography is destiny, virtual reality would be rejecting destiny and opting for delusion. Everyone’s mind would be stuck in the place they were living last. It would stunt people’s networking opportunities and deteriorate local communities. Social capital would sit and stagnate and inevitably rot. Both good and bad relationships would likely get unwarranted extensions.

I’m not sure how I feel about human compatibility or what havoc virtual reality could wreak on social circles. But I am confident that place should matter. Our physical surroundings shape how we walk, talk, think, breathe, eat, sleep — everything! It reminds us what’s real; it calibrates our senses; it connects us to roots deeper than our years. No matter how much of our day is spent floating in “the cloud,” the idea of place grounds us in space and time.

If place ceased to matter, we’d be more fearless in falling or staying in love with whoever, wherever, whenever… but in so many other ways, I think we’d end up lost in our own heads and lonely in our bodies.


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