Virtual reality’s increasing grip on how we live

Keywords Forefront / Opinion
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Since the 1990s, we’ve seen two broad social changes that few observers would have expected to happen together.

First, youth culture has become less violent, less promiscuous and more responsible. Childhood in the United States is safer than ever before. Teenagers drink and smoke less than previous generations did. The millennial generation has fewer sexual partners than its parents had, and the teen birthrate has traced a two-decade decline. Violent crime—a young person’s temptation—fell for 25 years before the recent post-Ferguson homicide spike. Teen suicides, binge drinking, hard drug use—all are down.

But over the same period, adulthood has become less responsible, less obviously adult. For the first time in over a century, more 20-somethings live with their parents than in any other arrangement. The marriage rate is way down, and despite a high out-of-wedlock birthrate, U.S. fertility just hit an all-time low. More and more prime-age workers are dropping out of the workforce—men especially, and younger men more so than older men.

You can tell different stories that synthesize these trends: strictly economic ones about the impact of the Great Recession, critical ones about the infantilizing effects of helicopter parenting, upbeat ones about how young people are forging new life paths.

But I want to advance a technology-driven hypothesis: This mix of youthful safety and adult immaturity may be a feature of life in a society increasingly shaped by the internet’s virtual realities.

It is easy to see how online culture would makeadolescent life less dangerous. Pornography to take the edge off teenage sexual appetite. Gaming instead of contact sports as an outlet for aggression. Sexting and selfie-enabled masturbation as a safer alternative to hooking up.

The question is whether this substitution is soul-shaping and whether it extends beyond dangerous teen behavior to include things essential to long-term human flourishing—marriage, work, family.

That’s certainly the impression left when journalists try to figure out why young people aren’t marrying or dating. The same impression is left by research on younger men dropping out of the workforce: Their leisure time is being filled to a large extent by gaming, and happiness studies suggest that they are pretty content with the trade-off.

It wasn’t so long ago that people worried about a digital divide, in which online access would be a luxury good that left the bottom half behind. But if anything, the virtual world looks more like an opiate for the masses. The poor spent more time online than the rich, and it’s the elite—the Silicon Valley elite, in some striking cases—that’s more likely to limit the uses of devices in their homes and schools.

Critics of how the internet shapes culture are often hopeful that with time we will learn better management strategies, which keep the virtual in its place before too many real goods are lost.

My mother, Patricia Snow (yes, even columnists have mothers), in an essay for First Things this year, suggested that any effective resistance to virtual reality’s encroachments would need to be moral and religious, not just pragmatic and managerial. I never could induce her to read Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” but her argument made me think of the science-fiction novel’s “Butlerian Jihad”—the religious rebellion against artificial intelligence that birthed Herbert’s imagined far-future society, which has advanced spacefaring technology but not a HAL or C-3PO in sight.

“Jihad” is a more fraught term these days than when Herbert’s novel came out. But we have a pacifist community within our own society that’s organized around religious resistance to advanced technology—the Old Order Amish.

The future doesn’t belong to the Pennsylvania Dutch. But the Amish impulse is one to watch, as we reckon with virtual reality’s strange gift—a cup that tastes of progress but might have poison in the dregs.•


Douthat is a New York Times columnist. Send comments on this column to

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