Last year when I attended the APWA Expo in Denver, one of the speakers shared his view of how the rise of coffee houses played a major part in the advancement of mankind. It seems that prior to the introduction of coffee as a beverage, most people just drank alcohol.
And if you're familiar with history, this probably doesn't surprise you because as you know, back then, the other alternative, water, was usually contaminated and unsafe to drink. Unfortunately while alcohol at moderate doses did not kill as water might have, it definitely was (and still is) a depressant. So people really were not too motivated or even had the presence of mind to innovate and discover new ways of doing things. Then along came coffee and the establishments in which people congregated to drink this new beverage. I suppose in a way it could be looked at as a wakening of the population. People discovered others with similar interests, and they learned about or developed new ideas. To me this seems similar to what I see occurring with people today – but this time it's not driven by a change in consumption of a beverage, but instead is being advanced by a change in consumption of media. And it seems to be particularly accelerated in the virtual world community.
Just about everything new that I have learned or been exposed to over the last 5 1/2 years has been because of my involvement in Second Life and other virtual environments. But when I try to explain this to people who are not involved in this technology, I don't think they really understand why this is possible or the incredible rate at which learning happens in that environment. Probably because I do not explain it well enough. But I was thinking about this today and realized perhaps I should be comparing it to the coffee house story to get my point across. But in my example, television would take the place of alcohol. This is because, like alcohol in the past, television has kept our population complacent and accepting of the status quo. The hours spent sitting in front of that box kept us from reaching out to each other and discovering and sharing new ideas or inspiring each other to reach beyond what we know today.
In my example, the technology making virtual worlds possible would be the new "beverage on the block." And the immersive 3D environments where all this takes place have become the new "coffee house" where any of us from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection can meet, share ideas, learn, motivate, and inspire each other to expand our horizons. I would compare the community congregating in these new meeting houses to those who first started hanging out in coffee houses in the late 1700s/early 1800s. Just like the traditional coffee house, some days you might just find everyone sitting around enjoying the company; other days there's an excitement or buzz in the air because a new topic has been introduced, and people are excited about its potential to change our lives. All of us who spend time there usually leave with much more than what we brought to the table. And the people who have not yet realized what's in the coffee house or what it offers, avoid it and follow their traditional habits not really knowing or understanding what is really going on in there.
In a way, I suppose other online communities and environments could also be considered to represent virtual coffee houses. Just like not only Starbucks serves up a great cup of coffee, so too online tools other than virtual worlds offer technology and a platform where people can meet and share. Over time, I like to think that as coffee houses eventually evolved to become ubiquitous and frequented by a large number of our population, virtual worlds will one day become a common hang out spot for public discourse, discussion, and expression. I wonder if people will look back at this time in history and be able to attribute our future advances to the rise in technology and 3D immersive environments.