The video "Plastics" from Last Week Tonight (2021 March) features John Oliver explaining "how plastics are harming the planet, why recycling isn’t the solution you think it is, and why fixing the problem will be up to not just consumers, but corporations and policymakers". This 20-minute clip lives up to its show description and packs a lot of information about the plastics problem.
As I was watching the scene of landfills with plastic waste, a thought popped up: are we neglecting problems in the physical world (e.g., plastic pollution) as we shift most of our attention to what is "digital"?
To be clear, the line between "physical" and "digital" is blurry - if such a line even exists. Digital solutions can and are being used to solve problems that come up in the physical world (e.g., online banking transfers to replace physical cash handover. On the other hand, all things "digital" ultimately rely on physical devices to function (e.g., Wi-Fi requires a router).
For the purpose of this article only, I am (over) simplifying physical problems to refer to ones that are specifically related to improving the physical environment we live in or rely on as the primary goal - e.g., topics such as food safety or air purity would qualify. This does not exclude the use of digital tools in remedying the problem.
In the Internet age, "digital" is the new sexy. The coolest kid in college is the geek dropout who founded a tech startup in Silicon Valley. The biggest companies by market cap are dominated by tech companies - Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet (Google) are all in the top 5.
When was the last time you came across news headlines on plastics pollution? When was the last time you saw Apple in the news?
In the digital economy, our focus on "digital" topics are squeezing out the attention we have to spare for "physical" problems. There are articles and books about the danger of potential future cyberattacks; yet are we paying the same attention to the danger of micro-plastics seeping into our drinking water and food?
It is natural for us to focus on reaping immediate & quantifiable benefits or avoiding immediate & quantifiable risks. We pay attention to tech companies because most of us are using their products and they make a a big % of the equity market (and hence invested wealth). The impact is tangible (e.g., a new iPhone model that we can buy) or measurable (e.g., how much ROI on stock). In contrast, how plastic landfills in another country do not seem to be immediately impacting us, nor is the danger easily quantifiable.
That does make the danger of problems (such as pollution) less real. One use case of virtual reality is to alert people to "hidden dangers" at different corners of the globe, such as showing consumers landfills in other countries that carry the waste their country produces. Humans are more likely to respond to risks that seem near - e.g., more likely to rescue a drowning person in the lake they walk past than donate to starving children in another continent. And maybe VR can help make physical dangers seem nearer - a way to use digital solutions to re-pivot our attention to physical problems that are real threats.