Reality versus Virtuality - Why I think we need to focus back on the loss in human bandwidth

I'm going to stick my neck out here, and share some of my vision of reality versus virtuality. First off something nice and contentious.

(Quick note about definitions - I tend to use the two terms reality and virtuality. By virtuality I mean anything that is created using Information & Communication Technologies, so that kind of stretches to anything from the landline phone in your house, through things like cinema and TV, to the web and all that entails)

Doing things in virtuality is generally worse than doing things in reality

Odd thing for someone who's so involved with technology to say, but I genuinely believe that we overplay the benefits of doing things in the virtual world, to such an extent that we have often tend to manufacture for ourselves a lesser human experience. I don't think I've ever read any proposal for using the virtual world that talks about how much we'll lose by utilising virtual space, only what will be gained. I propose a more balanced approach would be to accept that whenever we use virtual space we need to identify and accept what is lost in partnership with what is gained.

There are some things you can do in virtuality that you can't do in reality

This is the real crux - virtuality is a simulated world, and therefore some things are possible within it that are simply not possible in this reality. This is why it's so useful. Classically, time and space operate in a different way to what we're used to, and from that basic starting point many things become possible.

Take a simple web page - the real equivalent of this virtual object would be a sheet of printed paper. Such a sheet of paper can only exist in one real space at one moment in time - in order to share it with another person it has to be physically moved to that person, moving across time and space as it does so. Now think about it's virtual equivalent, the web page. This virtual object can exist in multiple virtual spaces simultaneously, and because it travels using virtual methods it can move at speeds which a physical object would find impossible. Suddenly sharing what you know becomes immeasurably simpler.

There are some things you can do in reality which you can't communicate with virtuality

Bandwidth. That's the big problem. I'm not talking about technological bandwidth here, about bits and bytes and download speeds, I'm talking about human communication bandwidth. About how much of ourselves it's possible to transmit through the interfaces we use to connect to virtual spaces given the current state of the technology.

Think we have 5 senses? Think again. It's now widely accepted that beyond the five classical senses there are many more senses that we rely on day-to-day to inform how we relate to the world around us - senses like balance, temperature and kinesthetic sense. These senses can be broadly categorised into four groups: chemoreception, photoreception, mechanoreception and thermoception. Now think about the virtuality again - how many of these senses can be transmitted through the everyday interfaces that connect us to the virtual world? It's pretty much all photoreception and some mechanoreception. Most of our senses cannot penetrate the interface.

Take what I'm writing here now, and consider how different the experience would be if we were face to face. Not only would you be able to hear intonation, and therefore be able to deduce more precisely my meaning as I strengthen and highlight certain words and phrases, but also be able to see a multitude of physical indications - some tiny, some large - that again define and clarify what I am trying to communicate. It's true that current levels of development with interfaces now allow some small part of this extra information to be transmitted, some specialist devices even allow smell to be transmitted, but the vast bulk of communication is lost.

It's all just part of a long path

So in a nutshell that's my take on ICTs right now. Yes it might be a revolution - personally I now think of it as a Cognitive Revolution, as a reflection on the physicality of the Industrial Revolution - but I believe we're at the very beginning of something that is going to shift society over decades, not years. The concept of these type of developments 'transforming' anything has become so overplayed now that it seems to stand for little else than soundbites for the uninformed and unthinking. If we don't start to realise how much we lose when we rely on ICTs to stand in for us, I think we're in danger of losing what it is that has got us so far already, i.e. the sense of community and connection between each other which depends on human bandwidth to grow and develop.

Popular Posts