Facebook and Google: the new digital places we live in, and why they're so different

Recently read a lovely little article on the Guardian about Facebook and Google, that tries to explore just what type of thing they are becoming:

It inspired me to share my own thoughts on digital space and place, products of my doctoral thesis. Whilst  I like the tone and thinking behind the article, what I think it misses is this sense of space and place. My thesis explored technology use in education, but as part of that process it also explored technology itself. Turns out that we really don't know a lot about digital technology, at least theoretically speaking; we have an awful lot of metaphors and analogies to help us compare tech to things we do get, but tech itself can be defined in all sorts of different ways, many of which don't really make sense against each other.

What I argued in my research built upon the work of others, and basically suggested that digital technologies create digital space. On a very fundamental level, when that electrical power first starts to flow through any digital technology, it turns that technology from being a static lump of metal, plastic and glass into the vessel for a new form of space itself - digital space. This space is unlike any other we have known. Critically though, this space is unformed - it is in itself a theoretical construct. What we actually experience is digital place - a digital place is what some human has then done with digital space. Digital space is the potential, digital place the realised actual.

Let me try and clarify that with an example. Digital space is odd, because it's never existed before the advent of electricity. Before this it wasn't possible to create new digital space, and this digital space differs fundamentally from real space in one special way - it has no form in its (theoretical) pure state. All things in the real world are formed from other natural products, their form is in part dictated by the form of the substances they are made from. But digital space has no form before someone starts writing code in that space. That code then gives rise to digital place. This leads to an odd property of digital places - they all contain the thinking of a human, they are in effect all embedded cognition. In the real world I might come across a nut, a bird, perhaps a wave, chances are that no human has ever designed or influenced one of these. Not so in digital places - they are fundamentally human, and as such they can never be neutral, they always contain some sense of the individuals who made them. Code gives rise to experience, but that code is always written by a human, and as such reflects that humans own perspectives.

This brings me back to Google, Facebook and others. I was struck by this passage in the article I first linked to:
"We call them platforms, networks or gatekeepers. But these labels hardly fit. The appropriate metaphor eludes us; even if we describe them as vast empires, they are unlike any we’ve ever known. Far from being discrete points of departure, merely supporting the action or minding the gates, they have become something much more significant. They have become the medium through which we experience and understand the world."
I think was this misses is that we are always moving within a medium through which we experience and understand the world. It's called our culture, and it's defined by our background, our politics, our religions, etc. When I walk out my front door the way I experience the world will in large part be defined by where I live and how I've been brought up. Our existence is deeply tied to our space and place, what our politicians decide, what our neighbours do, how the powerful and privileged in our district behave, all this shapes our experience of the world and hence shapes us.

Exactly the same thing applies to digital spaces and places - only in these digital spaces and places the culture is harder to spot, and the embedded cognition of those who have made it is not as obvious - but much, much more complex and all pervading. We may think we're just visiting a website, but actually we're peering into, and moving through, digital places which have incredible complexity and power, whose every link, every image, every comment is a reflection of someone else's thinking - and on a level which is mind bogglingly more intense than any other space or place we've yet invented. Digital places are like normal places on steroids, in terms of their potential to influence.

I use three simple statements that help to clarify the nature of digital technology for me:

  1. Digital technologies creates digital space. This is a new type of space, a space we've never experienced before.
  2. Digital space has no rules; it is made from nothing and therefore it has no previous form to influence its nature.
  3. We create digital places in this digital space; whomever creates the places, creates the rules.

In this context of Google and Facebook, what I think this leads to is an understanding that these new digital places influence us, but only in the same way that every space and place we visit influences us. But potentially these digital places also free us from the constraints of the physical, and allow many more people to be part of the digital culture that is increasingly shaping us all. It's not just Google and Facebook trying to change us, it's every single coder and contributor to those digital places having an influence on a every other person there; it's the biggest mix and up and shake down of culture you can imagine, where culture becomes much more a distributed artefact, a constantly shifting product of the multitude. And here's the clincher. It's not - yet - governed by the same people who control the real space we inhabit, much though they try and regulate it. They struggle with it's boundless nature, the cultural norms we're used to start to break down within it, because it doesn't obey the rules of the real. It doesn't obey lines on a map, rules on a page, sun down or sun up, The only rules it has are what we make for it.

I work in education and technology, and I see on a daily basis how developers and educators try to constrain and organise digital technology so they can make it more effective for them. But to my mind, this is the wrong way of thinking about digital technology. What I get really excited about is the idea that digital space is different, and it has no rules. What we need to do is embrace this difference, not try to emulate the real world but to break away from it and try things that - up to now - haven't been possible. Digital spaces, and hence digital places, are still the new wild west - it's up to us to create new ways of engaging within them. They're not a threat, they're a possibility.

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