The Digital World is not Going to Stop Us from Communicating in the Real World

digital world making people lonelyBecause thats the negative perception or real fear of digital isn’t it? Suddenly we are not going to be in each others physical space anymore. Nor do we want to in a post COVID world.

That’s slightly tongue in cheek and I know that people are finding it all too easy to hide behind technology, but it is not only the physical world that can add value.

A recent answer to a question on Twitter alluded to the fact that the writer couldn’t equate that AirBnB was worth more than Marriot and Hilton combined (source).

Like many people, I hear lots of people talking unfavorably about those who look at screens, a concept lacking in any solidity, its not as if the TV is a recent addition to our lives.

Of course Marriott can be worth less than AirBnb. Data has become just as valuable as hotels. Our digital and physical worlds are meshing together becoming integrated.

Today’s world is one in which information is gaining the upper hand over raw materials, where software is more valuable than hardware, and where, according to Negroponte (1995), bits are more important than atoms.

Many people see the two worlds as mutually exclusive. Its as if there is a war going on: online versus offline, digital versus analogue, virtual versus physical. The war, if that’s the right word, is cultural.

There has always been someone resisting technology. According to Joel Mokyr (2005), the factor that most clearly demarcates a past era of stagnant living standards from the modern growth era is the intensity of resistance to the introduction of new technologies and goods by subgroups of society.

Prior to the 18th century, this resistance was widespread and fierce largely steered by guilds and various other trade associations. Starting in the Middle Ages, these groups successfully blocked the adoption of many new technologies and goods through both legal and illegal means up until the 18th century, when their influence began to wane.

This polarization is often referred to as ‘Digital dualism’ and was first termed by sociologist Nathan Jurgenson.

He advocated that there are two stages to ‘dualism’ and two stages to ‘augmented reality.’

Strong Digital Dualism – The digital and the physical are different worlds, have different properties, and do not interact.

Mild Digital Dualism – The digital and physical are different worlds, have different properties, and do interact.

Mild Augmented Reality – The digital and physical are part of one reality, have different properties, and interact.

Strong Augmented Reality – The digital and physical are part of one reality and have the same properties.

Presently, we see people living across all four experiences. That will change as the decades pass and a condensing into the middle will ensue.

Personally, I think the binary distinctions between real and virtual are not only misleading but dangerous. Just because you live predominately in one world does not detract from the other.

Although being online presents fabulous intellectual, awareness enhancing eco systems of news, knowledge and information that those offline, simply do not have. 

People will pay and spend time around things they value and we all value different things in each world. The movement between for many people is frictionless. One size does not fit all. What my parents valued, in many ways, I do not.

We care about different things because our value systems are shifting.

Our online existence takes on something of a life of its own though. We can be who we want there. It can increase our subjectivity beyond what’s available to us in the real world. Individuals can now present themselves on levels that brands have been enjoying since post second world war.

Yet cynics focus on the one person who is an idiot on Twitter, there are lots but we’re not all like that. We see a narcissist posting selfies, acting as if they were newsworthy items fit for Hello magazine and pessimists think everyone does that on Facebook. 

We see the terrible facts on how pedophiles have taken to the web. These are all true, don’t get me wrong I’m a great believer in not letting the web lead you into a false sense of celebrity.

However, like in the physical world, we need the digital world to build us up, not tear us down.

However, at the end of the day we are beginning to lean towards avoiding digital dualism. I’d like to suggest that its all reality but with a structure that’s kind of different.

Digital dualism is not real. I think its the same person who acts differently in different contexts. That’s nothing new I, for one, adjust my behavior in the company of my Mother and Grandmother to when I’m out with my friends.

It seems that by living in a digital world that somehow we are sacrificing something in the real world. Perhaps we are? But that brings us to the notion of ‘self’ something the western world has always struggled with.

Anyone who ignores our physical body/environment, the social character and ones own online social capital, is possibly quite impotent. We will need to become more adept at managing our identity. Increasingly it is a single self that has experiences in both worlds intertwined, interchangeably. We have always had different aspects of the same self.

“However, at the end of the day we are beginning to lean towards avoiding digital dualism.”

Here are some thoughts:

1. Most activity online is literally an extension of what we have created in the physical world. Whether business or personal, these are pre existing relationships, not new friends or business connections, mainly anyway. When we take our offline identity and transfer it to an online made up of our offline connections, we are probably not going to radically diverge from that offline identity.

2. I wonder why there’s so much judgement, material, and emotional investment in maintaining division. Its perhaps fear, the change it brings, the shift in power and control. The digital world is breaking down ways of doing things that had been set in the past. Its collapsing structure that previously had total control. Its the “if you want to keep the system going, we need to vote for their parties, consume their products and work in their corporations” argument. Digital dualism wants things to stay as they were.

3. Abundance and scarcity are changing. Being in each others physical company or wandering off into the hills to escape and be at one with nature will become more cherished and experienced deeper. If anything, the physical world will have more value in the future as it will be more scarce and, brands note, we’ll pay more for that too.

4. Digital and the physical have different properties but they interact. Both have strengths and both have weaknesses.

5. There is something tiresome about the self-righteousness of those who see, and promote, their devotion to the offline as a sign of their superiority. And you get the same from people who spend an enormous amount of time in the digital world. Neither are right and neither are wrong. Digital is still young, it will make mistakes it won’t be great straight away but then neither was the first heart transplant, the first chemotherapy treatment, the first widget that rolled off the mass production line, nor the first car or the first mud hut we used as an abode. Men’s football in 1905 was decidedly less skillful than it is now, (although they didn’t roll around after a light tap on the ankle.)

6. The breaking down of hierarchy and privilege that education started. Traditional connections worked for the few but now the online world has made it available to billions. This will have far reaching effects in democratization and health.

We are not suddenly going to stop going for dinner with friends, not get our haircut, nor refrain from taking boat trips and holidays. Indeed, we are not going to stop having physical sex with each other (well hopefully not in our lifetime.) The web is an extension of our daily lives. The digital world is real and it has a relationship with the physical world we live in too. You can’t ignore the fact that people have flocked to it. There is obviously a need, it is feeding a want and it is realising human desire.

Yet it is not utopian (no world is.) Online is creating some problems – young men and pornography. Google is apparently making us thick and Norbert Wiener’s concept of “cybernetics” and the problem of distinguishing man and machine. These are realities and states we will need to work through. However, it is enabling us to find solutions to some of the long term problems society has had.

I wake up every morning with a conflict and a battle in my head about the web. Frankly there are far more worthy arguments and debates to be had. The threat to the freedoms the web has created that mass surveillance brings. Could we be sleep walking into a totalitarian society? How to reduce bullying, child and domestic abuse. The demise of dictators.

To deny the separateness is as wrong as to deny the togetherness. We increasingly operate in both worlds. For some there will exist two states of being. For others we will smoothly move between the two. Online and offline; sometimes different but always equal.

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