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We Are Already Living in a Virtual World of Our Own Making

at 10:00 am

The stark contrast between technology and nature in this image makes clear the absurdity in reading the latest tech-gadget magazine on your tablet while standing amidst real, natural beauty. Whether our dreams for such a device (whether from Apple or the like) come true this year, we already do this, don't we? We already "augment" our experience of everyday life with our constant online activities, which, once called "virtual," are now quite actual.

In a recent post covering all kinds of techno-zeitgeisty ideas, Eleanor Davies, blogging from Frog Design, put this idea quite well:

"The sheer amount of online presence and updates contradicts the very content we spend our online time creating—confirmations via the virtual world that we are busy living in the real."

There's almost no separation today between us and the technology we use, so much so that though it has yet to embed itself directly into our bodies, we have truly crossed the threshhold from humanity to technologically augmented humanity, from people to cyborgs. It may seem extreme to say it that way, but consider a few questions before you decide: Are the majority of your daily conversations with family and friends conducted in person, over the phone, or through text via phone, email, or a social network? When walking, riding public transportation, shopping, at the gym, or elsewhere in public, do you tend to have earbuds in your ears? Do you spend the majority of waking life with an electronic device (mouse, phone, iPod) in your hand?

You may be thinking that this is the same old technology-is-ruining-society canard dressed up for 2010. I don't think it is; first, because I'm not anti-technology, but second, because I think there is a profound difference between the technology of today and the technology of the past decades. You never saw anyone walking around in public carrying a television around, obstructing his view. But today, it's commonplace to see people walking down the street while gazing at their phone/iPod/kindle/whatever. Prior to the invention any of the communication technologies commonly derided for eroding society, people spent most of their days wielding tools (also, technically technology) like pens, shovels, hammers, etc. It's not simply that we spend the majority of our waking life with technology in our hands- it's the kind of technology. The tools of yesterday were quite interchangeable. A pen, merely a vessel to hold and deliver ink, could be swapped with little to no recognition. Today, though, your phone is hardly interchangeable. Aside from it's connection to your personal account with your wireless provider, you've customized your phone to hold your contacts, display the colors and themes you've chosen, and ring with the ringtone you selected. That's why these devices are so easy to lose ourselves in- we've configured them to be little virtual worlds of our very own.

We don't need augmented reality- we already have it. We already have a layer of technology through which we see the world.

So what do we do about this? I'm honestly not sure. I expect that a forthcoming tablet device will be quite attractive to me for a number of reasons. I may even own one some day. After all, it's not the technology itself which consumes us. It's that we allow ourselves to be consumed by the technology. Even if we have these devices within arms reach, can't we still choose to turn them off and experience the real world?


Chris Butler | February 8, 2010 9:33 PM
Alex, so true, although I think there have been a few sci-fi shows and films that have gotten the corporate-decadence-dystopia concept though. What about WALL-E, for instance, or even Back to the Future 2? I know there have got to be some other good examples.
Alex | January 21, 2010 9:02 PM
I hopped back over here after reading your post on 'Trek and tablets because that's one thing that the sci-fi shows just haven't ever done right- that all that fancy tech would have logos all over it.
Chris Butler | January 15, 2010 4:42 PM
@Alex, I hear you. The first human/computer hybrid will definitely have a fancy logo on it somewhere.

@Maggie B, Yes, I agree. What's dawned on me is that the more access I have to information, the more likely I am to willingly dilute my own attention. So, yes, it is a matter of willingness to accept boundaries.
Maggie B | January 15, 2010 7:36 AM
Thought provoking post as usual. I'm as teched-up as @alex, or maybe should say as mac'ed up? I have a macbook, iphone, and an ipod, which are all within arms reach throughout most of my day. I will say that I don't use my ipod much. I commute by car, so I tend to just turn on the radio during that time, but the point still stands. I don't have much time (other than sleeping) where I'm not filling it up with information. So I agree that the point is choice. The gadgets aren't going to stop coming, but we've got to start deciding how much we want our existence to be through them.
Alex | January 14, 2010 8:12 AM
I like your turn on the term augmented reality to "augmented humanity." As for the questions, I'd say more conversations through texting with my phone/email/social networks, definitely use my iphone on the subway every day, and yes, most of my day, I'm either palming a mouse, touching my Macbook trackpad, or holding my iphone. What's scarier to me than the idea of being a cyborg is being a branded cyborg.

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