The Atomic and The Digital World

Breaking the barrier

Unlike my own thoughts a few years ago — when I postulated that augmentists, being the vast majority, would ultimately shape the virtual world — I’m now much less reluctant to accept my own words on that. I forgot to take into account how technology — disruptive technology — really does change a society. But unlike Soph, who prefers to separate both sides of the barrier, I claim that this barrier is “wishful thinking”: it does not really exist, it’s just a convenient way of labelling things and put them into different boxes. But these “boxes” aren’t really there. The next generation — living in the 2030s — will find articles like this one, or Soph’s own, completely irrelevant, nonsensical, and even childish. They will have the same attitude as someone laughing at a Star Trek movie, pointing out how ridiculous their communication tools are (“we’ll never have something like that!”) or how impossible the “magic wand” used by Star Trek doctors to scan a patient is (“medical science will never be able to do remote sensing of humans!”). Then someone will just show them their video-enabled mobile phone or explain how they were scanned by a gynaecologist and their ecography “wand” that certainly allows “remote” viewing of a patient’s body. And suddenly people will be silent as they realise that what was science-fiction in the 1970s is actually done much better (and cheaper) with the tools and devices we’ve got in 2008.

Technology’s way of shaping society — even with disruptive technology — works very strangely. I’ve been recently reading Agatha Christie‘s autobiography, which is written in the late 1950s about the late Victorian and the Edwardian eras, from the point of view of a very open mind who has a very critical (but open minded) way of analysing those eras. She describes how people resisted trams that became public transportation “everywhere”; and how the “automobile” was seen as a fashion statement, a fad, something for the rich to enjoy, but expected to disappear quickly as the fad died out; or how airplanes were something akin to a circus event — very cool to watch and dream about, but never thought to become a means of transportation (or as a war weapon!). In a few years, however, it became clear that these new technologies would slowly replace existing ones (public mass transportation, the personal car, or the airplane were certainly all very disruptive technologies). In a decade or two, they simply changed the way societies work everywhere. It was faster than even the optimists thought it could happen, but slower to gain universal acceptance — from the point of view of those embracing these technologies! — than they dreamed it would be. In 1911, only the very bold (says Christie) would dare to pay a few pounds to jump on an airplane and get a thrilling ride — akin to what we would do today to, say, go on a sub-orbital flight — but nobody would seriously believe that in the 1930s airplanes would replace ships as the major way for passengers to travel across different continents — and in the 1950s it became affordable and universal even to the lower-middle classes (today, between some cities at least, going by plane, even after 9/11, is as cheap or sometimes cheaper than taking a train or a bus…).

So when we take a stopwatch and freeze a moment in time, and look at what kind of technologies we have (specially the potentially disruptive ones!…) we might have mixed feelings about them. On one hand, early adopters will dream about a world that has fully absorbed and integrated one of those technologies — and they will promote them to the utmost, but will see little acceptance. On the other hand, we can push the time freeze a decade before — where the technology was immature and just used in a research lab or as a “fad” for the privileged few — and see how little hope there was to have it universally accepted. Switch the slider to a decade in the future, and universal acceptance might not be there, but the potential for it becomes real. Put it two decades in the future, and it becomes ubiquitous and widespread, a novelty that gets used by everybody (like, say, iPods today; or the Sony Walkman in the late 1980s). Add another two or three decades, and you can’t even notice the technology is there, people simple regard it as making part of their environment, surroundings, and society (like computers or mobile phones today). The transition is, however, smooth and quite impossible to perceive if you just advance the slider a second (or a day; or a year) at a time.

When I set up my own first blog in 1993 (which wasn’t called a “blog” those days; we just called it a “homepage”) I thought that only a very small group of people ever would do the same, and we felt some “bonding” with the few others (nevertheless, we were talking about dozens of thousands of people, possibly more) that did the same — and thought the same way about “homepages”. We discussed, in a very closely-knit group, what issues related to these: how people would abuse links to external pictures in order to sidestep their own server’s bandwidth restrictions, or how certain HTML tags were pointless and should be banished. In 1995, it was clear that major companies and organisations would very likely have their homepages, too, but we expected it to be as little widespread as, say, having mainframes in your organisation. By 1997 it became apparent that almost every company in the world would have their own website. In 2008, it’s 6-year-old-kids that publish their blogs, often encouraged by their own teachers at grammar school, or their parents at home, who barely know what’s inside their computers, but certainly have email addresses, chat nicknames, and blogs of their own. In 2020 they’ll probably all have avatars (who knows, on their iPhones…), and will think these are as part of their lives as is owning a fridge, a car, a TV, or a computer. The issues we discuss today on how to blend the digital world with the atomic one will be pretty alien to our future selves in 2020. The digital and atomic world will already have merged and blended together. In 2008, we can still afford to say things like “what happens in SL, stays in SL”, but this will sound very strange in 2028 when you log in to a virtual world by activating your neuronal implants to make a “call” to your 70-year-old-grandmother while walking on the street or travelling in the subway — she’ll be using her lovely dragon avatar, and you’d be using a shiny metal robot, but you know very well who your grandmother is, and she’ll chat about trivia and do small talk about issues both digital and atomic (“oh, I loved to attend that poet’s reading on the InterGrid yesterday, and by the way, when you come to visit me, please bring some more flour and I’ll bake you an old-fashioned cake”). They won’t be writing essays on “immersionism vs. augmentism”, because they all will be both, and that issue, for them, will be pretty much irrelevant.

So I think we should enjoy this artificial barrier while we can. I believe I broke it in 2006 when it was clear that doing business in SL would require me to pay taxes and explain to accountants what kind of work my company was doing. Perhaps a bit surprising to me, they simply nodded patiently and looked at it as “another business model” — as “crazy” as any other. I understood that what was “madness” (or perhaps “eccentricity”) about the whole concept was just my way of thinking that “things in SL should stay in SL”. By puncturing the barrier I saw how thin it was, and a few years later, I believe that the barrier only exists… well, if you believe it does. But it’s simply not there; it’s inside ourselves, if we wish to raise it and force ourselves (and our friends and acquaintances) to respect it.


After all, Linden Lab’s mission statement might prove to have a lot of forethought placed into it. They’ve abandoned the “virtual country” statement about Second Life, and just wish to see their technology to be employed to “improve human condition”. As the use of virtual worlds increase, new issues have to be dealt with that previously were unheard of or unthinkable. The rights of an individual to be represented by an avatar will have, at some point, to be incorporated in every country’s legal system under the same provisions that made an email a document as valid as a paper-and-ink one. Immersionist activists will be at the forefront of the defenders of these new rights, and rightfully claim attention to the new issues that will need to be addressed as our current societies, still unsuspecting, are getting transformed and changed by the use of virtual worlds. The digital world will naturally be the best and most far-reaching environment to promote and debate those issues; answers will very likely come from users of this technology (and not from the outside), as these are the ones better prepared to formulate the questions, and very likely the ones more prone to provide guidance to find some answers. However, like any other disruptive technology used in the past, the “rest of the atomic world” will naturally start to use the digital world to address their issues as well. Very likely, in 1911, “Aviators Clubs” would discuss, among themselves, the impact that affordable flying would bring to their societies, but nobody outside those restricted clubs would take them seriously, and they didn’t expect to be understood by the “outsiders”; nowadays, human rights activists will take an airplane to travel to their workshops and seminars — and so will (most) of their audiences.

Immersionists are certainly better prepared to deal with the issues arising from a widespread use of virtual worlds — since they can clearly see that there are new issues, and they correctly identify them as being important — unlike augmentationists, who feel the discussion to be irrelevant. As the barrier between both fades away, however, both will live in an expanded society that encompasses both the digital and the atomic world — and both will be changed (utterly, and, dramatically so) by the impact of the digital world in our daily lives. I don’t think there is no way back, and there is also no way to disregard the issues arising in the digital world: they will be addressed and incorporated as part of our species’ technological and civilisational achievements.

So, yes, I guess I’m a post-immersionist now 🙂 and I should write a manifesto on post-immersionism one of these days…

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