In Part 1 of this short series exploring the limits of communication, Sean Fleming explored how our smartest technology copes with delivering all the nuances of human communication. (SPOILER: it's not very good at it.)
Now, in Part 2, he explores how these limitations cut both ways: how do the fleshy meat-bags that are our human bodies cope when we use Virtual Reality technology to communicate with others in ways that have never been experienced in all of human history? What happens when we are not even seeing our own life through our own eyes any more?
Immersive communication means that you feel like you're really there. And that's where it gets tricky.
He’ll experience life “through the eyes” of a series of other human beings who – via some advanced Google Glass-like equipment – will stream everything they see, hear and do into Mark’s eyes and ears.
For a month.
The project website is here if you’re intrigued (and, frankly, you bloody should be.)
When you communicate in an immersive virtual environment, what does the “self” even mean?
Of the many intriguing parts of Mark’s scheme, one stands out. When VICE spoke to behavioural psychologists about his plan, they expressed concern for Mark’s wellbeing:
“...his behaviors—the way these thoughts manifest—are bound to be affected, and Mark will be forever changed by this, the same way we're all changed by our experiences.”
So it’s entirely possible that a future where simple, but continual, interfacing with other people through VR will change who we are and how act. It's just about recognisable as communication, but a lot more involved.
Mark’s is an extreme example, granted, yet it’s still highly instructive: when you communicate in an immersive virtual environment, what does the “self” even mean?
Despite the excitement and hype around VR/AR, digital communication will never push real-world interaction into total obsolescence.
As artist Mark points out: as we’ve grown up with technology, we’ve assumed that technology has grown up too. Maybe it simply isn’t able to.
Neither the telephone, nor fax, nor email could slake our thirst for in-person communication. In the early 90s, dot-com-fever-pitch tech “mavens” passionately predicted that cities would become spooky ghost-versions of their former selves, as the internet did away with cafés and offices.
And now, just look: with their tech dream in full bloom, we ironically occupy these once-social spaces with our laptops; to sip herbal teas as slowly as possible whilst we steal WiFi and connect with others, elsewhere.
So, we’re still physically hankering for real human connection, even if it’s just for someone to bring us a quinoa brownie while we post gifs on WhatsApp. We haven’t even fully adjusted to the limitations of our current communication channels yet.
But the line is going to keep getting blurrier, and in the meantime, we need to tell the difference between the extremes, as well as how to deal with the human bit in the middle.
We’re going to need old-fashioned, flesh-and-blood judgement.
Onward into an uncertain future of virtual chatter we go, then.
As end-users, we are the market, and have a say in what sort of experience we have when digital and synthetic communications combine seamlessly with what we now call “reality”.
At this point I’m reminded of David Foster Wallace’s unforgettable account of the rise and fall of the videophone in his masterpiece, Infinite Jest.
“Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers now found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener's expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those callers who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking extra rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.”
But that's fiction. It’s not like we’re obsessively concerned with exquisitely curating our digital selves, right? Between Instagram filters and wearing extra makeup, we clearly want to our representations, virtual or otherwise, to be flattering. To be... not us.
As digital citizens, we do not want to replicate our offline lives online.
We already have offline lives. Millions of years of evolution has made us fucking great at real interactions. And so this is where Augmented Reality offers a third, new, way.
Forget VR and AR headsets and powerful laptops – it’s here now. The appeal of Snapchat is not in replicating existing interaction, but the layers of unreality you can stick onto your – let’s be honest – boring selfie.
The appeal of AR is additive: it’s there in all of the wacky shit we can pin onto our lives. Gamify your morning commute. Record life stats. Stick puppy gifs onto boring buildings.
Welcome to Life Plus. Communicate wisely, friends.
As for me, my only digital life-augmentation thus far is a T-shirt with the Welsh flag on it that I purchased years ago for my now-retired Xbox Live avatar. Hey, I wonder what he’s up to nowadays? I should send him a DM.