For good or for bad, the Internet and the Web has disrupted us, and radically changed society. With technology in the driver seat, our human needs aren’t properly addressed, and this is harming us. Most people do not realize how our online presence isn’t something separate anymore, but has become an integral part of who we are. How can we improve the Web we have? Maybe if we imagined the online realm to be a seamless extension to the real world all around, are we able to design better ways to navigate and make us thrive.
Via @m3me I was pointed to the work of Alja Isaković and the excellent ResponsibleTech.Work website she launched together with her partner Daniel Hartley. Reading about her early-career experience with Virtual Worlds triggered the idea for this thought-experiment. I don’t know its usefulness, but as an exercise it may be interesting nonetheless.
Summary: The Internet is the holy grail to which people must adapt. In daily life technology disrupts, rather than supports us.
Especially for those old enough to remember life before the Internet, the impact that this invention and the rise of the Web has had on humanity is astounding. With its pervasiveness the Internet has encrouched into all aspects of everyday life in a very short period of time, and radically changed our habits, social behaviours and daily practices.
Though a lot of the change this has brought is positive, there are also a huge amount of aspects that have been harmful to us. In public discourse we continuously debate the balance sheet of good and bad influences the Web has wrought, and try to steer for more good outcomes as we tap into more of the potential that future web technology may bring.
One thing is clear: In all of this the technology is firmly in the driving seat. That our tech use grows so rapidly is in large part due the continuous disruptions that Big Tech and startup culture are after here. The quest to replace the “well-known Old” with rushed introductions of the “unknown New” and without giving much thought of the consequences. Because rapid change is where the money is, and fame plus fortune can be found. Hypercapitalistic greed is the main driver for technology ‘innovation’.
In all of this ongoing onslaught common people struggle to keep pace, as they are forcibly obliged to adapt to disruptive changes that are thrown into their lives. The people who can’t deal with this, like many of the elderly, become more and more isolated and excluded from society. And nowadays countless other major harms become apparent too. For instance how ruthless, monopolistic social media giants pose a threat to entire democracies by the toxic platforms they provide.
We can truly say that in this mad dash of “Digital transformation” - the current hype - we introduce tech for the sake of tech. People and their human needs come much later into the equation. We have to shut up and keep up. Just trod along. One, Two… dystopia is coming for you. Three, Four… better open your door. Five, Six… it’s too late to fix.
Summary: Realizing that our online presence has become true part of who we are, makes us more resilient in the face of change.
When we think of the Internet and how it fits into our lives - especially the Web - we mostly do not have a holistic perspective of it. We rather perceive it as a huge and haphazard collection of individual websites, platforms and applications. A fragmented landscape, that while sometimes linked and navigable, is mostly discovered through ‘Googling’ for the places we’d like to go to. And after finding something of interest, then we interact. We post comments, add our likes, generate new content and casually leave our personal data behind. All without much thinking about it.
Our tech disrupters just love that kind of behavior as it feeds their surveillance capitalist systems with all the data they are craving for. Allowing them to dominate and disrupt some more. Our mindless habits work to speed up the vicious cycle of disruption and further transformation of our way of life in unwanted directions.
Engaged in so much online interaction, and with the Internet now so deeply nestled into our society, it is essential for people to become aware of the full impact this has on their own life. We must not let new harms just overcome us, so we can only retro-actively try to repair them. We must find out how we can be fully in control again ourselves, and place key human interests at the forefront again.
Useful for this insight to take hold in the collective mind, is to realize that the Internet and the Web are not just some handy services and tools anymore, that our fancy gadgets allow us to mindlessly consume. Instead our presence in the online realm has become an intricate part of who we truly are. The internet has become inseparably entwined in daily life and a part of what constitutes you as a person walks this digital space. In other words we should be fully aware how, who we are online, affects us in the real world. And vice versa.
This awareness may allow us to better align the actual and the virtual self and tread more easily between real and online worlds.
Summary: By depicting the current Web as a virtual world, we might imagine and design better ways to play our game of life on it.
Similar to how we should consider our online presence to be an intricate part of us, we can go one step further and investigate how the online world of the Web relates to the actual one we live in. Let’s place the virtual side-by-side to real life and consider their relationship. We must do this rather urgently. Especially now that the disrupters of our world are almost ready to throw the next new ‘revolutionary breakthrough’ at our feet: The Metaverse is about to open up its doors and swallow us, as we stumble along our virtual path.
So before we get disrupted again, we need to answer this question: How can we best fit the current Web into our daily life?
Now comes the actual thought-experiment. If we recognize our human being to encompass our online self, why don’t we consider the online world a true extension of the real world? Let’s picture it as a 3D virtual world that we have to navigate. And if life itself is but a game, then life online is nothing different too: a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, that extends the MMORPG of reality.
Internet technologists and web designers are now game developers, and one of their tasks is to make crossing the boundary between real and virtual world as seamless as possible. Isn’t that interesting? How would the current Web look like if rendered in 3D? Well, it would be most messy and ugly with hardly any consistency in graphics, unclear navigation paths, confusing quests and narratives, all haphazardly tied together. All in all… a shitty game to play.
But let’s forget that for now and consider that this was fixed, with smooth gameplay to be had. What would be the storyline and plot, the theme, the setting and the atmosphere? I personally imagine it would be a cyberpunk world, oppressive, dark and gloomy. A sort of a Matrix storyline, where the red pill of tech harm awareness wakes one up to a different perception than the rosy one we had before. Where dark towers of Big Tech loom large and ever-present. Google, the Tower of Knowledge Echoes, and Facebook, the Tower of Truth Perception and Speech. And Amazon, the Tower of Boundless Needs, Apple, the Blissful Prison. In each of them reside the Nameless Masters, that we must serve.
Well, anyway… I have a vivid imagination, but that is not yet how our game looks like, and neither should it become like that. But just note that the trend is going in that direction.
More down to earth and practical is how this thought experiment can serve to analyse how new technology can be truly supportive to daily tasks and how real-life tasks and virtual activity can seamlessly meld together. So that we might hop in and out of our virtual spaces frictionlessly and in ways that are enriching to our life. We must imagine a delightful game in a beautiful online world, and set forth to design it accordingly.
Summary: Let’s give the Web a better game design and storyline. A delightful play to bring along to the Metaverse if it falls upon us.
Finally some brief notes on the Metaverse, as this new thing may become an actual manifestion of the thought-experiment above. Will it become a dystopia? Will it eventually take the shape of the hyper-reality that Keiichi Matsuda has depicted for us?
Apple and Facebook and undoubtedly many other tech businesses are intent to rush us towards applications of Virtual and Augmented Reality. Maybe this AR/VR space will be called the Metaverse, as Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook now affectionally call this pet project they dreamed up. Mark, most probably with fingers crossed behind his back, has said something like “this new medium is open and free for everyone”, while secretly salivating how he will come to dominate the space. The Dark Towers will fight fiercely for that, no doubt. And we’ll pay the price.
The Metaverse. Gameplay disruption pack? A place where AI’s roams freely, to process countless camera feeds from Ray-Ban glasses and other headwear devices we have to wear. They will analyse our every move and further infringe our eroded privacy. All with the main objective the same as it always is: to maximise the bottom line for small groups of shareholders and investors. Usually with complete disregard of hidden cost and externalities to human scale and society as a whole.
So, full-stack game designers of the Web, technologists all around. It is up to us to design a delicious game to play. Let’s consult and collaborate with all the people who are the players, and let’s get something worthy of humanity off the ground!
(Photo by Sound On from Pexels)