A Whole New World: A Defense of Real Life

This story originally ran in HOW on October 9, 2015.

Recently, I linked my Messages app on my computer to my iPhone. I don’t know why I hadn’t done it before, but I noticed that I closed some sort of loop: the location of my phone suddenly had no effect on my ability to receive a notification. At my desk, I’d see it. On a walk, I’d hear it. At the movies, I’d feel it.

My name is David Schwartz — I’m a designer at argodesign and, by all appearances, a cyborg.

I’m kidding, of course, but it stems from something true. After all, our physical and virtual bodies are becoming increasingly interconnected. With the advent of wearables like the Apple Watch, FitBit, and a client of ours, Sano, the idea of augmenting our sensory and biological functions with motion sensors, haptics, and data visualization is becoming normalized. Today, Google’s self-stabilizing Liftware allows those with Parkinson’s to eat with ease, Senseg’s touchscreens breathe textural life into digital interfaces, and the Centre for Image Analysis’ Snap-to-fit pairs haptic assistance with surgery, like the board game Operation.

That’s well and good in terms of our bodies, but what does it do to our conscious selves? All this integrated technology is bifurcating our human psyche into physical and digital realms, exemplified by three letters commonplace to your average BuzzFeed article: IRL. In Real Life. Thanks to tech, we now have the ability to live in Real Life, and, inversely, Not Real Life. But is one more important than the other? And what even is reality if you can choose your own?

It’s already been established that technology is, in fact, causing our brains to change. Neuroscientist Ian Robertson has found that young people are less capable of recalling personal details because they can displace them to their smartphones. Obsessive digital photography ends up impairing our ability to remember our experiences, finds a study from Fairfield University. We now rely on the Internet as a sort of external hard-drive, referencing instead of reminiscing. And surely as we change, we change who we are.

Us. Ourselves. Found here, IRL, but then also on the Internet. Think back to chat rooms, to screen name monikers like Sk8boardr4lyF behind which we could pretend to be other people online. From there, these virtual identities grew into avatars, housed in World of Warcraft and Second Life — realms only explored by our caricatured, screen-bound personas.

This enabled a new power: to be multiple versions of ourselves, online. To span a diversity of characters and their worlds — this became the cornerstone of our collective online behavior. Instead of quality connections, our virtual social framework became based on quantity, perhaps simply because of our digitally augmented capacity to be more, paving the way for an obsessive infrastructure of followers, likes, reposts. Now, we are virtually measured by how frequently our identity can be copied or shared. Or, how viral we are.

As our digital footprints continue to deepen, they resemble our physical ones less and less. Online daters may try to lie, adding inches to their height or subtracting them from their waistlines, but are still surprised when, at dimly lit bars, sparks of love fizzle out. Drivers of on-demand car services may boast five-star ratings, but it only takes one insidious late-night ride to become an anomaly of driver-passenger harassment. In short, our virtual multiplicity clashes with a physical world where every human is unique.

Now, we’ve always juggled multiple identities — just read a Shakespeare play — yet it appears as if we’ve approached a new level of societal schizophrenia. The increasing complexity of our increasingly overlapping worlds makes it that much more difficult to figure out whom to be and when to be. The way we’re looking at it, we exist too much, too often, and soon enough, we could not exist at all.

And so we have to change our perspective.

It makes sense to be scared of online selfhood. After all, it would be deadening to be shared and downloaded so many times by so many people, but not actually be understood. To be liked and followed, but also smeared and flattened on a whim, like a victim of revenge porn. That is no way to live.

But the fact of the matter is that everything with intention is Reality. The error we have made is to think that the physical and non-physical worlds are different, that our online selves don’t exist in the same way simply because they are digital. It was only as we approached the industrial revolution did the word nature become a differentiator for something non-manmade. In the same way, reality has become a misnomer for physical experience.

Think of our cerebral pastimes, our favorite books, bands, and artists that color our outlooks and shape our characters. Similarly, our new digital selves are extrapolations of those tastes and interests, quirks, and curiosities. The characters we’ve been accidentally typing, shaping, crafting since the dawn of Internet are neither masks nor friends; they are more like moods.

The only way to scale our understanding of who we are is to accept that we have built a virtual world that can be just as real as our own. These realms may not coexist synchronously because of their different rules, but they will both exist fully.

And so what this means for the everyman is the need to reconsider what it means to be whole. Perhaps it’s similar to Ātman, the Hindu concept that we each have a soul that proves to be both individual and collective at the same time. Since the dawn of man, we’ve had the opportunity to know thyself, but now we can delve even deeper. Our selves are neither chain-link nor mirrors; instead, we have allowed ourselves to be Matryoshka dolls, adding layers of self-expression as we evolve, each unique and compositional at the same time. Each little extra bit of us is another part of a greater story, a greater message we can’t ever fully read or see at any one time.

It all sounds a bit scary. When we die, we leave three things: a physical body, remnants of an online presence, and mental perceptions in others. But there will always be only one thing that we take away with us, entirely, forever, and that’s the real thing. Our wholeness. Ourselves. Whom we now get to know that much more.

Sorry — I need to go check this Snapchat.

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