Digitalization and the virtual world in our new age
1 August 2022
Internet usage has grown exponentially, and its growth affects human culture and society. The proliferation of computers, which have become an accessible household product, have made computers a mean of communication between people who were physically distant and previously totally disconnected. Due to this mass communication, the internet contains a vast amount of data shared by everyone, thus allowing anyone, regardless of their location, to consume information and communicate with distant people at any given time. The web has become a realm shared by millions of people. In it is embedded social interaction between people.
Humanity has reached the stage where it can stay in touch with the entire world via electronic means in various areas: updates on global events, shopping, research, studying, communication with your family, friends, and colleagues, meeting new people, playing games, and controlling robots. None of this requires leaving the house. These activities do not involve our bodies, and it is our intellect that is present.
Nowadays, following the massive digitalization the Coronavirus has caused, we can examine how this connection to the world through technology affects our perception of reality, the concepts we apply, and our culture. Can everything really exist purely digitally?
Most of our experiences are mediated via external means such as writing with a pen, talking on the phone, typing, riding a bike, driving a car, activating a robotic arm remotely activated, etc. We are in motion via the vehicle. But are we really in motion? On the one hand, I am not moving since I am sitting in my driver's seat. On the other hand, I am indeed in motion since the mediating vehicle is performing said motion/drive. It seems that what generates a sense of reality is our presence and the risk it entails. If so, the absence of risk due to being enclosed in a moving vehicle generates a vague sense of unreality. But what about the robotic arm with which the surgeon conducts surgery? The surgeon isn't present in the operating room. They are located elsewhere, in a room with computers, screens, and electronic equipment that allow the surgeon to control the robotic arm. Do they sense a vague sense of unreality, as in many similar cases? Direct contact is mediated through technological means mediating the experience. However, the risk is still eminent as any mistake the surgeon might make in controlling the robotic arm can potentially harm the patient. The patient's life depends on the surgeon. Therefore, the physical experience provides us with a sense of context that does not exist in the virtual world.
Each of us is an active body that faces experiences, and each of us also experiences a readiness to cope with a specific event. The constant readiness provides us with a sense of direct presence with things. Therefore, the context is what mediates the constant readiness and enables us to get a grasp of reality. Technology develops sophisticated systems with high-resolution pictures, a wide field of view, a comprehensive hearing range, and feedback channels.
Popular belief is that the more developed and interactive these systems become, the stronger our sense of real presence regarding distant people and objects will be. That said, even multi-channel access isn't always necessarily efficient. When two entities interact face to face, successful communication depends on a delicate combination of several body language elements (eye movement, head movement, gestures, and body position). These all contribute to a richer interaction. The sense of interaction is essential to day-to-day life in human encounters and cannot be attained through 3D pictures, stereo sound, remote robotic control, etc.
Face-to-face communication is richer since it includes something else, such as intuitions, senses, feelings, cultural backgrounds, etc. These abstract concepts are unquantifiable and intangible. However, when communicating with distant loved ones, it is this technology that allows a certain sense of presence and closeness, despite not allowing direct contact. Human interaction is essential in contexts other than communication. It enables us to become acquainted with our surroundings and react and respond to them. Therefore, it cannot be converted using digital means. For example, remote learning allows us to catch up on what we've missed when learning a skill. A recorded lecture, for example, does not include any presence. And a lack of presence means a lack of risk vital for the learning process. Where there is no interaction, there is no risk. Remote Learning also lacks the speaker's ability to control their body movements to perceive the world better, limited by the camera's frame. It also lacks the sense of context, which provides people with a sense of what they are experiencing, in which our bodies allow us to enter the mood. Since there's no physical classroom, there is no presence or mood.
The difference between learning remotely and learning in a classroom is not unlike that between watching a movie and a play at the theatre. A play allows the audience member to select who and what they wish to focus on, while a film solely features the director's point of view. This difference is what allows the theatre audience to actively participate in the experience, which contributes to their sense of presence. In terms of learning, the more technology enables flexible, low-cost learning solutions, the less effective the learning becomes, as it makes the teacher/lecturer and students less accessible and present to one another. We can concur that physical presence includes a constant enrichment between those present and the meaning of their situation.
This type of feedback occurs between the acting individual and their perceptual world and exists only in the case of physical presence and use of body gestures, which in this case was the control of focus. Virtual presence, therefore, cannot replicate the sense of presence these attain. Learning correctly can only occur when one is present in a situation recurrently, whether at work or in practice. You cannot remotely learn how to play soccer, box, drive a car, or ride a bicycle. These practical skills can be acquired only by being present in the situation and directly affected by it so that I can analyze/ assess this specific event and my experience of it.
However, this might not be true regarding other practical skills that can be attained remotely. Learning doesn't require our presence or present an actual threat yet allows us to come in direct contact with reality. Skills that need practice and do not depend on our physical presence in the classroom or the mood of a situation. One who decides to take up painting must do two things. One is to get the required equipment; the other is to find virtual classes on painting. While the learning is mediated, it does enable practical learning skills since all it takes is practice and persistence. Another example involves cooking, which also includes two simple steps. One is to make sure to buy ingredients and the required equipment. The second is to find virtual cooking classes that teach cooking techniques and teach how to follow recipes step-by-step. On the one hand, people and things' perception of reality and our ability to interact with them all depend on our bodies, still active in the background, and their ability to grasp matters that provide us with a sense of reality.
This is also what allows us to experience our sense of power and vulnerability in the physical world's dangerous reality. We cannot, therefore, reduce the human experience by using prosthetic limbs equipped with sensors to enable "touch." Our physical bodies are a circumstantial product of constant interaction with the setting and mood of each situation. Remote learning removes the risk of learning and does not enable risk-taking or training, which play a crucial role in any skill acquisition process. Electronic presence can assist in attaining only intellectual skills and abilities. The practical command of craft, however, requires an intuitive understanding of real situations which involve real risk. A lack of physical presence means a loss of our sense of physical reality, which, in turn, harms our social and communication skills.
On the other hand, the higher the demand for data consumption and communication has led to the development of more interactive channels which enable people to communicate without physically being present while retaining a sense of reality. Furthermore, due to mass media, our entire planet has become a global village, which enables cooperation and commitment locally and globally. The internet allows us to create communities that share objectives and concerns and to create new relationships with new people, close or distant, based on shared interests. The internet allows more people to acquire knowledge and even certain skills they would not have been able to obtain otherwise.
Disembodied Telepresence and the remoteness of the Real, Dreyfus, Hubert, On the Internet (London: Routledge, 2001), 50-72.