For Document’s Spring/Summer 2023 issue, Oliver Brown dissects how physical reality defines social interaction, from escalators to web browsers and the metaverse
Fit, able-bodied people, unencumbered by luggage, stand on escalators. As I pass them, I wonder how such a simple technology split humanity into two distinct camps: mine, for whom the escalator quickens the climb (minimizing the duration) and theirs, for whom it is an invitation to stand still while the machine does the work (minimizing the distance). My fellow traveler is as alien to me as a horse. Are they meditating, resting, or optimizing their safety? Even simple technology invokes a bifurcation in its function—a cultural speciation event of sorts. Technologies tease out myriad uses. If such a straightforward one as the escalator severs humankind down the middle, the vanguard of high-tech digital innovation allows for the construction of endless forking paths.
As David Sloan Wilson so eloquently argued in his wide-reaching summary of multilevel evolutionary processes, This View of Life, new patterns of behavior can be placed in competition with each other and simultaneously form cooperating “organic” interdependencies. The result is a complex feedback process where innovation and adoption interact, guided by the logics of physical possibility, self-organization, and evolution, understood in its broadest sense. More pithy is D’Arcy Thompson’s maxim: “Everything is what it is because it got that way.”
With this in mind, Mark Zuckerberg’s all-in embrace of the metaverse always seemed like a peculiar display of top-down design. For some visionaries of the late-’90s and early-noughties, the web needed to embrace 3D, better mimicking the real world before it could mature as an interface. It needed to become more like our environment: familiarized, adapted to human ways of existing in the world. Aside from big-picture visions of cyberspace more closely resembling our physical world, there were more subtle ideas at play in this movement: Rather than creating immersive environments, people envisioned spaces that better-suited our specific cognitive orientations—particularly our highly spatial memories—so that we could intuitively understand them. Online shops were arranged as virtual rooms in which we could wander around, browsing. Echoing the technique of “memory palaces,” information would be arranged into intuitively navigable labyrinths. But otherwise, the urge to transform this new cyberspace into a 3D world seemed to back a vision that wasn’t actually needed.
By contrast, the big success stories of the early 21st-century web, Facebook included, seemed to prove that, in fact, 2D ruled: It was an optimal design—optimal for the 2D screens we viewed it on, and so much easier for designers and engineers to build, let alone for processors to render. Navigating virtual physical space was slow and laborious, and made contorted use of what was actually a 2D place, those flat arrays of pixels that formed windows into the digital realm, the most important structures of 21st-century life.
“I am a strange new traveler: a combination of sedentary and multiplicitous, always on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which I watch from my traveling panopticon.”
Lists, grids, menus, and sidebars proved to be as powerful spatial arrangements as rooms, corridors, and terrains, and thus the edifices of the web grew in clearly less-than-3D forms: the wall, the feed, the timeline, the stream. What could be more immersive than these linear flows of attention management? The first successful generative algorithms grew from the 2D world of the feed: Infinite scroll was born an entire era after the web (15 years, to be precise). Until then, we actively “surfed” hyperlinks—a doubly apt metaphor for movement in a 2D space with depth—now supplanted by the nihilistic framing of doom scrolling. (A more geometrical metaphor might be “falling” through content.)
These infinite structures are new realms made possible by computation. Far from being models of our physical world, they simply build upon humankind’s longer-standing virtual reality: the showers of ideas bundled in streams of linear language, issuing forth from poets, priests, philosophers, and gossiping neighbors—what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere in the 1920s, the second “skin” that grew around the world on top of biological life’s information-processing systems (also ably summarized by Wilson in This View of Life).
In this sense, the less-than-3D environments of our digital world have ably slotted into humans’ lived reality. Digital technologies have hyperconnected and accelerated the noosphere. They fill our field of view and occupy our attention. We inhabit social media sites fully, faces pressed up against screens; had Facebook already built the metaverse in 2006?
But with this digital world now permanently ready-to-hand, with the assemblage of cloud-smartphone technologies enabling a continuum of online experience through permanent access, and with the 2D websites of our present world creating attention immersion, we still sit outside, physically, peering in through screens. Whereas, before, I was at school, at home, at church, at a restaurant, at a football match—each wildly different consuming environments—now, I am simultaneously at all of these places and elsewhere. I am a strange new traveler: a combination of sedentary and multiplicitous, always on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, which I watch from my traveling panopticon. Standing in front of Big Ben or the Sydney Opera House or a beautiful tree, anywhere in the world can seem to have reduced intensity viewed through a lens, imagined in terms of how it will appear online.
One thing we might always value about the physical, then, is that it offers us respite from the dazzle of the panopticon by subjecting us to a solitary location in the world, in a way no virtual environment can do. This is, to state the obvious, “grounding.” No beaming from place to place Star Trek-style, having multiple places on the go like browser tabs. Waking reality is not hot-swappable.
The internet tells a number of success stories of powerful, designed constraints: Twitter’s character limit, BeReal’s appeal to share the mundane side of life, Tinder’s one-swipe-is-all-you-need, capturing the spontaneity of first-impression attraction. But in design, you can’t control everything: Affordances are seductive, and constraints, no matter how well-enforced, must still be accepted by consensus—or else some competing product will win out. Can a metaverse adopt the valued qualities of reality’s physical constraints without us being seduced away by reality-breaking affordances?
“As online immersion beckons, it forces us to pick at the distinction between the physical experience of places imbued with social meaning—the former being very feebly simulated with present technology, the latter being supercharged.”
I want to settle this with a hard “no,” but I’m reminded of the cringe I feel when I hear someone tell me that digital books and music “just aren’t the same” as their physical counterparts. The smell of a book? The feel of a record? Such purists, to me, grabbing on to completely the wrong end of the stick, essentializing the wrong essence; if anything is of value, it is the content, abstracted from one or another medium of storage and distribution. One might wonder if, in the same way, our attachment to physical environments actually presents a new Cartesian dilemma: a dualism between the materiality of a place and the symbolic value bestowed upon it.
In the Australian Aboriginal concept of connection to Country, Country is never just a physical place, but is woven into our social relations, which themselves extend beyond the human. I feel this in all of the social meanings that define places to me. In his idea of non-places, Marc Augé famously captures how experiences of space and place can be deeply entangled with the social, drawing attention to certain modern forms of built environment that are so transitory as to lack any social meaning. As online immersion beckons, it forces us to pick at the distinction between the physical experience of places imbued with social meaning—the former being very feebly simulated with present technology, the latter being supercharged. In reality, technologies offer confounding alternative reframings that ultimately transform our understanding of our pre-digital world.
Through a social lens, the existing less-than-3D web environments already indirectly—and either inadvertently, or by design—reproduce some of the emergent constraints of physical distance. Through the concept of proxemics, we can analyze how physical reality limits, enables, and thus defines social interaction. The physical and logical constraints of sight, sound, touch, and smell define a hierarchy of social interaction potentials, from intimate to personal to social to public. These are immeasurably disrupted by media technologies, but those same technologies in turn define new ways that social proximity and connectedness play out, albeit increasingly mediated by the design of algorithms rather than by the constraints of physics and geology.
Now perhaps the most prominent constraint of our physical and biological circumstances is actually exposed by networked digital technology, becoming a contemporary stumbling block to the great program of global real-time connection: that we still broadly sleep and wake according to the sun, the noosphere still being a sphere, spinning in space. The eradication of communicative distance allows the emergence of social groups arbitrarily distributed across space, but introduces a new type of disconnection, of coordination and scheduling. As meeting organizers of the COVID era cursed the fiddly mathematics of time zones, the question was repeatedly begged: What fix could there possibly be for our planetary-situatedness? One hardworking colleague of mine (who happens to work in immersive 3D environments) takes pride in his ability to hop out of bed for a 3 a.m. meeting. Will such lifestyles drive the innovation for further cascades of design—chemical, computational, or architectural—that solve the problem of globally-networked living? Am I being an essentialist if I hope there is still a place for dreaming?
“The simulation of 3D visual immersion and haptic sensation is a distraction from where the real action is in our growing noosphere, the privacy protocols that enmesh us in social interaction, hidden from view.”
We can imagine other ways that the digital rebuilding of our social world will unfold, even creating new senses of place—and in doing so, being further seduced out of the physical world. But the simulation of 3D visual immersion and haptic sensation is a distraction from where the real action is in our growing noosphere, the privacy protocols that enmesh us in social interaction, hidden from view: encryption, cookies, authentication, payment, and transfer protocols, and the questions of how these manifest in our nexus of social, political, economic, and religious life. In these details lie designs that shape our new social world, just as physical constraints have always done. The logic of privacy—once dominated by the security of locks, the transparency of physical surfaces, how far the sound of a private voice traveled in a public space, or how well someone was known beyond their village—is also now subject to a bewildering corporate infrastructure fronted by T&Cs we refuse to read.
The present one to watch is blockchain technology. It promises to radically reconstruct the infrastructure of the noosphere, replacing the need for trust—around which so many human conventions, patterns of behavior, and systems are built—with a mathematically provable record of action. It has the potential to give the digital world the kind of certainty we have about matter. But despite our physical world’s provable properties, magicians and thieves still perform miracles with matter, and bridges still fall due to bizarre oscillations. We should recognize these technologies as facets of socio-technological complexes yet to evolve—and since they haven’t yet evolved, they are yet to be observed. We should recognize that they will spawn myriad uses, like escalators do, differentiating people in new ways and creating new relations between them. Until we have really observed all of this, we can’t claim to understand them. Technological evangelism is as problematic with blockchain technology as it has been in the recent past, with the prophets of driverless cars and Google Glasses. Those particular prophets proved D’Arcy Thompson right once again: Things did become the way they were because they got that way!