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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Meatspace vs the Cybersphere

For as long as I can remember, I've had to deal with a kind of elitism from certain people: these people are the ones who are not what I would describe as 'net-natives'.

Net-natives, such as myself, are people who feel at home on the Internet. We get what the technology does for us, how it enriches our lives and makes us smarter, faster, more productive and more social.

But these other people - I shall henceforth refer to them as 'meat-fascists' (I resisted the urge to call them 'troglodytes' or 'Amish') - don't get it. They're generally at least marginally familiar with technology, and many of them use it all the time (I know a number of meat-fascists who own, and are addicted to, Blackberries), but they either can't understand or refuse to acknowledge the inherent benefits that arise from technology in general, and communication & information technology in particular.

An argument I hear from meat-fascists all too often is one that sums up their general approach pretty nicely, and it goes something like this: "Electronic communication and the Internet are not adequate substitutes for face-to-face, personal communication."

On the surface, that argument sounds self-evident. But a net-native (or other rational person), given a moment to think about it, can easily recognise that argument as complete bullshit.

There are several unstated major premises wrapped up that argument:

  1. Face-to-face communication is the best kind of communication, and electronic communication should aspire to be as good or better in order to be considered a viable substitute;
  2. Electronic communication aspires to be considered a viable substitute to face-to-face communication;
  3. There is a clear, unambiguous means by which one method of communication can be measured to be superior to another.
And probably a few others that I don't care about. The first two are largely dependent on the third, so I'll address that one.

Objective Comparisons

The problem with this is that there are a number of different factors upon which the usefulness of any given communication medium can be considered appropriate for any given situation. Meat-fascists seem to imply that inter-personal relatability is the only one worth considering, but it's not. As is so often the case, it's more complicated than you think. The way I see it, there are at least four different metrics against which any given medium should be measured:

  1. Speed. Simply, how fast can the relevant information be transferred from one person to another. 
  2. Fidelity. How likely it is that the content of the message will survive intact.
  3. Cost. How much energy, time or money must be spent in order to transmit the message.
  4. Persistence. After the message has been sent and received, for how long can the content of that message still be accessed for later reference?
There are, of course, other criteria that may come into play under certain circumstances. Things like discreteness, privacy and propriety are relevant sometimes. In any given situation, a communication medium must be considered against all of these different criteria before one can be chosen.

Let's go for a hypothetical example.

You're sitting in a library in Cancun, and you suddenly realise that you need to tell your friend (who is at work in Syndey) something important and urgent. Face-to-face communication, in this case, would cost you hours (if not days) to arrange (flights either to Cancun, Syndey or some other destination) and a small fortune in real money. And when you finally arrived in the same room, after you'd told your friend what you needed him to know, the information would only be stored in his brain (which is unreliable, as all human brains are at the best of times, and more so when jet-lagged). 

So, in this case, Speed would be terrible, Fidelity would be pretty good (assuming the two of you met in a relatively quiet room), Cost would be prohibitive and Persistence would be only slightly better than nothing.

Compare this to an email: Speed - awesome,  Fidelity - perfect, Cost - nothing, and Persistence - infinite.

"Yes," says the meat-fascist "but what about the human element?"

Well what about it? Is the content of your message dependent on the need to look the person in the eye, hold their hand and deliver it in a soft whisper? Sometimes, sure.

It's probably less pleasurable to whisper sweet nothings into your sweetheart's ear over IM. The gravitas of your doctor informing you you have a terminal illness might be lost somehow if he did so in a 140-character tweet. Getting to know your grandchildren via Facebook probably sucks.

This is why it's so important to choose the right communication medium for the message you're trying to deliver. Imagine if a representative from your bank showed up at your front door to notify you each time you performed a transaction on your account - is that really better than an SMS? Should your friend really print out every lolcat he sees, and race over to your office in the middle of the day to show it to you, instead of emailing it, or posting it on Google+?

Of course not. That would be retarded.

The Telephone's Exemption

There is one electronic communication medium that seems to have earned exemption from the meat-fascists' ire, if only by its longevity: the telephone. Somehow, it seems, the magic of hearing another person's voice makes communication more meaningful. 

Again I grant that under certain circumstances, that may be the case. For example, if your spouse has gone away on a business trip for a few days, you may well prefer a chat on the phone to an exchange of SMS's. But that's probably because in that case, the phone call isn't about communicating a message, but is rather about just hearing their familiar voice, and being comforted by it. The content, in that case, is probably largely irrelevant. 

Meat-fascists often tend to overlook the fact that a video-chat (while not always available) is probably a superior alternative to the telephone. So why does the phone get a free pass, while Skype is lumped together with email and the rest? 

Now it should be noted that I have a personal beef with the telephone. Working, as a student, in an outgoing call-centre, I've developed a seriously crippling, emotional aversion to using the phone. But even I can acknowledge its utility under these, and a few other, circumstances. What I can't concede is that it's somehow fundamentally different to other electronic communication media. Just because it's been around longer, doesn't grant it any special status as anything other than 'just another communication medium'.

Virtual Reality

Pictured: The Internet
A fundamental misunderstanding that meat-fascists seem to have about communication technology in general and the Internet in particular is the perception that it's somehow unreal. Clearly they've seen too many bad NCIS episodes, and they've bought into the notion that the Internet is some kind of virtual world, populated by virtual people doing nothing of any value to anyone outside, in the "real" world.

That is, of course, absolute crap.

The Internet is a real thing, used by real people to do real things: have real conversations, maintain real relationships, do real work, make and spend real money and engage in real communication. 

Of course there are things out there that help muddy the water somewhat: the popularity of online games like World of Warcraft, the existence of a panoply of artificially intelligent programs called "bots" designed to fool you into thinking they're real people, and the propensity we net-natives have of talking about the Internet as if it were a place as opposed to a network of computers.

Those of us who know a thing or two about technology understand that virtual worlds like WoW and Second Life, while designed to create a fictional world with which users can interact, are also filled with real people. Real people engaging in real communication and real commerce. Real. Not virtual at all.

And as for describing the Internet as a place, that's just a limitation of a language that's existed since before the notion of an Internet ever occurred to anyone. Although it's sometimes useful to think of the Internet as the "8th Continent", it really isn't anything of the sort.

The Internet Is Made of People

What the Internet (and the people who build it, like you and me) has done, is provide us with an ever-growing wealth of new communication media, never before devised. Communication platforms like email, instant messaging, video-chat, Facebook and Twitter have not only allowed us to be connected to more people, but they've allowed us to be connected in so many more ways! We're now having conversations, every day, that wouldn't be conceivable a decade ago!

Imagine trying to explain to the version of you living in 2001 that you can now take an article from your favourite website, post it on a different website where all your friends, colleagues, family and acquaintances can see it, and then engage in a public conversation about it, right there on the website! It's like magic!

Things like Google Latitude and Google+ Hangouts were considered the purview of governments and big business as recently as five years ago. Now we have access to those same kinds of tools on our desks and in our pockets, for communicating, sharing and building real relationships with the real people who are important in our lives.

Can the Internet replicate the experience of cuddling up on the couch with your significant other for a DVD on a cold winter's night? Not quite. But can you search for a hashtag, reshare a YouTube video or click "like" in meatspace? Nope. 

Fact is, the Internet isn't designed to replace face-to-face communication, nor should it be. It's mostly different, and in a lot of circumstances, more useful.