When it works, Slack is great. I use it for clients and projects. Sometimes it gets a little noisy for me, and I have to remind myself that I don’t have to respond in real time to everything Slack offers.
Your writing about walking in the real world and using paper for thoughts reminded me of a book by a researcher/writer I know. It’s called The Hand and it’s by Frank Wilson. Frank makes a pretty compelling case about how we learn with the hands. Holding things and interacting with them with the hands, he says, helps babies connect words to objects. He interviews jugglers and all kinds of people who work (and entertain) with their hands, to show how rich their lives, their intellect, and their use of language has become because they interact with the world in a tactile way. Great book, if you’re looking for something thoughtful. There are other arguments, too, in books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Shop Class as Soulcraft that make the case for a deeper connection with things when we make them with our hands.
This brings me to AR/VR, goggles and all the rest. There are some smart people, like artist Chris Milk, who gave a TED talk about VR media as an empathy machine, who believe that we’re all going to be running around with goggles pretty soon. I hope not. Companies like Meta and Apple have a business model that depends on us using their products and remaining in their world as often and as long as possible. If they can manage to get us all wearing goggles, disconnected from the actual world around us in favor of a digital one, well, that is their dream. But it’s our nightmare.
Even though you can rapidly spin up empathy by being in a world with someone else, and especially if you feel that you are sharing that world with them, I don’t think it’s smart to do this at the expense of spending time in our real world. The real world is in trouble because of the climate crisis, and we need people to pay more attention to it, and appreciate it, so they will be motivated to protect it and protest, and stop the fossil fuel companies from further destroying it.
For me, no amount of the cool factor of AR/VR is a solution there. Exceptions might include museum exhibits, education applications, and helping people with sensory limitations connect with the world around them. So I’m not proposing a blanket ban on goggles, but am raising my hand to note that we can’t let the cool factor and newness take over.
There’s pretty strong evidence that we remember things better when we write them out by hand than when we type them. I think there’s quite a bit to the idea that some kind of embodied physicality is important to learning and processing information. It’s kind of what we’ve been made for.
I find it hard to muster a strong take on AR/VR like others. There are tons of folks out there with hopes— that it will be huge or that it’ll go away. Riccardo Mori was repulsed, and apparently received lots of low quality, negative feedback. I think a lot of people want to see some philosophy in this. I’m struggling to get there.
Maybe it’ll be cool. Maybe it will stink. Maybe it’ll be so cool that we retreat from other things that seem healthier to me personally. Maybe it’ll be so cool that it replaces things that are even more anti-social and unhealthy today and not encroach on “better” activities. I don’t know what I’d use it for, but I know enough from past experience that I have to use the word “yet” at the end of that sentence. There has been a lot of technology I didn’t think would exist, or I didn’t think would appeal to me, or I didn’t think would represent a meaningful jump from where things are today that turned out to be all of those things. There’s also been a lot I was excited about that just, fizzled.
There’s been a great body of “history” found on the internet, mostly on Twitter threads I care not to find, where someone will take a series of concerns about technology from letters written to newspapers over two centuries and find the exact same concerns and predictions over and over again applied to new technology, none of which quite come to pass.
I guess that’s all to say that I’ve learned that trying to be a “futurist” is somewhat of a fool’s gamble.
I do think there’s a benefit to experiencing the world through another’s eye. Mercerism may have been a lie, but the idea of an empathy box is quite powerful 1. I’m just not sure any of our technology comes even close to generating that kind of closeness and fellowship.
At the same time, here I am, writing these letters each week. They’re often quite personal and revealing. I suspect someone reading along might develop quite a sense of who I am and how I think. Their ability to empathize or care for me is almost certainly increased. So who am I to say what will happen if we increase the ability to be present with strangers?
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick, there’s a pseudo-religion called Mercerism, based on experiencing a horrendous, physically and emotionally challenging struggle by one man via an “empathy box”. I do not think VR is an empathy box. Mercer is revealed to be fictional, but that does not change the power of the ability to have a common experience. www.sparknotes.com/lit/do-an… ↩︎