Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The lost world of physicality

This is a blog post that I hope elicits responses, because I'm interested in people's examples and arguments. And pointers to books or articles on this subject. These thoughts are half formed, so don't expect a 100% perfect blog post.

I think that the world of TV, computers, video games has caused us to lose our connection with the physical world. Add on top of that fear: fear of letting children play in the street, fear of chemistry sets, fear of ultraviolet light. This combination means that people (and especially the young) spend hours indoors away from the physical world immersed in virtual worlds.

Now, I'm not against virtual worlds, but they're not the same thing as real worlds. Real worlds are filled with dirt, hazards, sensation, pleasure, effort and more. The virtual world is clean, colourful, free of danger and effortless. What I'm interested to discover is what we've lost by making that transition. What does it mean that virtual success comes without effort?

Books: as books move to electronic form they take on a different meaning. The words of the book transcend and the physical presentation is lost. On the Kindle every book is Twilight. In the real world the physical book has a meaning of its own: it's the book your wife gave you as an anniversary present, it's the book your late father got part way through and you dare not remove the bookmark he left in place, it's the children's book read and read until the pages are torn and worn. These physical remnants augment the book with personal meaning.

Sex: what happens when pornography becomes the default means of getting sexual pleasure. Does fantasy start to wither in the brain? If every fetish or desire is available (for free) at the touch of a button what happens when we are presented with a real other person to have sex with. And what's the cost of reality not matching screen fantasy?

Making: as a child I had Lego, Play-Doh, and other toys to occupy my hands. Now imagine that these are all virtualized and I play with them on screen. There's no difference felt in my hands between them. No texture, smell and pliability of Play-Doh, no satisfying click of Lego, no hunt for the right coloured piece. If an infinite amount of virtual stuff is available does my imagination atrophy? If I can always find the right coloured, right sized Lego piece is this an advantage or a loss because I'm no longer forced to invent?

Children: as an adult man I'm now viewed by many to be a threat children. I can't be seated next to a child flying alone on a flight. I'm afraid to talk to a child in the street, and we've seen schools instituting policies against any sort of physical contact between children and teachers.

UV: at the same time as these effects have been felt there's been another insidious problem: the War of the Sun. Prohibitions on going out into the Sun unprotected from its rays without sunblock (above SPF 15) have reached the point that vitamin D deficiency is being seen by doctors.

Do restrictions and effort help nurture creativity? What do we lost when the world surrounding children is closed up inside the home, in from of a pixelated screen with fear outside the front door and an infinite supply of on tap edutainment?

I think we need to walk away from the screen, out into the sunlight and touch the real world. It's out there.


Forest Pines said...

I don't think I could ever get rid of my physical books, however easy screens become to read. Each one is too bound up with memories about where I bought it, and where it is supposed to fit on the bookshelves.

Allergies are another issue: hasn't the general rise in reported allergies in recent times been partly pinned on cleanliness, on not coming into contact with enough potential allergens before the allergies can form?

John Graham-Cumming said...


Very good point about allergies. I would be interested in references on that as there does seem to have been an amazing increase in people who allergic to things. I wonder what percentage is real and what is phantom?


Jacques Mattheij said...

When I give a present to a kid, boys & girls alike, it's lego. Toddlers a box of Duplo, older kids a box of bricks. Simple bricks, not the fancy one-use-only stuff.

Years later they'll still be playing with the bricks, the fancy stuff forgotten or long since defunct or given away.

My brothers kids are now playing with the lego that I got from my uncle. In the mean time it has been passed to my son and gave it to my brothers kids.

Lego and by extension kids fantasies are doing just fine.

pqs said...

Since about a year ago I'm reevaluating my use of the new technologies to learn to use them well.

I've always been a technophile, and I still am, but after years of going all digital I'm relearning to use technology in a way that improves my efficiency and the quality of my life.

This includes more phone calls to friends and less e-mails, more e-mail and less blog-comments, more blog posts and less realtime services (twitter), etc.

My relearning also involves using e-mail only when I decide to use it, not when notifications decide to distract me, using the internet more for effective information retrieval and less for random information consumption (stupid videos, realtime posts, etc.)

Of course, I'm also doing more outdoors activities, like cycling and walking and, as I spend less time (but more effective time) in front of my computer, I'm reading much more. On paper.

I'm sure that ebooks are very interesting in some contexts. I have even read some of them on the iPhone! But generally speaking, I find paper books more practical and useful. They don't have batteries, they are easy to read in any situation (office, outdoors, etc.), they are resilient, they don't break, etc.

All this process is not easy, because of inertia and also because web services are made to hook you up. The objective of Twitter or Facebook is not making you life better (even if they can be useful in many contexts too), but to keep you hooked in order to profile you and sell more and better adds.

That's why I'm happy to see more and more technophiles and geeks re-evaluating their use of new technologies. That means that we all have gathered enough data to see that these technologies are great but they don't have to drive our lives.

Douglas Rushkoff's book "program or be programmed" and Nicholas Carr books and posts are interesting in this regard, even though I don't agree with them a 100%.

Anonymous said...

I think Neil Postman -- of Amusing Ourselves to Death fame -- would have had a field day with this topic.

I noticed some of this too, but my own post focuses on books and how lock-in defeats ownership.

It’s Not The Device Or The File, It’s The Internet, Stupid!

I'm surprised you didn't drag Star Trek into this. Being on a starship all the time like that would be like existing in an office space without ever being able to go outside. The alienating effects of being so distanced from the natural world are bound to have effects never raised in that series.

I hope you'll write more about this. It's not something many people are even thinking about.

John Graham-Cumming said...


Interesting to bring up Star Trek. There must be some connection here with people who are isolated for long periods of time in small groups. Clearly, Star Trek is fantasy, but the Mir, Skylab and ISS are not. Perhaps there's research there on the psychological effects. Of course, I'm mostly interesting in the effect on the young, but still.


Čebelca.biz said...

Very good post. I am very glad you wrote it, and so well.

Besides all things that you mention, I would also point out intellect. The reality is much more complex, has a lot more interconnected layers of information than all the virtual substitutes we create.

A kid learns tons about physics, his own body & worl limitations when playing with real Legos for example.

As extreme example compare complexity of a real-life woman/man interaction to a chat bot session.

Anonymous said...

I've made one (uncontrolled) experiment. I've lost my bicycle GPS a while ago. The results:

- I'm more in touch with my body, as I pedal through the city.
- There's perceived more variance in my commute times.
- I'm more aware of my surrounding, which likely increases my safety on the road (useful side effect).
- I don't miss having numerical data about speed, ETA, etc.

All in all, kind of a Buddhist mindfulness experience.

Anonymous said...

This has been a recent epiphany to me.

1 expert > 1000 google search indexes.

However, I must also add that the virtual world, offers users useful pointers to the real worldly things like places to go, next gig, next conference and ... via blogs and community sites, that in the real would be hard to disseminate.

Phil said...

And there's also this aspect to consider:

Psychological and mental health benefits from nature and urban greenspace (.pdf)

I find this scary:

"some school students (mainly from rural and suburban homes) had negative perceptions of wild green spaces and activities involving contact with nature, and, to some degree, also had higher preferences for indoor environments and activities"

Nate Wildermuth said...

There's a lot of good books to read on this subject. I recommend you discover two authors: Wendell Berry and Jerry Mander.

Chris King said...

Love this post. I've been having many of the same thoughts recently. I think where you say "prohibition" you mean "inhibition" though (unless there have been laws made against going outside in the sun!).

Max Tobiasen said...

Some six years ago I bought a boat that I now live on. This means that I'm in daily contact with other people around the harbour that also live on boats. These people are outside a lot, get a lot of exercise (if you've ever owned a boat you'll know how much physical work must be endured to keep it ship-shape), and generally don't sit much behind copmuterscreens.

I've noticed that there are quite a few people that live on boats that are 70+ years old. One of my neighbours, age 69, has just come back from a 2 year solotrip from Denmark to the mediterranean and back. He sailed alone. These people are much more fit than the average 30 year old, and they're having a blast while most other people their age are sitting in a nursinghome.

Anecdotally it seems like a lot of this can be traced back to the hands-on hard outdoor life that keeps you in shape all year round.

So I'd say that getting out is much more important than people think. Especially if you're getting older.

Herman Finkelmen said...

I think that your post is interesting and is a good starting point for questioning the effects of a virtual life on modern society and interaction with the physical world. However, I disagree that success in the virtual world comes without effort. It takes quite a bit of effort to win most video games, even with cheats and hacks.

My main concern is that actions in a virtual world can sometimes come without risk or consequences and as human beings we need to understand the risks and consequences associated with our actions.

Thanks for the post, I wish that I had more to add.

Anonymous said...

it's gonna happen - I think the 21st will mark the transition from a human consciousness living in a physical world to one living predominantly in a virtual world. I doubt there's little we can or should do about that - that's just the way we're going.

Steve O'Brien said...

What you are saying is true. For some of us, the digital self is eating away at the physical self. It's a tragedy.

George said...

Well, yes, and no. My brother has the set of Mark Twain that was in the house where we grew up, inherited I believe from our grandfather. But a couple of volumes were chewed by a dog. The rest are falling into dust, for they were printed on acid-pulped paper, as were most books for about a century and a half. And let's face it, physical cut and paste is a bit destructive.

Now and then I find myself in antique stores, though I really don't care much about furniture. I do notice the remarkable number of genteel nude or semi-nude pictures and statues. Their artistic value is usually negligible enough to make me wonder if this is what one had before Playboy. On the other hand, we're all here, so they weren't just looking at naughty pictures, were they?

My generation grew up with TV. I remember the somewhat queasy feeling of stepping out from a dim room and TV western into bright sunlight, knowing that I'd just wasted a couple of perfectly good hours. Yet somewhere along the line I managed to dig in sandboxes, climb trees, play basketball, and collect a number of scars.

I really don't know much what the young under about 20 are doing. I do see children on my street out on their bikes or playing in their yards. Now and then I see the baby down the block trying to eat whatever she can reach as her parents garden. I'm not that worried.

Troy McConaghy said...

There are many comments on Hacker News:


Anonymous said...

Living in Australia we have had the “sun is evil” mantra drilled into us from a very young age. We are told to cover up, wear hats and have any exposed skin covered with a minimum SPF 15+ suncream (30+ recommended!). Skin cancer is a big deal in this country, but by eliminating the cause (over exposure to the sun), we have paved the way to chronically low Vitamin D levels which has been shown to increase incidents of other (much more serious) cancers (and may also be linked to increase in allergies and asthma). The Vitamin D Council is a great resource on all the latest information on Vitamin D and everyone should at least take a look at it but the TLDR version is that the current daily recommendations are woefully inadequate, and are just enough to prevent rickets. Vitamin D levels are something everyone should get test at least annually and if serum levels are low (<50 ng/mL), a supplement regime should be administered. I personally take 5000IU a day and that keeps my serum Vitamin D level between 50-60 ng/mL

With regards to allergies, the information I have read (can dig up if asked) has shown that the increase in allergies are related to the destruction of healthy gut bacteria (via the foods we eat and the antibiotics we take) as well as the increase in gut permeability or ‘leaky gut’. Leaky gut allows for pollutants and undigested food to pass through the gut lining into the body where it is attacked by the body’s immune system which leads to allergies (and possibly other more serious auto-immune issues).

GuineverePhyliciaSuzy said...

We have also made too much progress with manufacturing - Its also become much harder to figure out how stuff works by direct dis-assembly. We have become very good a substituting electronics for mechanisms, and at building custom electronic parts.

When I was a kid, a clock was a metal can full of gears and springs. Now you find a bit of circuit board, with a blob of epoxy (covering the directly bonded die) at the center.

We also got real good at custom part building. I used to grab TV's from the curb. In an hour, I would have a pile of labeled generic parts. I could look them up in catalogs, and build other things with them. (with parts from a couple of old vacuum tube B+W TV's, and a copy of the ham radio handbook, you could make a transmitter that could screw up radio reception for blocks.)

Now when you look inside a TV, you will find parts that have a custom part number on them. If in the unlikely chance that you could find out what the part does, it would be all but impossible to make it do other than its intended function.

Luckily there are still some mechanical devices left for educational dissaembly. There are still lawn mowers out there that haven't made the jump to newfangled overhead valves. Bicycles still have their drivetrain out where you can see it. Differentials haven't changed much in the last half century

ChristianeT said...

I recently wrote a similar blog post about the fear of online criminality (like a hacked PS3 account or skimming) and how it prevents us from using those new technologies. My conclusion was: it's not going to happen. We will find ways to deal with it.

A few years ago I worked as an environmental volunteer at a national park and there were kids that had never seen a forest before. They didn't even know what to do with mud and dirt. But that was unrelated to computers and screens.

I believe we have to tell such things apart from computers. There will always be over-protective parents, and it's more likely these keep their kids from using one. But even these kids will grow up and see what the world really has to offer.

Here in Germany, the children I know may have their own mobile or e-mail address at age 9, and they know how to use it, but actually they're more interested in playing on playgrounds, jumping and running around, touching and discovering the environment. Most of them are playing the games I was playing when I went to kindergarten.

I have complete faith that the natural human need to discover, develop, create and touch physical things will always find its way through. I see examples of it every day. I think the most important thing is to teach them to ask questions, a lot of them, be curious how things are built and how they work. Dealing with the online world has a lot to do with how you were raised, if you know the difference between good and bad, physical and virtual, between a friend that sits next to you and one that's behind an online profile in a social network.

I see people reading books and using e-readers alike. There is this slow transition to recognizing the best of both worlds, on- and offline, and combining them instead of ruling one out. It's like you say, we connect things to people and places and moments we experienced. Nothing will ever replace that entirely.

But your main statement is true. Sometimes I'm figuring out how to do something or how sth. would be like in my head. I have to remind myself then to actually go out and do it. But I believe this to be typical for adults. "Normal" children don't have that sort of fear of failing, they just go for it.

Funnily I just read this article "Unhappy with happiness" by James Shelley, and it relates to this topic here. As long as we don't always take the easy way (e.g. click a button) but the one with meaning (creating our own happiness, working for it), everything will be fine :)

David said...

I highly recommend you pursue these thoughts by reading Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget (you can read my review of it).

Also, I am working on a project called Gadget Rules that you also might be interested in: iamfutureproof.com/gadget-rules

David Cotton said...

A great post, thanks, which touches upon some important issues.

I would like to expand it slightly: many years ago I was working in the computer industry and had a physical injury that prevented me from doing much outdoors. At times my work was computing and my hobby was computing; it was all too easy to only go outside whilst travelling to and from work.

I realised that I was existing rather than living.

My injury eventually got fixed and I started walking. And walking. And walking. 15,000 miles and 900 walks later, I can honestly say that I am living. I have seen so many sights and experienced so many indescribable highs that I would never have got through staring at a computer screen.

You do not have to go overboard, as I undoubtedly have (see http://www.britishwalks.org/). But there are so many wonderful things that require little effort. Take a copy of Sherlock Holmes and lie in a field to read it; visit a museum at random (or pick a nearby site out of the Geek's Atlas). Or try something you would not normally do: sailing, climbing, walking, cycling or simply travelling. The world is your oyster.

Whatever you do, make sure you live rather than exist.

Hajo Nils Krabbenhöft said...

I enjoyed that post, even though it's only digital ;)

We've reached the points where people treat me like an oddball because i can still enjoy chasing snowflakes. There's an unopened copy of Deus Ex waiting for me to try it out but i just _had_ to try out my new bike parts first.

Allergies: I used to be allergic to corn. Since i'm heading out biking regularly, that went away. No medication necessary.

My personal opinion is that restrictions are very good because they challenge the brain and foster creativity. While it is a great feeling to once have the freedom of a digital world to do anything one desires, i wouldn't want to trust a brain that defies boundaries.

I think it's the same when dealing with other people: While it's fun to push a weak-willed person around, i cannot respect that person afterwards. The restrictions need to be there for me to respect him as a person and they need to be enforced.

Taking that point back to your discussion i'd say that removing boundaries by turning to digital worlds weakens peoples trust in the relationship of cause and effect in the real world. That is, people loose confidence in their ability to affect and alter the reality around them.

And that's the sad part. Reality (well at least northern Germany) is filled with people who dont act, but who get "acted upon by circumstances"


Joan Voight said...

This idea is exactly why I work on screens and I play in the physical world. My work is to report on the digital industry, so for me the shift is personal.
My blog "Shapely Grape" is all about the physical side of the techie crowd. So far, I've gotten many techheads on bikes for instance.