Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Walking in a digital wonderland

Last week, I watched as the presenter of a Health and Safety briefing fumbled around trying to get his presentation up. We all know what it’s like to navigate a computer system while being watched: the pressure of opening the right folder, the agony of scrolling through a list of documents looking for the one that you ‘know was there when you looked earlier'.

It struck me that navigating virtual environments has become so commonplace as to be an irritation. Humans regularly navigate an ethereal world of electrical signals and incorporeal documents. With minimal physical interaction, we fly through these private worlds like gods – flitting between digital folders, changing what is presented as we see fit, and searching through billions of bytes of dynamically-updated data. This effortless engagement with a non-physical environment would have been inconceivable to people as recently as twenty years ago.

On one level, this demonstrates the human capacity to engage with analogy. It’s important to remember that lots of the words I’ve used so far are physical metaphors which we apply to virtual environments: ‘navigating’, ‘opening’, ‘flitting’. We describe virtual worlds through analogy with physical worlds to make them comprehensible. We evolved in a three-dimensional physical space and so have a natural understanding for physical terms and physical analogies. It is astounding how readily and how universally this great analogy is accepted: humans, young and old, play along with the metaphor and employ it everyday without a thought; our entire vocabulary for digital worlds is based upon it; rightly or wrongly, we even create legislation using it.

One of the reasons that humans have adapted to virtual environments so easily is its parallels with abstract environments. Since the advent of thought, abstract worlds have been represented through analogy with the physical environment. Plato’s Heaven is a prime example of using physical paradigms to represent an ethereal realm of ideas. Gilbert Ryle even created the term ‘category mistake’ to cover the misapplication of physical ideology to a theoretical construct: the classic example being Descartes’ use of the pineal gland as the point of interaction between the soul and the body (how could the incorporeal soul interact with the physical world at all?). Thoughts, ideas, the content of books, and – for anyone who has seen Inception – dreams are all represented through analogy with the physical. In a similar way to abstract environments, we apply physical paradigms to virtual environments to make them comprehensible.

It’s almost certainly fallacious to say that this represents an evolutionary advance. But the widespread, near-universal engagement with a non-physical interface represents something about the human species. Adaptability, flexibility, imagination, capacity for misdirection, propensity for category mistakes, or general desire to engage with something beyond the physical. It represents something and every so often it is important to remember how strange and interesting our everyday world is.

“...this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible ...the universe is wild and full of marvels.” – G. K. Chesterton.

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