Saturday, June 16, 2007

Virtual and Physical

I wrote,

The difference between the physical and the virtual is illusory - it is a distinction that has been marketed hard by companies that want to keep sellig you paper. But the virtual is the physical - the people online are real, the computers are real, the impact of your words is real, and it all happens in the physical world to people with physical bodies

to which Dave Snowden replied,

Now there is a very basic (and so basic its surprising) error here. Yes the participants in a virtual community are real (well I suspect one exception). However the environment and the nature of their interactions is radically different from a physical environment. All sensory stimulation is more limited in nature, but as a counter it is also possible to have anonymity, and asynchronous interaction in the virtual. I could go on but there are multiple differences some good some bad. The basic point is that they are different and its perverse to argue otherwise.

and I commented as follows:

You may well make the case that the two realms are different (if not contrary, which is what you would need to make the case for 'balancing'), but you haven't done so in this post.

You argue...

1. "All sensory stimulation is more limited in nature....", presumably in the online, but this isn't true. We pay partial attention to people and events in the physical as well, and our perception of (say) an instructor in a 300 person classroom is arguably no more detailed than one opnline.

2. "...but as a counter it is also possible to have anonymity..." Interestingly, anonymity is the hallmark of the physical, not the virtual, which is why you can purchase a newspaper at a 7-Eleven without registering.

3. "...and asynchronous interaction in the virtual." This is also a hallmark of the physical, being characterized by books and magazines, letters, bulletin boards, telephone answering machines, and more.

I don't aim the 'punditry' remark at anyone in particular, but rather, as a catch-all to cover what has amounted to a somewhat less than thorough style of analysis. It's pretty easy to fall into lazy coverage - I do it myself - and it is this that I target.

The 'balancing the virtual and the physical' (at least you don't say 'real') metaphor is a cliche, one that is not rooted in a thoughtful analysis of the phenomenon, and it does play into the hands of those who wish to protect and preserve traditional content publishers.

I think we can make the case that the use of digital media engenders greater capacity, and hence empowerment, on those who use it, but from this it does not follow that any sort of 'balancing' with media that disempower us is required.