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The Risks of Digital Delusion

Despite the online world, civilization is still subject to physical laws

A friend of mine recently related an amusing story: he was walking down a city street one day when a young man accosted him, in obvious distress. The youth thrust forward his face, pried open his bloody mouth with his fingers and asked my friend to look at his teeth. My friend, somewhat taken aback but unable to refuse, took a look and replied, “your left front tooth is badly chipped. You need to see a dentist immediately.” The youth sheepishly explained that he had had an accident. He had been looking at his smartphone while walking down the sidewalk, and had walked directly into a metal pole.

Connected and Alone, Plate IIphoto by Almond Butterscotch, on FlickrOur digital preoccupations do not operate outside of or transcend the physical world.

The story brought to mind an advertisement I had seen on a city bus. The ad was for a digital marketing agency, and read, in large, bold letters “Because we live in an online world.” It is a common slogan, and not just in advertising. Our lives these days are increasingly conducted online – from entertainment to business, education, and political activism. We are compelled to keep up with the newest apps, get on the hottest new social media platform, and adopt the latest software upgrades for our families, our work and our schools, because, we are told repeatedly, “we live in an online world.”

But is this actually true? The answer, of course, depends on what we mean by “world.” It can mean the physical world as described by the physical sciences and includes things like gravity, mitosis, photosynthesis, and plate tectonics. But it can also refer to the human cultural constructions that constitute our social institutions and practices. The “world of the ancient Greeks” in the second sense was radically different from ours – so much so that we could say they lived in a “different world”– but not in the first sense. The ancient Greeks inhabited the same physical world we do; the same physical laws applied then as they do now. The ancient Greek philosopher Thales reportedly fell down a well while contemplating the night sky. He was in his own “world,” so to speak, but gravity asserted itself and interrupted. Similarly, the limit of the socially constructed “world” that preoccupied the face-down-smartphone-fidgeting youth was met starkly by a hard, unyielding metal signpost, with decidedly negative dental results.

So our digital preoccupations do not operate outside of or transcend the physical world. This may be obvious. But it is a fact worth remembering as the biophysical limits of the planet are pushed to the point of collapse by human activity. When navigating the online world, we seem to be in control. With the swipe of a hand – as with a magician’s wand – the world is at our command. We decide what is relevant and important. But offline there are processes and things that operate outside of human purpose, intention or design. The physical world, unlike abstract symbols or video imagery, resists infinite manipulation. Sooner or later, while our heads are buried in screens, we will run into what is important and relevant, whether we like it or not.

There is no denying that more and more people are spending more and more of their time online – at home, at work, and walking down the sidewalk. But it is equally clear that more and more activities and tasks now require the Internet. There is a self-fulfilling circularity at work here. And the circularity is not necessarily innocuous; there is a multi-billion dollar Tech industry driving it, whose biggest and most lasting pot of gold is not just the market for the Internet-accessing devices (as big as that is, and augmented by built-in obsolescence requiring frequent upgrades) nor the access subscription market, but the access to personal data about users’ location, demographics, and buying habits. The more time people spend fidgeting in the “online world” on their various digital devices, the more data that can be extracted and used to sell not only more gadgets, upgrades, and addictive “apps,” but more of almost anything. The flood of electronic media is quickly insinuating itself into every profitable nook and cranny of our lives.

The Internet is without question a highly powerful and useful tool, including for conservation. But there are important differences between the online and offline worlds, and there are powerful economic forces that benefit from the blurring and conflating of them. We background and subordinate the physical world at great cost. The world where we actually live is offline. Civilization is still subject to the world of physical laws. We cannot download food. We cannot download water or clean air. We cannot download old-growth forests or coral reefs. Biological life is analog. There is more work, uncertainty and pain involved with relating to the offline world, but the stakes are higher and the rewards ultimately greater. It is the world that really matters.

And, if you are reading this article online, please, watch where you are going…

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