When Digital Layers Reshape Physical Social Spaces & Change Culture.
Last night I had the opportunity for the first time to watch the ill fated movie Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There is a remarkable sequence where the hero of the story wanders through a desert with a complete digital shopping experience; view-able only to those with the right lens. It left me with a simple question… “What impact will digital layers have on the world that is constantly moving?”
Who knows? Ultimately I don’t know if it matters whether or not the world is moving in that direction, but it does highlight the growing reality that future generations are going to begin to see the world through a digital lens, and that itself is an incredible idea with some fascinating implications — for better or worse.
Below is a loose collection of thoughts that I’ve been pondering at length over the course of the past year. I reckoned it would be best to try and put it to paper, and over time I’ll revisit this post and continue working through them.
Physical Social Spaces
Before we dive any further, let’s take a moment to understand what a physical social space is, and the value of them.
A social space is a physical or virtual space where people can gather and interact.
Imagine market places of the far distant past, bustling with throngs of people hurriedly moving to and fro. This is a very simple example of a physical social space. These locations were the hub of activity within a town or city drawing traders from around the world that would gather, share ideas, new products, and exchange currency pushing the economy. The importance of these social spaces cannot go without notice, because they raised awareness for everyone of new and different things.
Fast forward and these market places still exist, but they’ve become controlled and tamed within regulation, local restrictions. While this itself isn’t an inherently bad thing, in many developed countries this acts as a type of filter, containing & controlling.
The American shopping mall grew out of these regulations and has stood for decades as the capitalistic expression of a social space, where gleaming clean pathways, intersections, and flashy signage that draws people in. It’s here that youth used to mingle, sharing ideas as they wandered through the tunnels past stores with the latest trends and technology.
However, the digital age has ledge to a decline of these social spaces as online shopping has brought the convenience of shopping to our personal coaches.
“American Malls are rotting Away” — December 12th, 2017 — CNN Money
“The mall crisis is secretly morphing into a full-on Armageddon” — Janurary 8th, 2018 — Business Insider
Over the ages physical social spaces that churned the economy have changed from a unrestricted melting pot to a governed space; first by governments, and then by private corporations.
Pushing the idea of privately controlled social spaces we can turn our gaze towards Apple’s recent decision to change their retail store’s name to “Town Square”. This highlights their desire to control, and flourish idea and thought, but only as long as it lines up with their objective. Social Spaces are now controlled more than they have ever been by a select few.
“Apple Stores are not ‘town squares’ and never should be” — September 17th, 2017 — Financial Times
In the past, Social Spaces acted essentially like urban mixing pots, where different cultures and different people would gather, to go about their different goals, and this was great. One of the key things that made these social spaces valuable was that in the past everyone was visible. No matter who they were, they were able to seen and heard. These spaces raised a general awareness of peoples and thought that was different.
But times are changing, and the shared experiences of physical social spaces must now meet the quickly changing reality of digital layering which threatens to slice up society and dramatically reshape the way we think of culture.
The Digital Social Space
Through the use of augmented reality technology it’s now possible to add a digital layer onto almost anything, which can dramatically change the experience of a known location. Snap Inc, for instance, now allows people to place art that locked to a geographic location, so if you are in that location you can see the art though their mobile app. Following quickly behind, Facebook just announced that they will start pushing a similar AR effects real world tagging.
“Snapchat to launch augmented reality art platform tomorrow” — October 2nd, 2017 — TechCrunch
“Facebook Launches AR effects tied to real-world tracking markers” — March 10th, 2018 — TechCrunch
The digital layer added onto physical social spaces bring to life two present day realities:
- The control over a social space is now dictated by the company that not only controls the physical location, but also by the company that controls the digital layers above it.
- The shared physical social experience is on the cusp of dying out, which will dramatically reshape our understanding of the polarization & fragmentation of social dialogue & geocultural significance.
Present Day Reality #1: Digital Layers
As noted before social spaces have changed. I used the example of Malls & Apple’s Town Hall to point out the reality of companies controlling physical social spaces. But for this segment I’m going to address the Public Park which serves the purpose of value beyond simple dollar symbols. It’s here that people gather to celebrate birthdays, get sun shine, fresh air, and waste away their day among the scream of children on play equipment. Typically speaking public parks a void of corporate control, and because of this are bound by different social rules.
For example: technically anything can be said within a park, no matter how inflammatory because there are no content moderators. If you’ve got a beef with Apple and do not agree with the direction that they’ve taken you can voice descent, whereas within Apple’s Town Hall this would be likely to turn some eyes and probably result in your being asked to leave.
When I think of public parks, I think of Dark Park in Bend Oregon with the ducks and the river gently gliding through the topography. When I think of public parks, I think of Sequoia Park in Eureka California, with the tall redwood tree’s sheltering the grass expanses from the harshness of the sun. When I think of public parks, I’m taken back to a time when I ran among the play equipment reenacting & imaging heroic sequences from Star Wars & The Lord of the Rings with my childhood friends. When I think of public parks, I think of the sculptures that have geoculturally relevant weight and significance.
When I think of public parks, I do not think of the infinite digital layer that can sit on top the grassy plains. However, we now live in a world where there are digital layers sitting on top of everything, and the experience that people have with the same grass expanse can/will change based on which company they decide to tap into while at the Park. Right now, there is a group running around catching Pokemon, while another group gazes at wonder at the digital artwork of Jeff Koons. They are standing right next to each other in the same social space, but experiencing completely different worlds.
Draw this concept out a bit and it’s easy to imagine where the world is going. Facebook and Snap Inc. will rapidly expand these systems to become platforms that companies around the world will tap into. I fully expect Disney to dive into the opportunity of bringing their beloved characters and worlds to life. In a like fashion, Blizzard would be foolish to not see the opportunity of bringing World of Warcraft to the world via AR.
In the future this means that in the same shared physical social space, people will begin to experience dramatically different worlds. While children will run a muck through the palaces of the fairy tail princesses, right beside them grown men will be waging wars against the Horde, fighting off orcs and defending their land.
Companies will have infinitely more control over the digital layer allowing them to create fantastical narratives and experiences that draw people in. They will censor and filter conversations that run against policy, and remove people that raise questions to uncomfortable to answer. This is the reality of company controlled conversation. You do not question, you do not protest, you simply experience, adsorb and enjoy. Because when you “like” something it must be good… right?
Present Day Reality #2: Fragmentation & Globalization of Social Dialogue & Experience
If there is anything that we’ve learned from the social media giants over the course of the past couple years, it is that they have some fundamental problems. These networks have been forced to grapple with the flaws in the system that they created which amplified human confirmation biases through the creation of feedback loops that shelter people from outside opinions. By extension they have fragmented society by blinding people to the reality that there are different view points, and valuable opinions that counter their beliefs.
Here’s a quick and dirty way of defining these two key concepts.
- Confirmation Bias — The tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s exiting beliefs or theories.
- Feedback Loop — We see more stuff that we like.
Social dialogue has polarized, and while it’s easy to think of it as Democrat vs Republican given our current climate, it’s actually a divide that has formed between two larger umbrella concepts — Localization vs Globalization. Kate Starbird, summed it up beautifully in her lecture on “Finding ‘fake news’ in Times of Crisis: Online Rumers, Conspiracy Theories and Information”.
Here’s quick, simple, and probably flawed way of thinking about the two sides:
- Localization — An understanding of culture and people that directly surround you.. or… the process of customizing applications for a given culture and locale. Think of it as “Nationalism”.
- Globalization — An understanding of all cultures & people on the globe… or… the process of designing and developing applications that function around the globe. Think of it as “Internationalism”.
Social media systems amplified the divide between the two because the systems were setup to provide us more “stuff” that relates to “stuff” that we like. Pile this on for years and the view of the other side becomes distorted and blurry. While we naturally do this in real life (think about the market places of old where we only buy what we want) even if we didn’t agree with people of opposing views, we were at least aware of their existence. Now we can literally surround ourselves with only people that agree with us, and we are none the wiser because that’s all the appears in our “news feeds.” We are like horses with blinds over their eyes only seeing what is in front of us… unaware that there is an entire world surround them.
Add on to the top of this natural inclination to agree with stuff that confirms our beliefs, social networks capitalized on feedback loops where individuals are provided more and more information that agrees with what they like, but is not directly related. EX: you “like” muscle cars, so naturally you must also like Texas whiskey. It’s little wonder that recently we’ve been left scratching our heads in confusion when someone of a different view point raises a question. It’s not uncommon to think or see & hear people exclaim “How can they even think that…?” Because these systems prevent us from even being aware of different & opposing views.
Hopefully now you can see how society has become polarized through the use & reliance of digital social spaces. So how do we combat this? Fragmentation.
“News Feed FYI: More Local News on Facebook” — January 29th, 2018 — Facebook Newsroom.
Fragmentation is the response to a world that is pulling itself apart. By separating out the bubbles the hope is that while one sect may become radicalized it will not shift the entire bubble, but simply it’s own. In theory this leaves the rest to find more common ground to have dialogue in moderation, as all humans experience some common things (death & taxes…).
Will fragmentation actually bring us closer together? That’s yet to be seen. If anything it could actually push us apart within our little bubbles.
Side Note: Fragmentation is an interesting concept in part because globalization from a capitalistic standpoint has ended up allowing a few small companies to grab hold and control, meaning that while people have the perception of variety at the end of the day do they really actually have any? The digital realm is likewise subject to this domination by a few companies with seemingly endless resource accounts.
“Ray-Ban, Oakley, Chanel Or Prada Sunglasses? They’re all Made by This Obscure $9B Company” — July 2nd, 2013 — Forbes
Jumping back to this idea of people cavorting through grass fields while experiencing completely different digital worlds and hopefully you can start to see where I’m going. In the future, a physical social space will no longer be indiscriminate, but serve up dramatically different experience depending on what system & digital layer people select.
People will be able to tap into whatever companies experience they want, leaving them to be sucked into worlds were cultures and conversations are dramatically different.
Side Note: it’s not that simple, because even the platforms we use have platforms that they use. Meaning that in the future your access to digital layers could literally be defined by whether or not your first phone was an iOS device or Android, as you get locked into a digital ecosystem early.
Locally Relevant Culture -vs- Global Digital Fragmentation
Ultimately people will begin to have deeply personal experiences that, interestingly enough, will only go to fragment a locally relevant culture by weaving global digital layers through the fabric of how we understand the world.
Think of it this way: In that grass field, where the children play with Disney princess, and the young adults run around playing World of Warcraft, it doesn’t matter what your physical location is because you can interact with people around the globe forming uniquely different cultures that are not confined to a location.
“Poll: The Myth of the lonely Gamer is a lie.” — March 10th, 2018 — Daily Herald — original source: The Washington Post
And yet while people will be quick to throw off the chains of their local culture, we can only expect that to counter this some people will cling to everything that makes their geographic location special.
“Flying the County Flag: The Preservation of an Identity” — April 20th, 2014 — BBC
At the end of the day, I simply do not know the direction the world will move, but being aware of it’s movement and understanding why it’s moving I believe will be key to coming out on top.
Let me know what you think, there’s a lot going on.