One. Zero.

Posted by Nishant Shah at Sep 17, 2012 06:35 AM |
The digital world is the world of twos. All our complex interactions, emotional negotiations, business transactions, social communication and political subscriptions online can be reduced to a string of 1s and 0s, as machines create the networks for the human beings to speak. So sophisticated is this network of digital infrastructure that we forget how our languages of connection are constantly being transcribed in binary code, allowing for the information to be transmitted across the web.
One. Zero.

As digital technologies become pervasive and ubiquitous, the lines between RL and VR have blurred

Nishant Shah's article was published in the Indian Express on September 16, 2012

Indeed, we have already reached a point where we don’t even need to be familiar with code to perform intimate functions with the machines that we live with, as they respond to us in human languages. While this human-machine duality has been resolved with the presence of intuitive and interactive interfaces that allow us to seamlessly connect to the person(s) at the other end of a digital connection, there is another binary that still remains at the centre of much discussion around all things digital.

This is the duality of the Real and the Virtual. In geekspeak, this particular separation has been coded as a divide between RL (Real Life) and VR (Virtual Reality). This separation between the two is so naturalised that it has become a part of our everyday imagination where things that happen online are ‘out there’ and ‘an escape’ whereas things that are offline, are ‘real’ and ‘believable’. However, as digital technologies become pervasive and ubiquitous, these lines between RL and VR have blurred. Especially with new technologies of augmented reality and simulated layers like Google Goggles or even location-based services on your smartphone that help you navigate through the offline world, it is becoming difficult to clearly say what is online and what is offline.

There are two questions that help demonstrate this blurring of boundaries very clearly. The first is an existential one, something that doesn’t crop up often in conversations, but suddenly haunts you on at 2 pm on an idle Thursday: Who are you, when you are online? A famous cartoon on the web had two dogs sitting on a connected computer, their paws on the mouse, and telling each other, ‘On the internet, nobody knows you are a dog’. But in the hyper-connected world that we live in, everybody knows exactly who we are, even as we ourselves are confused about where our bodies end and where our digital extensions and avatars begin. Things that we do in RL affect and shape the ways in which our avatars evolve on social networking sites. The interactions that our avatars have with other digital objects map back on our understanding of who we are and how we dress our bodies. Even when we are not connected, our avatars interact, constantly, not only with other avatars in the system, but also machines and artificial intelligence scripts, and robots and networks, masquerading as ourselves even outside our knowledge. We might be tagged, liked, shared, transmitted and morphed; we might be photoshopped, reduced to a tweet, condensed to a status message, embodied in an avatar on our favourite role playing game, or hovering as a signature to emails. These are all parts of us, but they are not just extensions of us. These are things that not only stand in for us but also shape the ways in which we understand ourselves and how we connect to the world.

The second question crops up regularly in digitally mediated conversations. When your parents call you on the cell phone, or your friend messages you on the Blackberry, or your colleague pings you on Skype or your IRC buddies see you on a chat channel. As our modes of access have become mobile and devices of access have become portable, we can never really clearly answer the question, ‘Where are you right now?’. It is a question worth dwelling on. Where are you when you are walking down a street, using GPRS data on your cellphone, and a friend uses a Voice Over IP service like Whatsapp to ask you, ‘Where are you right now?’. Are you on the street? On your phone? On an application? Located somewhere on a server? Bits of data on a high-speed optic fibre, zooming across the ionosphere? Depending upon who is asking the question, you would be able to and in fact have to give a different answer about where you are when you are online.

This blurred duality might be seen as confusing, taking away the assurance of our body and our geography from everyday practices. In fact, one of the reasons why the digital revolution has been so well received is because these technologies facilitate an almost seamless transfer of ideas, emotions and connections across the different realms of RL and VR, offering us new ways of thinking about being human, being social, and being connected. The strength of the digital is in this coupling together, of the hitherto irreconcilable realms of our life in messy and enchanting ways, giving us new opportunities to think about who we are and where we are in our quotidian lives.