Escaping the Digital World

Humanity has always depended on information. Invention is fueled by it, wars are fought with it, and many people spend their entire lives in search of it. Knowledge used to vary wildly between different parts of the world when broader communication networks hadn’t yet been established, making information the most valuable thing people could acquire.

Enter the modern world, and the story has changed completely. Information is now a commodity.

In this world, we can access near-infinite amounts of data on a whim with a tap of our finger. Great debates can be resolved in an instant just by typing the question into Google. With a simple question to our snarky virtual assistant, we can objectively discover the best pizza in the city, or finally discover how much wood a woodchuck would chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.

It seems odd that no one’s stopped to ask if the woodchuck thing is really more about quality over quantity.

While the sheer quantity of data about every aspect of our world is staggering, there’s still a core problem that has proven difficult to address: the transition from raw data into informed action. None of the information we use actually exists in the real (physical) world anymore, making it difficult to access in a natural way. A number of large Internet companies have taken charge of cataloging this information, but no one has truly cracked the problem of making this information readily useful.

I refer to this issue as the “digital world” problem: the idea that all of the information we depend so heavily upon exists in a realm separate from most of our day-to-day lives. Any time we want to access this incredible culmination of human genius, we are forced to do so through slabs of glass and metal (cell phones) designed for a set of generic interactions.

There are also a lot of other things mixed in with the human genius, but we’ll take those for what they are.

Now, this kind of design for a device isn’t unprecedented by any means. To draw a metaphor to art, the modern smartphone/tablet can be thought of as a canvas for digital experiences. There’s nothing wrong with a blank slate, but should it be the only way to create and consume information the digital world? Artists work in many different media, including painted canvas, sculpture, collage, and even carefully-positioned light. These media exist for people to convey their messages in the way that feels most apt to them.

It may be because of this lack of suitable media that people often become consumed by their digital goods. We’ve all seen people walking down the sidewalk, heads down concentrating on texts, their news feed, or the latest mobile gaming craze. Digital experiences are largely confined to the medium of the mobile phone, and as a result, people get drawn away from the true human experience happening around them. We spend this much of our lives in the digital world because we thrive on the information it provides, yet we don’t do nearly enough to bring this interaction into the world in which we actually live.

Don’t be this guy. (Unless the band is playing Nickelback covers. Then, maybe be this guy for a bit.)

Fortunately, it looks like the startup world is starting to solve this problem. The “smart devices” movement is a stepping stone into something far greater than we have seen in the past. Rings that record and act upon your gestures and pens that allow you to take notes / respond to messages are a big move in the right direction, bringing us into a world where creating and consuming data is fluid and natural. Displays like HoloLens and MagicLeap aim to augment what we see so that visual data can make sense, and adapt to the way we’re used to seeing the world.

We’ve made great strides in collecting and analyzing information, now it’s time to tailor our efforts toward making this information fit our lifestyles — not the other way around. We need ways for people to naturally interact with information so that our world can move faster than ever before, without sacrificing the experiences that make us human.


Originally published at rickyhopper.com on August 18, 2015.