Is Reality Obsolete?

Bruce Haden
What’s Next Health
6 min readOct 25


Welcome to the Hunch Room, a space where futurists, leaders, thinkers, and friends ponder the intriguing notions they’ve come across on New hunches are posted at Share Your Hunch continually, so be sure to stop in and stroll through. And please, leave a hunch of your own!

Today, What’s Next Health is serving up reflections by Bruce Haden, recent RWJF Pioneering Ideas for an Equitable Future portfolio grantee.

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“I wonder if….” we should sever the meaning of the visceral experience from the screen experience? What if we thought of only what we see and touch as “real”, while the expanding cloud of digital images, texts and sounds provides us experiential richness, but not “truth”?

(I put “I wonder if….” in quotes because it is a prompt from the Share your Hunch site. This lovely open phrase allows for speculation without the need for certainty, completeness and analytical depth. It helped me let go of my need to be clever, confident, accurate, etc. — all those ego-based fears of judgment that can block a fresh exploration of ideas.)

In the spirit of “I wonder if….”, I have been thinking about our changing relationship to “reality”. This musing was sparked by the hunches posted around the sudden rise of Chat GPT. Many of these AI nervous hunches exhibit an understandable fear of the fake, such as Andrea’s from earlier this year:

But Julia Mossbridge had a different take on AI:

This contrasting pair of hunches set me up to ponder our prehistoric relationship with “reality”. I imagined an early hunter gatherer whose life was deeply visceral. “Reality” for her was, during waking hours, a fulsome, unescapable and granular mix of sights, sounds, and smells — a direct survival focused experience unmediated by screens. This experience of “reality” conferred exclusively by individual senses contrasts with our modern culture where our lived experience and our imaginations are often focused by devices, and so are separate from our personal mix of body / brain sensors.

With my hunter gatherer in mind, I asked a wise consultant, my twelve-year-old son Griffin, about this issue of “reality”. He reached out and grasped a doorknob, and said simply, “THIS handle is reality” — what he could touch was real. This simple observation led me to imagine a world where we trust the direct experience of our own senses, but anything digitally mediated would be considered potentially fake. The doorknob would be real, but the image of the doorknob might not be.

…perhaps the overwhelming sense of the precision and stability and “truth” of an image or a recording can reinforce our own certainty about the rightness of our own perception, reducing our ability to understand that others may see the same “reality” in a very different way.

At first this idea that anything not able to be viscerally experienced should be thought of as potentially artificial seems disastrous. But maybe such a world might lead us back to a healthy focus on in person experience. A Drake song will only be real if we attend a concert, we learn the true character of a politician only from a live speech, a painting must be seen in a gallery, and architecture must be visited to be understood fully.

Ridiculous perhaps — but this in person idea of “reality” was the only option until Daguerre demonstrated what would become photography in 1839 and Marconi sent the first telegraph in 1895. Our modern brains have been able to get lazier as a result of accessible depictions of remote events. But we could take inspiration from, for example, the thousands of voters who listened to seven, three-hour outdoor debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas on the issue of slavery in 1858. Maybe those voters understood the important choices in play better than if they plunged down the rabbit hole of political debate on “X”?

This possibility of a fresh privileging of the in-person experience as a measure of reality is hinted at by Eric Parker in another Hunch:

And then I broadened my wondering to consider the swirl of “content” that we live in. Until the recent sharp rise of imitation and alluring invention of AI, a photograph or a video or a recording could be trusted to be an accurate depiction of a part of reality. As AI floods us with creations, our understanding of images and narratives will quickly shift away from the bedrock assumption of that “content” being unadulterated. This seems easy to label as a bad consequence, but perhaps the overwhelming sense of the precision and stability and “truth” of an image or a recording can reinforce our own certainty about the rightness of our own perception, reducing our ability to understand that others may see the same “reality” in a very different way. A focus on the accuracy of those depictions may let us avoid the heavy lifting of deeper analysis. Consider the example of the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, and the millions of words of conflicting analysis of that video, or the brutal flood of imagery from both sides in the Hamas / Israeli war. Instead of repeatedly parsing those harsh pixels for the real, we could bring a more nuanced appreciation of the potency of differing perceptions of events. Rather than arguing sharply for our own “truth” backed up by the certainty of the video or the recording, we may be more open to other’s interpretations.

Of course, we can’t ignore the real and potentially horrific consequences of distributed lies. I am just availing myself of the freedom of the Hunch game to be exploratory and imperfect!

To recap this imperfect visioning, I can imagine a usefully bifurcated understanding of the world. The “real” world would be limited to that we experience through the senses embedded in our body / brain. We would revert to the direct experience of the hunter gatherer for this part of our existence. In contrast, the “unreal” world of the mediated image and sound, brought to us through a flood of media, would simply be assumed to be altered, a living dream if you like. We would have to engage with others to draw meaning out of direct discussion of our different “realities”. The sharp swords of debate focused on a photographed or recorded reality would, of necessity, be replaced by debates around ethics, humanity, meaning, and purpose.

We would trust our senses, not our screens.

“I wonder if”…. that would be better?

Bruce Haden is the leader of FLUID Architecture in Vancouver, Canada. His architecture focuses on interaction, indigeneity and intimacy. To support human connection through interaction, Bruce led the creation of the FLUID Sociability software tool (FLUID Intro). This gaming-based simulation tool helps designers understand how building organization can lead to more opportunities for friendship. The indigeneity focus comes from Bruce’s history of work with native communities from the Yukon to Mexico, and also speaks to a broader mission; using architecture to anchor our human understanding of place. The word intimacy references a focus on craft and reminds us that architecture is only ever directly experienced at the scale of the human body.

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Now it’s your turn! Have a hunch that’s on your mind? Come set it free at! And remember to stop back into the Hunch Room to see what kind of gear-turning hunches can inspire! Share Your Hunch is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its Pioneering Ideas for an Equitable Future team.



Bruce Haden
What’s Next Health

Bruce is an architect in Vancouver, Canada. He leads the FLUID Sociability public good software project, and designs Indigenous, cultural and housing projects.