Wider than wide-screen: why virtual reality will never be as good as real reality

September 07, 2018

In my line of work, with a distributed team, conference calls seem to be a necessary evil. Nobody seems to like them, with all their frustrating clichés. It isn’t just that the technology isn’t good enough yet. Part of the problem is that we haven’t yet evolved our etiquette to handle the medium, but there’s more to it than that, a more fundamental limitation of digital communications that means that we’ll always want to talk face to face.

Why are face to face conversations always better than Skype? I think it’s because the world is too big to be contained within a screen. The subtleties of human interaction don’t survive the compression necessary to fit into the limited bandwidth of a Skype call.

The same is true for other parts of our lives. When we store information digitally, we’re not storing the actual information. We’re storing a representation of it, a simulation, a compressed version that is lossy by definition. Even in so far as our devices are able to capture the world, they only retain those parts of it that the algorithm considers essential. The world is too complex, too rich, and too messy to be captured as data points by any algorithm.

In Nunhead, South London, there’s a man who seems to have volunteered himself as a traffic warden. Most mornings, he’ll stand on the corner wearing hi-viz, directing traffic at a slightly awkward corner. Sometimes I think about stopping to ask him why he does it, but I’m usually in a hurry to get to work. Besides, I quite like not knowing - it leaves me free to speculate on his motives.

Once I tried Googling him, but there was nothing there. In a way, I was glad. Contrary to what Google may think, not all information in the world can be classified and organised. The inner motivations of a stranger shouldn’t be public knowledge available for all and sundry to idly search. Hi-viz man exists in the physical world, not online.

The desire to focus on the offline world was part of why I recently deactivated Twitter, although it was also a very minor form of protest against hate speech. It may not have made any difference. Chances are, nobody even noticed I wasn’t there. I don’t tweet all that much, I’ve only got a couple of hundred followers, and some of them are people who think I’m the dead guitar player from AC/DC.

But it’s also good to have a break from all of that incoming data. I mainly use Twitter as a time-filler, a reflexive action to shield me from the boredom of spending time in my own company. I’ve become more and more aware of the negative impact it has on my behaviour, my mood, and my view of the world. Twitter can be the source of amusement and learning, but more often than not it’s a conduit for negativity to enter my life. I’ll go on Twitter in between doing other things, and 5 minutes later I’ll be mildly outraged about some injustice or other, or convinced that the world is full of neo-Nazis.

The timing was good. I was going on holiday without my daughter, so I would have decent chunks of time to myself to do whatever I wanted, without needing bite-sized bits of distraction. My plan was to read books and physical newspapers, do the crossword, go for long rides on my bike, and otherwise do very little.

This wasn’t one of those digital detoxes that you hear people talking about. I was still using my phone for reading the news, email, Spotify and Evernote. Every now and again, I’d have a look at Facebook, and of course, when I went for those long rides, I recorded them on Strava - sometimes it feels like if you didn’t log it, it didn’t happen.

At one point on my ride, I looked out across a valley, and the sight of the rolling hills filled me with joy, a refreshing feeling of freedom, and a wonderful sense that all was well in the world. Perhaps I was having what Alain De Botton described in The Art of Travel as “an encounter, pleasurable, intoxicating even, with human weakness in the face of the strength, age and size of the universe”. I thought about taking a picture, add it to my ride - after all, posts with media get more engagement. But there was no point. Partly, I wanted to carry on riding, rather than stopping to faff about with my phone. More than that, though, it just wouldn’t have been a very good photo. The point about those views of the rolling countryside is that they don’t fit into a photo, especially not a social media thumbnail. Looking at the view makes you feel small in comparison to the hills, and there’s no way that a photo on a phone can do that. Even with a panoramic photo, you don’t get the sense of wonder that the world is a beautiful place - something is always lost when you try to capture the moment. Also, there’s something about having slogged your way up a hill that enhances your appreciation of the view from the top.

I’ll probably re-activate my Twitter account, although hopefully I’ll use it less frequently, and more intentionally. I’m a city-dweller, and while I like getting away from it all for a while to have some downtime, there’s something invigorating about getting back up to London speed. The same is true for my digital life. I want to move quickly through cyberspace, and process a lot of information as I go.

One good thing about going out into the countryside, and going offline, is that it helps us to experience the world directly, without it being framed by a screen, without being filtered by any algorithms. It’s too easy to see the world as a set of facts, a series of data points that can be aggregated and analysed in terms of how they fit into a wider pattern. We lose something when we view the world this way. There’s more to life than pattern recognition, and individual moments and people have value beyond their existence as part of a dataset. There are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in any algorithm or that can fit on a smartphone screen.