We are all suffering information overload, people spend so much time in the virtual world they forgot how to enjoy the real world, youth spend too much time playing video games and using their smart phones they don’t have any social skills and are probably prone to mass murder because of all the violence.
Cliché after cliché, repeated endlessly, over and over again. Every self-proclaimed ‘expert’ in something can find a spot on a TV talk show if they have a theory on how video games are corrupting the youth or how people are suffering information overload and forgetting to socialise. And most people seem happy to repeat these words, these sentiments, with little evaluation or criticism; it’s just the accepted wisdom of our time. Notice how almost all of these comments come from Digital Immigrants and Dodos for whom the Digital Revolution is still a bit of a mystery, people who can only evaluate what’s happening based on their pre-digital education and perception of the world.
Aren’t you just sick of hearing the same drivel? Isn’t it time to question if these terms and these ideas are at all true? I mean, can anyone explain what does ‘information overload’ actually mean?
DIGITAL THOUGHTS BY SPHERE POINT
For this article I’m just going to focus on 3 words commonly used: Virtual world, video games and information overload to show why we should never use these words again.
- Virtual: is virtually the accepted and most common word to use when you’re referring to the internet, the World Wide Web or any computer related technology. Everyone seems content to use this word, and more adversely it is used in conjunction with its perceived ‘opposite’ the Real World. So we have neatly accepted a division between what is the real world and what is merely virtual i.e. something that happens on or through a screen and a microchip usually.Now, leaving dictionary entries aside for a moment, what connotation (something dictionaries don’t tend to mention) does the word virtual have in our minds? Basically, something virtual is not real, or at least less real. Maybe even imaginary or fake. And this connotation is handsomely demonstrated when we make comparisons with the counterpart of virtual and find ourselves saying the real world. Even tech-savvy, Digital Natives, and executives of successful internet companies use this division without flinching.The term virtual became part of popular culture as the Digital Revolution exploded in the mid 90s. And maybe at that first stage of the Revolution it made some sense; things were made to simulate analogue stuff, so instead of a type writer we had word processors, instead of playing a chess game with a real person you could play against artificial intelligence.But this analogy has long become redundant, and frankly has outstayed its welcome. Yet we still use it, out of habit and admittedly because it’s useful; we need a certain way to describe all these things happening in all these new digital spaces and so we use ‘virtual’. The problem is when we associate our old connotation of the word and apply it as a matter of fact.
So you see a neat division between the virtual and digital worlds? Oh, really? Here’s my take on it; there is absolutely nothing virtual, nothing less real about the world you call virtual. And the world you call real? Well it can hardly stand up to scrutiny. The ‘virtual world’ in its entirety is made up of real people doing real things. Nothing here is imaginary. People communicate with their real friends, fall in love with a stranger, have their LULZ at a clever meme, bully, share things that are valuable to them, and a thousand things more. All these things are as real as it gets. All of it is real, none of it is virtual, because even if you can´t touch it, the emotions experienced are well and truly real. And because now, the line that divided the ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ is disintegrating real fast. Just take a look at the revolutions of 2011; whether in the Arab Spring, the #SpanishRevolution, Occupy or Anonymous, the revolutions mixed online and offline organisation and action.
And your dear old real world? Just look around you, it’s full of virtual stuff! Let’s go back to a dictionary definition; virtual is defined as “Existing in the mind, especially as a product of the imagination.” Well as you might appreciate our ‘real’ world is full of those, from psychic readers, to urban legends, to race supremacy ideas, to gods and deities. So what is so particularly real about this world of yours?
I believe it is time to forever ditch the term ‘virtual’ when referring to the digital world. But since we need a special nuance for this new world we can simply use “digital world” to describe those things that occur digitally. A satisfactory distinction that doesn’t carry unreal connotations. And so what´s the counterpart for the digital world? Since we established that it most certainly isn’t the real world we can happily use the “physical world”. This way we can distinguish between things that we can touch with our own hands, what our senses can discern without digital gadgets and things that take place digitally. And thus finally liberate the Digital Revolution from this absurd notion that it is virtual.
Meanwhile, ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ can go back to their day jobs doing what they’ve been doing for long. What is real for you can be physical or digital, and what is virtual is something you judge as imaginary or not real. And in the end, on an individual level the lines that divide these things are subjective. Just don’t call the internet virtual any more!
- Video games: again, a word that made sense when it came into common usage but is now holding back our understanding of a very interesting phenomenon. My essential problem here is the second part of the term, the ‘game’ part. The ‘video’ part is not accurate either but at least it doesn’t mislead us as ‘game’ does. The word ‘game’ conjures up connotations of entertainment, amusement, something trifling of little real value apart from fun. But video games are so much more than that, and can be a hugely impressive tool for the future if only we start shedding the negative connotation, or at the very least the impression that it’s a waste of time, a distraction.Video games are now one of the world’s favourite forms of entertainment, and instead of shaking our demonization sticks at it and blaming it for anything we don’t like in society maybe we should try to better understand why they are so popular and how can that enrich and improve our lives and our world.An aircraft pilot nowadays starts their training on a simulator where they learn valuable skills long before jumping behind the wheels of a physical plane. So what´s the difference between the simulator and a mere video game? Technically there is no difference at all. It is the same thing. The only difference is that a pilot doesn’t say “I’m playing a game” when he refers to his very serious training program. So the point is a video ‘game’ can be a very serious thing indeed. Not that there is anything wrong with entertainment and having fun. Just that using the word ‘game’ all the time limits our understanding of the potential for this new technological and cultural experience. A video game allows the gamer to interact and participate in a way that films and books, as an example, don’t allow. And it allows us to do things and enter flights of fantasy that were impossible a couple of decades ago.When I was at school I had to study history and that included a sizeable part about World War II, and meant memorizing dates and names and events and learning dry facts. None of this managed to inspire me, and that wouldn’t surprise most people. Either you had the luck to have an inspiring teacher or you basically ended up with a complete lack of interest, if not outright hostility, towards most of the subjects you studied at school. And you probably forgot most of what you learnt the day after your exam. Then, early in the 2000s a new breed of WWII games started to appear. I have no shame in saying that playing Medal of Honour was by far the best history lesson I’d ever had. I mean, I was there, I was part of it and not only did I learn tons of facts about the war, I even got a feeling of what it must have been like to be in the landings of the Normandy that not even a Spielberg can match. And no, stop your internal debate, that is not trivialisation; the game’s positive effect didn’t end there, because once I was bitten by the curiosity bug I couldn’t have enough of WWII. Books, photos, documentaries, and everything else I could lay my hands on. You see this is how it should work, first you become interested in something and then you start the process of learning about it. And our school system is set up the other way round.
I mention education because I believe that video ‘games’ have an integral role to play in its future, and because it is an area that particularly interests me. But the applications that video games can be put to are limitless. Just drop the ‘game’ connotation. But unlike the first word I discussed, I am not offering a substitute, probably because it requires the invention of a new word, and manufactured words have as much of a chance of succeeding as a non-gamer has in understanding the beauty of video ‘games’.
- Information overload: aren’t you suffering from it yet? Not a day passes without hearing this phrase used casually. I’ve even heard of “information overload disorder”. Disorder??? Seriously?! Where are the victims of this overload? I’m still waiting to see someone´s head explode from too much information, still waiting to see a teen collapse on the bus, smart phone in hand, screaming and frothing around the mouth “too…. much…. information… can’t take it anymore…” Do you know anyone suffering from it, or do you suffer from it yourself? No you don’t! I’m here to reassure you, no such thing exists.What’s happening here is that analogue-minded people look at the internet, and see the potential for huge amounts of information, and they panic and go to television stations and write articles about the huge amounts of information we are bombarded with and this overload thing happening to us. What these ‘experts’ are suffering from is not an information overload disorder, they are suffering from the being an idiot disorder, or to be kinder to them the being a dodo disorder; not being able to come to terms with dramatic changes in their world.Why doesn’t any of these people talk to us about the information overload caused by libraries? Have you seen one of these things? They are full of thousands of books about everything. Yes I do suffer from the overload disorder when I’m in a library; I want to read everything. But as a balanced person I choose a couple of books, then I walk out safely from there, unharmed by the toxic radiation of so much information. So how is that different from the net?Let me clarify, first we are not being ‘bombarded’ (always bombarded!) by information, we now have more control than ever over the information we want to consume and what we want to discard. Second the keyword when we are examining the amount of information on the net is potential. Yes there is almost limitless information about everything, but being human we have a limit on what we can absorb at any given moment, which is the only thing the prophets of overload doom get right, and so we consume what we can and want, and ignore the rest. In general, people just don’t exceed their capacity, and the rest of the information remains as a potential. In fact I can argue that we even have a great advantage over pre-digital societies in the information overload department. Nowadays tons of useful but not pertinent information can be discarded from our minds, because we have it stored and available on our digital devices, allowing more space for useful information than ever before in our minds. So maybe we are suffering from ‘information underload’ because we see no need to remember the date of The Battle of Verdun any more!
Here no replacement nor invented words are necessary, just stop using this ridiculous term altogether, and enjoy the infinite world of information at your disposal.
Notice: I don’t believe in anyone policing the language and waging wars against words. Language is an organic human invention whose director and manager are the users themselves and not any authority. So I’m not really trying to suggest eliminating these words or using my suggestions, it is just a light-hearted attempt to make us think harder about the connotations that lead us to misconceptions, underestimating a new phenomenon, overestimating the effects of others, and generally confuse us while we’re navigating this brave new digital world.
~ Sphere Point
Read more Digital Thoughts:
The Digital Revolution; High Speed and Low Visibility
Of Dodos, Pioneers and Natives in the Digital Revolution