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Pandemic Hastens Our Analog to Digital to Virtual Reality

With meatspace becoming more dangerous, a hybrid state is coming faster than we think.
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On April 10, Balaji S. Srinivasan, a Silicon Valley investor with an oracular turn of mind, tweeted about the changes being wrought by Covid-19:

Don’t write an obituary for globalism just yet. The old world, the cosmopolitan international world, will still exist. But mainly in the cloud. VR [virtual reality] will be wild. The physical world is going to get grim though. Borders, lockdown, surveillance, shortages, unemployment, nationalism.

Perhaps we should unpack this a little bit. Staying with the tech vocabulary, we might think of Srinivasan’s tweet as describing the transition from analog to digital to virtual.

In the popular discourse, “analog” typically refers to pre-digital technology. Thus, for example, a clock with hands is analog, while a clock with a digital display is, well, digital. Similarly, a long-playing (LP) record, and a record player, are analog, while an MP3 file, and the machine that plays it, are digital.

But there’s a broader way of thinking about the difference between analog and digital:

Analog is the world as it is—that is, the world in all its difference and diversity, from blades of grass to gusts of wind to towers of steel. Analog is all of nature, and it’s also, of course, everything that humans have ever created. As such, analog contains an infinite continuum of signals—all colors, all sounds, all everything.

Digital is this physical world transmuted, electronically, and so made manageable. Digital compresses continuous analog signals into discrete form—ones and zeros—and converts the data into files and content.

The upside of digitalization is that files and content can be created, copied, transferred, and data-crunched at nano-cost and in nano-time. Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine contemporary life—from smart phones to e-commerce—without digitalization and the accompanying computerization and artificial-intelligence-ization.

One downside of digitalization is that the compressing process squeezes out the uniqueness of the original signal. That’s why arty purists and aesthetes tend to disdain digital, because some of the verisimilitude and brilliance in the original is lost in digitalization. Needless to say, most people don’t care about getting the full 100 percent of an experience; they’ll happily settle for 99.9 percent, especially if it’s cheaper and faster. And that’s why digital is so ubiquitous: For the vast majority, it simply works better.

Yet still, we shouldn’t dismiss this old-guard critique of digital, because it’s from these dissenters that we might see a fuller appreciation of enduring analog virtues.

A more troubling downside of digital is that it’s akin to a monoculture, and as such, it’s vulnerable to hacks, computer viruses, and other digital diseases.

However, the greatest downside of digitalization comes from its greatest strength; when everything has been standardized, then everything is illuminated to onlookers with prying eyes, at least potentially.

A digital file, after all, is fungible; it can be read by billions of machines. That’s the essence of interoperability—and it’s also, of course, the end of privacy. To be sure, there are many privacy shields, but the encryption available to most people won’t stand up to the decryption available to many governments and other large organizations.

By this reckoning, the digital realm is a mechanism of great efficiency—and ominous transparency. Indeed, it’s hard to argue with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who back in 2011 declared that the Internet:

… is not a technology that favors freedom of speech.  It is not a technology that favors human rights. … Rather it is a technology that can be used to set up a totalitarian spying regime, the likes of which we have never seen. 

So now today, as the world is linked together through the Net, AI, e-commerce, and the Internet of Things, we are tantalized by the frictionlessness of it all—and tormented by the thought that we’ve traded away our privacy, dignity, and liberty. A Faustian bargain.

Yet these days, the old analog world seems a bit less appealing. In its natural abundance, the analog environment was often wild and untamed, with manmade threats and dangers adding another layer of fear and risk. And now, in the Covidian Era, the physical world seems even more dangerous.

In fact, just on April 8, Microsoft founder Bill Gates told The Financial Times that a Covid 19-like outbreak could be coming “every 20 years or so.” In other words, analog nature isn’t always so motherly; the children of the earth—all of us—need more defense.

And perhaps digital will be a big part of that defense. Just on April 10, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple and Google are teaming up to turn smartphones into Coronavirus tracking devices; it seems that the two rivalrous tech companies agree on this much. To put it mildly, not everyone will like this joint plan, and yet even if these tech titans are somehow stymied, others, including in the U.S. government, are harboring the same watchful idea.

The digital realm sings us its enticing song. But is it really the sound of sunny solutions? Or are these the strains of cunning sirens, luring us onto rocks of disaster? Perhaps we could have both good and bad at the same time, in some futuristic fugue of utopia and dystopia.

About the only thing we know for sure is that there’s no turning back; few people are willing to take a stand against modernity and machines, as did John “The Savage” in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, Brave New World. (And things didn’t work out so well for John; the noble but unhappy character ends up hanging himself.)

Still, as this author has noted here at TAC, if we use our political heads and study our history, we might yet have the capacity to shape the digital environment in a positive way, just as we positively shaped the analog environment.

In the meantime, of course, even the most wired techie still must perforce live like an analog; the bodily functions of input and output are still viscerally real. So at most, we’re hybrids, analog and digital.

Actually, we could be tribids, existing in analog, digital, and virtual space. As Silicon Valley’s Srinivasan says, we might let slip the surly bonds of earth and go Zooming through cyberspace, interacting, working, and sightseeing.

If analog life is scarier than it used to be, and if digital life is scary in a different way, then maybe virtual life will offer some improvement. Perhaps virtuality will afford us a new kind of freedom—freedom of anonymity, freedom of expression, even freedom of movement—that we haven’t yet imagined.

To be sure, today’s virtual reality is just an extension of digital—it’s the same process of digitalization that creates online avatars. And in any case, avatars are but a minuscule presence on the web. Thus to the extent that virtual reality is just a different manifestation of digital, it’s little more than virtual fool’s gold.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t sell humans short. As everyone who ever thrilled to that famous “1984” Apple TV ad knows, the human capacity to imagine new and effective solutions, thereby confounding orthodoxy, is not to be underestimated. That is, just at the moment when someone instructs us, “Our Unification of Thoughts is a more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause”—you never know who’s going to be throwing a mighty hammer, smashing fearsome but brittle authority.

We should always remember: Homo sapiens is analog. Yes, we might live digitally, even virtually, but the analog-born human spirit within us is strong. So maybe we can figure out a way to preserve human values, even as we pass through the digital and virtual looking glass.

Oh, and one other thing: In this season of Easter and Passover, we’re reminded that God has a lot invested in us. So if we play our cards right, maybe He will help us out.

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