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I used to dream about flying. A lot. The dreams were extremely vivid. I knew exactly where I was and when I woke I could still remember the mental trigger for my flight powers. A virtual muscle I had to flex to allow me to lift off from the ground. The disappointment I felt when it didn’t work in the waking world was crushing.
Last week, I flew. Not on a plane, though I did that as well, but on a theme park ride. Actually, it was loosely shaped like an aircraft, albeit one from the last-but-one Century, as apparently stitched together by ‘The Tailor of Ulm’, a man with (ultimately unsuccessful) dreams of flight.
The Hohenflug (and rides like it) is, for me, the best fairground ride in the world. It combines the usual thrills of speed and g-forces, with a measure of control: using two handles you can independently control each wing attached to your seat, allowing you to spin right around, barrel-rolling as you fly through the air. There is even a points system for the most rolls.
Why am I writing about this?
I find myself making two points frequently when talking about the future of digital entertainment. First, that even with our current sophistication in gaming and virtual reality, there is nothing to match the visceral thrill of physical motion. Secondly, the greater the proportion of our experiences that are digital, the more we will crave — and value — those physical experiences. I think we need to consider this more in education, culture and city planning.
I’m seeing more and more exercise trails spring up around urban parks, but these offer little in the way of an adrenaline rush. I wonder if we can’t incorporate more excitement into our cities, not just for kids but for adults — andI don’t mean what might traditionally be termed ‘adult entertainment’.
How about more adult-scale slides, zipwires, and abseils? Can we make the existing attractions — karting, laserquest, indoor snow slopes — more accessible to a wide range of people? Can we introduce kids to these things earlier, giving those who might not get access a taste of a wider range of physical activity? And can we make it more acceptable for adults to just take time out for a dose of adrenaline.
Digital entertainment is cheaper than physical entertainment in many ways. This is what undermines the frequent complaint from conservative commentators about people on benefits having a big TV. Of course they do: one TV provides hours of entertainment for the price of just a few trips out with the family once you factor in travel, food, equipment and all the other costs. If we are to avoid digital entertainment becoming the overwhelming choice, further feeding our current obesity epidemic, we have to ensure that the physical alternatives are not just available, not just accessible, but normal: a core part of our culture.
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As I’m fond of saying, we are all bionic now. We have offloaded memory, navigation and other functions to our smartphones and cloud-connected devices. What wearable technologies really represent is the second wave of mass-adoption bionics. How we adapt and respond to this rapid advance is going to need some thought.
This morning I was up at the Beeb, talking about Peaches Geldof’s Twitter gaffe. It was striking that someone apparently bright and educated, who has worked in the media, can have the nous to acquire 160,000 followers but not to recognise when her Tweets might be illegal. And worse, that they might be damaging to the future lives of two innocent infants.
But I don’t necessarily lay all the blame at her door.
Digital social media is a new technology. We are still adapting our behaviours to its existence and learning our way around its flaws, laws and possibilities. Arguably we haven’t yet got to grips with email — also a social media by many definitions. Etiquette for this now-antiquated form of digital communication continues to evolve, driven in part by changing modes of access.
Writing on the wall
Every new media has had a challenging introduction. Read Tom Standage’s excellent ‘Writing on the Wall’ for the full story, but from the advent of the letter through the printing press, it has always taken time for societies and governments to catch up with the implications of new technologies.
Hence the fear generated by Google Glass and other coming wearables. It took Peaches Geldof seconds to tap out a series of law-breaching tweets. But at least she had to withdraw the phone from her pocket first and unlock it: a small window in which to consider her actions. Imagine what she could do with a camera strapped to her head and the ability to tweet a stream of consciousness straight from her lips.
Life on camera
I don’t think people are scared of the possibility that someone wearing their tech could be surreptitiously streaming pictures straight to the web. I think they’re scared of the fact that people will. It is going to take at least at least a decade after wearable tech becomes the norm before we get to a recognisable set of rules, defined enough for us to be able to say confidently what is acceptable and what is not. Codifying those rules into laws will likely take another decade.
If that sounds like a long time, bear in mind it is now a decade since the launch of MySpace and I’m still regularly asked to advise and instruct on the use of social media. Though Facebook is ubiquitous, Twitter and LinkedIn are used by fewer than a quarter of people in the UK. I see behaviour I think is odd on all three networks all the time, but rarely do I consider the incidents so clearly outside any accepted ‘rules’ as to upbraid the perpetrator. Others are either more confident or happier to sit in judgement, but the fact remains: we are still learning.
Wearable faux pas
I was one of those people who happily rocked a Bluetooth headset back in the early noughties, until I realised (and others gleefully pointed out) that I looked like a dick. Unless you’re a secret service agent, you do not need to be in hands-free contact at all times. I will also sport any wearable tech I can get my hands on until we decide as a society what works and what doesn’t, what is cool and what isn’t, what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale. I will do so in the knowledge that it is a learning process and mistakes are part of that process. And while everything settles down, I won’t criticise others for their errors, as long as they don’t repeat them. Even if I think, as in the case of Peaches Geldof, they really should know better.
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