You and I experience different realities. Or rather, we experience reality differently.
How could we not? Those ‘sounds’ you hear do not have any explicit meaning coded into them. Mean is created by your ears and brain working together to interpret the vibrations in the air in a particular context. Is it a siren or a baby wailing?
Those colours you ‘see’ are just your brain’s interpretation of different wavelengths of light. What colour is that dress? Those objects all around you? They don’t exist absolutely as you see them. It’s just your brain extrapolating from limited information. They aren’t even really solid.
Our experiences are sufficiently shared for us to interact. But our interpretation is nonetheless, unique.
The unconscious translator
This interpretation is largely unconscious. Some heavyweight mental exercises, or some pretty strong drugs, might change that interpretation. But for the most part, we have very little control of the interpretation that happens inside us.
What about the outside though? Two classes of product show us a future where increasingly we have conscious control over the reality we experience.
First, earphones that alter your aural experience in real-time. This might be changing the sound mix of the world around you, turning up vocals and down traffic. It might be changing the music you hear, turning off the muzak and replacing it with your favourite tunes. It could be translating other languages into your own. You could even change other people’s voices. Always wanted your partner to sound like George Clooney or Mariella Frostrup? In the future, they can.
Of course we can already shut the world out, with our own music turned up loud, or with noise-cancelling systems. But this goes a step beyond. This isn’t blocking experiences, this is consciously tweaking them — or transforming them completely — to suit our desires.
This technology won’t be limited to sound. Right now augmented, or mixed reality has largely been limited to gimmicks. Temporary apparitions on your phone screen. Blocky renditions of dinosaurs on your dining room table, or ill-fitting overlays of potential purchases on your person.
But the future that a mixed reality presents is increasingly clear. Or perhaps, opaque. Because far from the occasional novelty object, mixed reality could mean redesigning the world we see in real time, to meet each of our individual needs and desires.
Imagine walking down the street and every billboard is tailored to you. Every shop front responds to your presence. But only you can see it because you are witnessing the world through a pair of lenses. Everyone around you is seeing their own version of the world.
This is a mild and relatively uncontroversial vision compared to what’s possible.
Tell your own story
Imagine moving your city. You live, for example, under frequently grey skies, in a Northern city. You can’t do anything about the rain making you wet, but you could change the weather you see. It doesn’t matter if it’s overcast, what you see is a sunny Mediterranean afternoon. Complete with sea view and mountains in the distance, if that’s what you want.
Imagine changing the inhabitants of your city. This is where it gets really challenging. Overwrite the appearance of people in the street with orcs and trolls, aliens and automata, or just erase them completely, leaving only an outline for you to avoid bumping into them.
With a camera on your face, lenses in front of your eyes, and buds in your ears, all of this becomes possible with the application of enough bandwidth and processing power.
My concern is what this does to the shared experience. We’ve always seen different realities but they have been sufficiently shared for us to build societies and international bonds. Over the last century, our realities have become increasingly shared. You can debate the relative merits of globalisation but I think it’s hard to argue against the value of a global conversation on common terms over its alternative.
The Brexit referendum and the last US election showed the first signs of a reversal in that increasingly shared reality. The personalised bubbles of our digital media did a great deal to insulate us from opposing views, and fuelled by fake news, presented different tribes with very different realities. Each was clearly sufficiently plausible, if often carrying extreme prejudice and a large amount of fiction.
Imagine how insulated we would be if literally everything we saw was filtered through such a lens.
Caution not criticism
We are some way from this technology being a reality for the masses. But I think it’s less than a decade. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pursue it — far from it. But we should have the discussion now about how we teach people, if we put limitations in place, and who controls the realities that we all witness. Do you want to live in Amazon-land or Google-ville? Do you want to control your own reality? And if so, what’s to stop you becoming isolated?
Digital technologies have done a huge amount to bring the world together. They risk dividing and fragmenting it again. The technology can’t change that, but we can, through its considered application.