Why The Future of Digital is Physical

I often have the same conversations many times over. Sometimes they’re with other people, on air or answering questions at a talk. Sometimes they are entirely in my head, as part of a blog post or just a thought process. It means I’m never quite sure what I’ve said and to whom. So forgive me if this is an idea I’ve shared before, but I couldn’t find reference to it on my blog.

There’s a belief in the minds of many of the more mature that young people have given themselves over to the digital realm. That they are more interested in the screen than the sky and that this is somehow inherently damaging. And that they engage indiscriminately without thought to future consequence.

Personally, I think this is nonsense on a number of levels.

Firstly, my own observations of the young people I work with and how they use technology suggests that its primary function is to organise physical engagement — of every type. Why have services like Snapchat and Instagram become so popular? Because they encourage the sharing of your current real-world experience. Facebook is increasingly dominated by videos and photos. Tinder? Well, its success speaks for itself. These tools are being used to organise future real-world experiences and share the ones they have already had.

There is an argument about the narcissistic, show-off culture that drives us to use these tools. And one that says we would be better off enjoying the experience than constantly trying to share it from behind a screen. But to say that young people use digital tools as an alternative to the physical? I think that is increasingly wrong.

Young people’s TV consumption is falling as they consume more digital media on mobile devices and we have to see this as primarily a good thing: they are moving from a passive activity to a more active one, albeit one that carries risks.

Secondly, there is the charge that the young engage indiscriminately online, sharing personal information without a thought for risks. Again I have to say the behaviours I’ve witnessed and the success of private messaging services suggest this is not true.

There was absolutely a generation who were young when social media was an absolute novelty and who embraced it without a second thought. That generation has probably shared a lot of stuff they’d now like to retrieve.

But the generation that followed them is a lot more savvy. Hence the success of Snapchat and less public messaging services like WhatsApp and their diminished use of Facebook. They are careful about what they share, and where they share it.

So what does this say about the future?

Despite the so-far limited success of augmented reality (Google Glass etc), I believe strongly that we will increasingly see the physical and digital worlds merge as more items are connected and our interfaces to them become more natural and human. Our digital interactions will become more subtle: conversation and gestures, colours and vibrations, head up, not head down. We will become better at receiving, filtering and responding to information via multiple sensory channels. We’re capable: just look at how we deal with all of the information flying at us when driving a car at speed.

Young people aren’t lost in some cyber netherworld. They’re mapping out our increasingly physical, digital future.

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Tom Cheesewright