Forget augmented reality — we’re already living in an augmented society.

As the internet relentlessly connects us, people grow more lonely. Maybe some of the problems aren't digital at all…

Once in a while, someone disappears down the “online is not the real world” back hole, and the internet kicks off. Today’s example is an NYT opinion columist telling journalists that they should disengage from Twitter. People are, quite rightly, responding that having journalists disappear from the online discourse is likely to make the polarised state of our world worse, rather than better.

But there’s a more serious underlying point here. The physical and the digital are not two separate worlds that exist entirely apart from each other, they mirror, shadow and interconnect with each other. Less, perhaps like the sci-fi concept of parallel universes, and more akin to the fantasy concept of planes of existence. Our digital reality overlays our physical reality. The two connect.

But that connection is not always healthy.

In the early, utopian days of the internet, it allowed lonely people to find each other. Whatever your passion, hobby or fandom, you could find people like you. People exploring their sexuality could find support and assistance online. It made people less lonely. But it hasn’t worked for everyone. In fact, much of the western world is getting more lonely, not less.

An epidemic of loneliness

I was reading Walk – the magazine of UK walker’s rights organisation, The Ramblers — when I came across this staggering figure:

According to research carried out in 2016, over 9 million UK adults – almost a fifth of the population – feel lonely all or most of the time. The reasons are complex, but researchers point to the rise in one-person households and remote working, as well as declining participation in community groups, team sports and churches, and reduced contact with neighbours.

In our hyper-connected, social media age that seems astonishing. But, as the report goes on to explore, it’s more logical that it might seem. People substitute digital relationships for face-to-face ones, and can end up spending days at home, “communicating” without actually having human contact, face-to-face.

And the UK isn’t the only country facing a loneliness epidemic:

And Americans do feel alone — especially young ones. A Cigna survey released last spring found that about half of all respondents felt alone, with younger generations, Gen Z and millennials, scoring higher on the loneliness survey instrument than older generations.

That article discusses the possibility of podcasts and livestreams going some way to addressing that companionship deficit — but that might well be the wrong answer – it, at best, sticks a small plaster over a sucking chest wound.

Loneliness can birth toxic communities

Indeed, the interaction of loneliness and social media can be deeply toxic. This long-form piece of cartooning from The Nib delves deep into how one set of lonely people — young men, who felt they were unsuccessful with women, birthed first a pick-up artists culture, followed by the intel and alt-right movements.

This dynamic illustrates two things very clearly:

  1. That the ability to isolate yourself and fulfil social needs (to some degree) via a deeply homogenous online community can be very damaging — it exempts you from the dissenting offline voices and the social consequences for turning down an anti-social path in your relationships. In this particular case, choosing that road made what the young men sought – sex, and possibly relationships – even less likely, thereby reinforcing their need for this damaging set of community interactions.
  2. At least some of the problems with social media are not, inherently, born of the digital world. They are physical world problems which are magnified and twisted through a digital lens. Removing the digital element may contain the problem – but it will not solve the problem.

Cause and effect are hard to separate at the best of time, and the interplay between the digital and the physical worlds is often under-considered in our discussion of them.

Digital sociologist Dana Boyd has made this point repeatedly down the years, most recently in a podcast interview with Ezra Klein:

The Internet is used for the good, bad, and ugly. It magnifies the good, bad, and ugly. And I always come back to that. I still believe that that’s true. It’s this moment where we can see these tools be used to create such openings, to create such opportunities, to imagine different futures. But they can also be used to reify all sorts of existing prejudices and inequities.

And that bring us back to the idea of an augmented reality.

Augmented society

Mostly, when we discuss augmented reality, we think of it in terms of visual augmentations — the Google Glass or Pokemon Go approach — but the truth is that our reality is already augmented. We live in a an augmented social reality, whose effects are pervasive throughout our society. Managing that, because its too late to retreat from it, requires understanding that the digital and the physical are deeply intertwined, and constantly cross-inform each other.

Any solution which fails to account for the role of the physical in the virtual is, ultimately, doomed to failure.

Photo by Chetan Hireholi on Unsplash