#4. When technology becomes air

Hyperpresence, the metaverse and imagining utopia

Life News:

🙏🏻 My co-founders and I made Forbes 30 under 30 Asia this year

❤️ Here's what March looked like at HaikuJAM

Preamble (feel free to skip):

Hi. It's 11:10 AM. I'm currently sat on the balcony of my flat in Mumbai, windows wide open, feeling the breeze hit my skin. The air is clean. Birds have found an opportunity to fill the silence of the missing cars.

The optimist in me thinks that once this is over, we may have shifted the Overton Window on ditching private car ownership and non-essential car travel. Two billion+ people are experiencing what a city is like without noise and cars, albeit from within their homes. Maybe we'll invest heavily in public transport (and smart, urban-friendly last-mile transportation). Then again, probably not.

It's been 42 days since I last published a piece. As the effects of the pandemic have ramped up around the world, I've been trying to figure out what I could say that could give any value. Doing a product breakdown of an individual start-up felt quaint compared to the magnitude of what we're facing. I'm not a scientist so I can’t bring about a deeper understanding of the virus. The best I've really done is stay a little ahead of the curve with what's about to happen and make sure that I, my family, friends and those around me are well prepared.

Today, I'm getting out of this funk. As Zoom and HouseParty have filled our social-distancing with digital togetherness, I’ve been thinking a lot about how these platforms are low-fidelity prototypes of a Metaverse where we share persistent, digital spaces with people we know.

In this piece, I want to explore the journey of consumer-internet: from past, to present and to possible futures. I will touch on what futures Zoom and HouseParty are hinting at. And most importantly, I wanted to explore the concept of digital utopia: asking ourselves what future we want to end up at, instead of thinking simply iterating what we have.

This is going to be an experimental piece for me. The thinking of what's being presented isn't fully refined and definitely rough around the edges. However, it's a framework I've been intellectually feeling around for a while. I want to touch on it in some ways and maybe there'll be something interesting in this for you :)


Pervasiveness of Consumer Technology

When I think about the overarching themes of consumer technology over the last few decades, there are two dynamics that come to mind:

  • Fixed stationary point —> increased portability:
    When we introduced the personal computer, we had a fixed stationary device for immersing ourselves in the Internet. While we missed out on the potential of always being connected, the physical constraint meant that the technology was used with greater intentionality versus our current interactions with smartphones. This of course has its own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Increased portability —> flickering states of presence:
    As Internet-connected devices have become more portable, the navigational interfaces compete against our experience of the physical world - whether it be our surroundings, the people around us or even our internal selves. To carry a smartphone is to carry optionality to warp out of the physical world. While academic evidence around the impact on cognition and memory is mixed, the constant flickering between digital and physical states already feels exhausting and inefficient.

Generally, what we have seen over time is that the Internet has become more pervasive in our daily lives. And the form-factors of how we connect to the Internet has had a lot of secondary consequences to the way we interact with our physical environment and the present.

If we were to map this journey out over time, we'd see something like this:

The blue-shaded section is what I'm most interested in exploring because I think it's the point where "technology becomes air."

When Technology Becomes Air

By "technology becomes air", I mean to describe a point in time when the digital world and the physical world are not states you flick between, but instead become an omni-state you live and breathe in.

In this state, we'll experience hyper-presence : "an accelerated form of social, psychological and cognitive availability due to the rise of interactive and distance-based media technologies. These technologies allow for the experience of presence to extend beyond the physical self and into the space of the cell phone or web."

Thinking about how this would "feel" is an exercise of imagination. But let's take the example of birds. Birds are able to see the Earth's magnetic fields because of a protein in their eyes. If humans were to want this capability, there are two ways we could go about this. Firstly, through genetic engineering, we could try to grow this protein in humans. Secondly, and perhaps closer to where we are right now, we could download an app. Currently, our app experiences take place through a screen that we lift out of our pockets. But it's not farfetched to imagine this technology meshing itself directly into our visual field (e.g. contact-lens computing or brain-computer interfaces).

I think technology becoming air could manifest in two different ways:

1) VR Metaverse :

A global, virtual persistent space shared by many. A digital playground in which we spend a large portion of our life. While there is still a phase-shift between the physical world and the VR world, there is a clearer demarcation of the two states, and a deeper immersiveness than our existing digital experience. Read more in this great piece here from Scott Broock and Mike Seymour.

2) Invisible Computing / Brain Computing Interfaces

Invisible computing could take the form of a contact-lens display system that overlays an AR experience over our environment. Alternatively, a Brain-Computing Interface would allow us to manipulate interfaces with our thought. Either way, there would be a deeper meshing of technology with our bodies and our environment, without a secondary-detached device to mediate the interaction.

The smart contact lens may arrive within a few years
Example of what an AR contact lens interface could feel like

With respect to the latter (let’s call it all Invisible Computing for the sake of brevity), it's easy to imagine a dystopic scenario of your field of vision being bombarded with ads and distractions. This is a great illustration of such a possible dystopia:

However, I think technology, the Internet and a visual interface need to be disentangled. We're seeing Airpods providing an interesting example of that: a portable voice interface that overlays audio over your current environment. With Invisible Computing, we may eventually not need video or audio feedback to our technological interactions. Perhaps eventually the feedback becomes so subtle as to merge with our current environment. Or more interestingly, merge with our thoughts and sensations as extra sensory capabilities. As technology embeds itself within our brains and bodies, technological output may begin to feel like intuition (or gut-feeling).

Consumer-Social

Things become even more interesting if we look at the social-space through the lens of the increased pervasiveness of consumer Internet over time.

I think consumer-social can be split into two categories (although over time, I think the two will merge):

1) Social-Consolidation: this focuses on the accumulation of the people you come to meet in the physical environments of your life over time. Let's take this to include: family, school friends, college friends, colleagues, and friends of friends.

2) Social-Discovery: this is where technology connects you to someone you don't know.


1. Social Consolidation

As everyone knows, life under quarantine has been dominated by two apps: Zoom and HouseParty.

What I think hasn't been given much thought is how much these apps are a precursor to the Metaverse - or a low-fidelity prototype of what our social life in VR could look and feel like.

The combination of our real faces gathering around a shared activity space is the first taste of the Metaverse for the mainstream. If we transition to VR, this experience will simply become more immersive: a wider world, an infinite range of possible shared activities, fully-body avatars instead of just floating heads, tactile sensation as your avatars interact with each other and the shared digital environment.

As consumer and enterprise blur (e.g. in the case of Zoom), I envision the same could happen in VR. Imagine it as a digital sandbox where people can collaborate together, learn together, work on fun projects together, explore sensory digital experiences together. I think it's no coincidence that we see (and will continue seeing) virtual environments that facilitate work also facilitating leisure. Tools that are built for consumer delight help make work more fun; wherever work feels more fun, social play will become more convenient.

Speculating one-step further: what could social consolidation look like in a world of Invisible Computing? One of the problems with social interactions taking place over screens is that we miss out on non-verbal cues that invite someone to ask how you are. Secondly, the lack of spontaneity in digital interactions reduces social interactions to becoming check-in sessions: a performance, a pressure to report or be interesting.

HouseParty is fascinating in the sense that it broadcasts a message to all of your friends that you're available to talk when you come online. But availability is not everything. Imagine being able to get a spidey-sense that one of your friends is not feeling too good and would appreciate a chat. Or maybe seeing someone in person and getting a smart-read that something may be off. Maybe AI could give you hyper-presence in terms of knowing the best way of approaching the elephant in the room. I'm not exactly sure how this looks. But when I think about digital utopia and achieving transcendence - I think there is infinite potential in fostering intimacy, empathy and reducing the need for social performance.

2. Social-Discovery

So far, social discovery has tended to live either in the context of finding romantic partners, or within gaming contexts (e.g. think of World of Warcraft Clans).

With HaikuJAM, we've been obsessing about creating a digital context to foster intimacy and meaningful connection - our mechanic just happens to be collaborative writing.

Just today, I came across Online Town https://town.siempre.io which is a combination of Zoom and a Pokemon universe where you end up video-chatting to strangers you interact with in a virtual avatar environment. The magic about this kind of environment is that the context for the connection doesn't need to be tied to people playing a mission-based game. The context for conversation is literally just sharing the same spatial environment. These types of virtual spaces are recreating the serendipity of talking to a stranger while queuing for coffee.

When I think about transcendence as a technological outcome, I think a lot about how technology can bring about meaningful change in the way that we view the global human community.

One of the problems with consumer-social today is that a 'digitally diverse community' is not mapping to a tolerant community in the physical world.

For example, this is a jarring contradiction I highlighted with these Young Indians rioting against Muslims, while being statistically likely to be one of those "cute" TikTok users:

A globally connected social media has not spilled over into healing distrust between insiders and outsiders. We’re nodes connected on a network graph, but not connected by spirit.

Going forward, could the Metaverse do this? Possibly. I think the Metaverse has the potential to unlock each human from their physical-world identity and enter a new paradigm where interactions between strangers start with a blank slate. For instance, what generational prejudices exist towards an avatar that has purple-blue skin? Giving a space for people to explore multiple identities could allow people to live many lives and make even richer, more intimate friendships around those strands of identity. According to this line of thinking, the further an avatar is from human form, the further we can detach ourselves from our existing heuristics for judging people.

Beyond the Metaverse, I think in a world where the physical and the internet mesh together in one state of hyperpresence, technology could do interesting things to facilitate social discovery. For example, imagine turning on a beacon saying that you're open for a conversation with a stranger over coffee. As you meet, you get a peek of a profile preview just to overcome the initial awkwardness. Maybe there are AI suggestions for topics to explore - mutual interests or potential learning points.

I think if we don't ask ourselves the question of what our utopia looks like, we will end up building iterative digital experiences that aren't genuinely trying to uplift the human condition. I'm a firm believer that technology has the potential to change the way that humans see each-other in a positive way. I don't think it's a given that building a virtual world or a social media platform will merely hold up a mirror to what our society is truly like. I think we can build new societies based on new rules.

Final Thoughts

Our existing form-functions for consumer technology compete with our being present in our physical surroundings.

I think the next wave will consist of technology becoming air: either a Metaverse in which we live, play, work and collaborate for extended periods of time; or Invisible-Computing that gives us a state of hyperpresence within our physical surroundings.

Thinking about the next potential form-functions may open up interesting avenues of exploration in consumer technology. For instance, I think that Zoom and HouseParty are low-fidelity prototypes of a Metaverse where we share persistent, digital spaces with people we know. On the social discovery front, there is more to be done with creating digital contexts and 3rd places that foster intimacy and togetherness.

The Internet has the potential to bring about human transcendence from our learned identities. We ought to be fighting to build technology and experiences that genuinely bring about togetherness, not reflect the real-world fragmentation we live in.

For anyone who has managed to get to this end-point, I think a useful exercise is to ask yourself what your utopia looks like, ignoring constraints or received wisdom. And when you think about what you want to work on next, do it from a point that works backwards from your Utopia. If your utopia is big enough, it will be something worth fighting for.

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