In this blog post, I’ll be taking a look at the blurred lines between physical and virtual identity. I was recently struck by the behaviour of a young boy on the street. He was running around stepping on manhole covers and yellow hose covers in the street – seemingly oblivious to others around him. His father apologised for his behaviour saying: “He’s just trying to get his bonus”, to which I replied, “Sorry what do you mean?”
“He’s playing a video game and he has to step on these things, so he can get the bonus and win the game”
“Do you give him this bonus”, I asked.
“No, it’s all up here”, he explained as he pointed to his head.
His son, still oblivious, was running around looking with such urgency that I had to stop for a second and think. How much fun is he really having?
Imagination, playing and virtual identity
Some people might think, he’s just a young boy playing a game. He’s using his imagination. What’s the harm in that?
There is a side of me that agrees with that. Computer games have become a huge part of growing up. So, it does seem feasible that the child would merge his physical identity with his virtual identity. Was he simply playing in a fictional world in the same way children from my generation would dress up as our favourite characters and pretend to be someone else?
This game the child was playing however, seemed to be a little different to the way in which we used to play – using our imaginations and toy props in a healthy way.
The obliviousness to others around him, the frantic searching and finding of items on the floor in order to get a ‘bonus’ in his head. It seemed more like a need to do it rather than a want. I couldn’t help but see this behaviour in parallel to how we constantly check our phones or check our emails. Are we checking because we feel we need to or want to? Or are need and want so intertwined in our society that many of us can no longer tell the difference? Is the ‘bonus’ that the boy is seeking actually that dopamine and serotonin hit so many of us are becoming accustomed to? If so, what are the effects of being brought up with this kind of stimulus from a young age?
Returning to the parallel that I see with many of us and our phones, is most much of our phone usage a want or a need? Is our phone use a hobby or has the fun aspect turned into a need or in fact an addiction?
Hobby or addiction?
So, is technology having a negative impact on us and wider society? I’m speaking in general terms as there are so many avenues to explore here.
Dr. Linda L. Simmons says that ‘a hobby turns into an addiction when it impacts your life in a negative way’.
While we do hear of people spending hours a day in front of the television, I found television to be a positive impact on me growing up and it never turned from a hobby into an addiction.
More recently, it’s come to my attention that many people seem to be developing an unhealthy relationship with mobile technology, games and social media. I would even go so far as to argue that what many of us see as normal technology usage is in fact, excessive. So much so that we are spending less time together – for example having less sex, in favour of playing with mobile devices.
To play Devil’s Advocate, I’m sure many of us have watched TV before bed, instead of having sex (box set anyone?) So what’s the difference? and why is mobile technology having more of an impact on us according to studies?
What has caused the change?
I see two reasons:
Prof Kaye Wellings says that ‘People [are] taking laptops to bed, iPads, the fact work comes into our home now there’s no strict divide.”
To me, it seems that it is our tablets or mobiles and in turn, apps and social media have become extensions of us. The lines are being blurred in terms of the physical and virtual. So, we find it harder to switch off and be in just one of those worlds.
If we were to switch the virtual world off what would happen?
An interesting study featured on the telegraph website called: The World Unplugged showed us how students reacted without technology for 24 hours. What it found was that the students would open cupboards to look inside, in the same way, they would check websites and phones when they were bored.
I would argue they were trying to gain the same satisfaction that they got from checking their technological devices in the real world. The Telegraph article even likened the addictive nature of technology usage to that of drug addiction.
(For more information on this read my post on my experiment: 3 days with social media and mobile phone)
The newer technological mediums are interactive; whereas the older ones (such as television) are passive. This gives us a different level of connectivity than we’re used to. It’s another reason why many film and TV companies are looking to incorporate social media and tablets (the second screen) into television. It gives the audience a much greater connectivity than has been experienced previously. Not only are we getting the relaxing passive sensation, but also the stimulus of the interactive element. This further engrosses us in the experience of interacting with others through technology rather than lived experiences.
The way we have accepted and integrated technology has changed from a fun hobby to a needy addiction. We need our smartphones with us wherever we go. Where we’re seeking validation has changed too. We’re no longer getting this from physical lived experiences, and we’re seeking them through our virtual selves. This, in turn, is changing the way we relate to each other physically.
Returning to the boy at the beginning, it gave me a frightening image of the development of children today. With technology so integrated into their lives, they seek satisfaction in the physical world through the reward structure received in the virtual world. But can we blame them? Games are a fantastic way to pass the time. They give many of us validation, rewards and a sense of community that’s harder to achieve in the less structured physical world.