Hu Yong: The virtual world keeps us always present but always absent

Hu Yong  , Professor of School of Journalism and Communication, Peking University

Si Xiao, Dean of Tencent Research Institute, proposed that the interaction between people and their surroundings goes through three stages: offline, online, and presence.

“Offline” is a kind of “natural” presence, and from “offline” to “online”, based on the pursuit of efficiency or due to technical limitations, the origin of social activities is abstracted and many details are omitted. From “online” to “presence”, it is a process of finding valuable details that we discarded before, and finally achieving the exact same effect online and offline. The reason why the technology represented by the Metaverse is emerging at the moment is because it conforms to the trend from “online” to “presence”. 

There is no doubt that presence constitutes a prominent feature of the Metaverse. But to what extent it can achieve the same online and offline experience, we don’t know yet. A more thought-provoking question is, are “online” and “presence” really a goal worthy of our pursuit?

Presence is the defining quality of the Metaverse

 

Venture capitalist Matthew Ball defines the Metaverse this way: “The Metaverse is a vast network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations that support a continuum of identities, objects, histories, payments, and rights. sex, and enable an effective and limitless user-synced experience, where everyone has a personal sense of presence.” 

Essentially, the virtual reality technology that allows us to experience the Metaverse is to immerse the user in a lifelike digital world. What you see fills your entire field of vision, and your every movement is tracked. Ideally, this experience evokes what we call “presence.” This brings about an exhilaration and an elusive quality: transcendent, teleported stimuli, where you feel like you are in another world without thinking that you are actually just standing there or Sitting, seems to be able to escape from the present mundane affairs at once. 

Unlike today’s internet, the Metaverse seeks to give the illusion of presence. Mark Zuckerberg (Mark Zuckerberg) described the Metaverse as an embodied Internet (embodied internet), and the core issue that it brings to social media is how to realize human beings in the absence of space. ‘s presence. How to replicate the realism of face-to-face communication is a long-cherished goal of social media, and this realism depends on the degree to which it transmits the user into that environment and the transparency of the boundary between the user’s physical behavior and his avatar. 

Of course, in terms of personal interaction, presence means the feeling of being physically present in a virtual space with virtual others. For example, instead of just communicating through screens in the future, “you’ll be able to sit on my couch as a hologram, or I’ll be able to sit on your couch as a hologram…in a more natural way, Makes us feel more connected with people” (Zuckerberg). This immersion can improve the quality of online interactions. 

At its core, the Metaverse actually reconfigures our assumptions about sensory input, spatial definitions, and points of access to information. This brings a sensory leap that takes us from physical points of interest, latitude and longitude, boundaries, and adaptations to navigation into more complex concepts such as those “places,” actions, and beings that we recognize unconsciously. 

The coming Metaverse is made possible by both software and hardware, the most crucial of which is our belief in a shared illusion as space. Compared to web pages and apps, the Metaverse is more tightly integrated with stereoscopic perception, balance, and orientation. We currently interact with the Metaverse through computers and mobile phones, but this interaction is crude and crude compared to the immersion of VR and the digital persistence achieved in the real world through AR; but conversely, today’s virtual reality The technology isn’t great either, with bulky headsets only providing an isolated experience, and players rarely have the opportunity to cross-play with others who own the device. The expectation is that the Metaverse, as a vast public cyberspace, will be able to combine augmented and virtual reality, allowing avatars to jump seamlessly from one activity to another. 

Zuckerberg once told investors: “The defining quality of the Metaverse is presence, the feeling that you’re really with another person or in another place. Creation, avatars and digital objects will be where we express ourselves. core, which will lead to new experiences and economic opportunities.” 

If the Metaverse is regarded as a continuous comprehensive economic system, there will be countless avatars and digital assets interacting with individuals and economies in the real world. When real individuals and companies have their own business space in the Metaverse, and Digital persistence and digital synchrony become essential “self-requirements” of the Metaverse when engaging in activities at any time, meaning that all actions and events in the Metaverse happen in real time and have lasting effects.

Put your body straight at the center of the argument

 

Real-time can be considered as another aspect of presence, and it is also a problem that the Internet has not really solved before. It contains two connotations: first, communication technology can support agents to perform actions at the same time; second, the timeliness of actions requires internal Embedded in platform settings.

In a simulated environment, the agent can be one person, many people, or non-persons, and in addition, the user can be represented by many entities called avatars, and can also be represented by many software agents; so there are a lot of agents and avatars. In the Metaverse system, it is necessary to ensure that all actions, reactions, and interactions must take place in a real-time shared virtual environment with space-time continuity. This can only be achieved by fully improving the computing efficiency of the computer and enhancing the computing power of the computer, which is the technical limitation that Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 cannot truly achieve real-time performance.

Agents and avatars directly involve physical issues. Zuckerberg used a cartoon avatar of himself in his Metaverse vision speech promoting the Meta, but he ultimately wants the Metaverse to include lifelike avatars with more realistic features and doing many of the same things we do in the real world activity.

“Our goal was to have both realistic avatars and stylized avatars that create a deep sense of being with people,” Zuckerberg said at the rebranding session.

If avatars are really on the way, then we’ll need to face some tough questions about how we present ourselves to others.How do these virtual versions of ourselves change how we feel about our bodies, for better or for worse? As can be expected, some people will be excited to see an avatar that looks like themselves, while others may be concerned that this will exacerbate body image issues. If social media is a lesson in the past, we need to discuss further why virtual avatars in the Metaverse have an impact on how people feel and live in the real physical world. 

With the start of the new technology revolution in the second half of the 20th century, many disciplines including communication have undergone a “body turn”. “Body” is getting more and more attention, and this attention has increased in recent years. A large part of the reason is that a series of digital mediums brought about by the new technology revolution is building a culture of de-body , from computers to smartphones to wearable devices and virtual reality headsets, the new mediums brought about by these digital revolutions Without exception, “remote presence” is being used instead of “physical presence”, as the American scholar John Durham Peters said: “Putting the body directly at the center of the debate is not fashion, but It’s a priority — because scientists, engineers are refactoring and retooling it.” 

In the Metaverse, the body becomes an “avatar” and existence becomes an “electronic presence”, and the effective integration of data and information constitutes the true meaning of “I” in the Metaverse. The body is the most fundamental infrastructural medium of human beings, and it is also historical, cultural and technological. As Andre Leroi-Gourhan (Andre Leroi-Gourhan) believes that human evolution contains two parallel histories : Organic history (evolutionary history) and inorganic history (technological history), the two are not parallel but integrated. The body and mind have both technical and cultural attributes. This is not only analyzed by phenomenology, but also endorsed by anatomy and physiology. For example, the characteristics of human digestive tract determine that people need to live a collective life. When the “remote presence” throws the body out, what is lost is not only the symbolic information in non-verbal communication that cannot be copied by language, but also the huge cultural and moral meaning carried by the body itself. 

The problem that social media has been trying to solve since its inception is how to achieve the presence of communication in the technical premise of the absence of the body. As Bill Gates said in 1999: “If we’re going to replicate face-to-face communication, what do we need to replicate the most? We’re going to develop a software that brings people in different places together – software that enables participation interact with people and make them feel good, preferring to be present remotely in the future.” 

However, if the Metaverse simulates the sensory experience of the body, while the physical body is still excluded from interaction, then the social contract of the Metaverse will be less binding (as we see today in cyberspace). The resulting chaos and hostility), a virtual community whose purpose is to meet the other will be difficult to truly achieve a “other-oriented communication” because the body and the cultural structure behind it are invisible. 

In the Metaverse, the body is actually always a balance that needs to be carefully maintained: the avatar technology must walk a fine line, maintaining enough authenticity to be faithful to who people are, but not threatening the people behind the avatars. mental health.

we live somewhere else forever

 

Modern society is a society built on the basis of visual media. It can be said that the “naturalized” existence, normalized operation and the source of legitimacy of modern society are all “writing”. Since the 19th century, almost every “new medium” has been a tribute to writing: photography is “writing” with light, and the phonograph is “writing” with sound, even with the continuous development of new technologies today and the creation of countless new terms. The new Internet media is also “written” with code. Writing completes a replacement of space and time – replacing time with space, because space is the only object that humans can shape compared to time, so when the medium of writing mediates the face-to-face communication before modern society, “presence” It has also become an “illusion” mediated by various audiovisual media. In the information revolution, how to simulate the sense of presence in the communication mediated by various media has become the interest and mission of digital technology.

Once upon a time, the presence of the body was a prerequisite for first-hand experience. However, the evolution of media technology has changed this. Shared experiences were originally based on everyday life and passed down from generation to generation. Information, the primary output of the medium, turns life experiences into endless news headlines.Knowledge about events and people gained through information consumption overwhelms narratives about the experience. Information creates a world where events are abundant but experiences are scarce. The experience gradually takes place outside of us, acquires an autonomous life, becomes a spectacle, and we become the spectators of this spectacle. In the process, however, the dissemination of events loses the authority of the narrative.

Now, one can be a spectator of some kind of social show in the absence of a body. The stage for such performances cannot be marked with specific locations, and as a result, the physical structures that once divided society into many unique communicative environments have become less socially meaningful. Communication technologies allow citizens to establish a degree of connection with physically absent actors and social processes through which their experiences and behavioral choices are restructured. 

Historically, for premodern people, absent sources of power—such as the extended rule of monarchs and churches—are destined to be invisible and impermeable. With the proliferation of communication technologies, the situation becomes very different. These technologies reinforce the potential for “working connections” between the intrusions of the local lifeworld and the “outside” world, while at the same time creating new distance relationships through the sowing of symbols: “hands-on” and “mediated” experience” is increasingly intertwined.

All this points to is that the place is separated from the space, resulting in a new relationship between “presence” and “absence”. In pre-modern societies, space and place were always consistent, and for most people, in most cases, the spatial dimension of social life was governed by “presence,” ie, territorial activity. The advent of modernity, by nurturing various other elements of “absence”, increasingly separates space from place, and from any given situation of face-to-face interaction in terms of location. 

On the current Internet and in the future Metaverse, an online ID and a visual existence can indicate our presence, but behind these symbols, who is the individual on the other side of the screen, and what state is he in? All interactions with me are unknown. This is fully revealed in the online education model, although information technology can give students the opportunity to access a large number of online learning resources, they can also enter the immersive classroom through virtual reality technology, and can also make their own multimedia works or enter the learning community to obtain machine learning However, the connection based on reality is always absent, the students lack the presence of their peers, teachers and students cannot confirm the reception of each other’s information in the interaction, and there is also a lack of face-to-face real experience. While digitization provides us with the convenience of receiving information even if we are not online, it also brings about the disappearance of the sense of space and meaning. We are not without surprise to find that the meaning conveyed through real space and physical presence is far from being digitally simulated. The existence of schools, cinemas, churches and other places is precisely to interpret the importance of physical presence to interactive rituals and emotional meanings. 

However, we must admit that “networked survival” is where we are today. It can be said that we have come to a world where “confidants are stored in the sea, and neighbors are like neighbors” for the first time. Henceforth, due to the interruptions of the virtual world, we are always present and always absent, and to use fashionable words, we are always living elsewhere.

Technology should make the core human experience better

 

We can also make different observations about what Si Xiao said from “online” to “presence”. Not everyone shares the unwavering enthusiasm for the Metaverse of Zuckerberg or Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. John Hanke, founder and CEO of Niantic, the developer behind AR game Pokémon Go, likens the Metaverse to a “utopian nightmare.” He wrote that the novels, movies and TV shows that inspired the concept of the Metaverse were actually “warnings of a technologically wrong utopian future.” 

Zuckerberg believes that virtual worlds will bring a greater sense of presence to the people in your life and the places you want to be, while Hank believes it will do the opposite. In his blog he wrote:

“We believe that we can use technology to move closer to the ‘reality’ of augmented reality – encouraging everyone, including ourselves, to stand up, go outside, and connect with others and the world around us. This is what we humans are born to do Do things that are the result of 2 million years of human evolution, so these are the things that make us happiest. Technology should be used to make these core human experiences better, not replace them.”

Strictly speaking, the debate about the value of the real and digital worlds is unlikely to be fully resolved. In the future, those who think the physical world is more important will say that others have problems in the virtual world, and vice versa.

Sherry Turkle, an American academic who has studied the psychology of online connections for more than three decades, has been calling for a “restart of the conversation” for the past few years. Originally focused entirely on virtual spaces, she became fascinated by a new question: What happens to face-to-face conversations in a world where many say they’d rather text than talk? She studies family, friendship and love. She has researched secondary schools, universities and workplaces. She was shocked that if people stopped talking face-to-face, or couldn’t focus on the conversation when they had electronic devices, one of the most precious human qualities — empathy — would decline. 

We’re used to being connected all the time, but at the cost of bypassing the conversation. Invited five years ago to write a testimonial for Turkle’s “Conversation Again,” I wrote: “There is an urgent need to regain the realization that eloquence is cheap, but conversation is invaluable.” At least in open-ended and In spontaneous conversation, we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. We learn to make eye contact, to be aware of the other person’s gestures and tone of voice, to comfort each other, and to challenge each other with reason. Because of all this, empathy and intimacy thrive. In these conversations, we learn who we are and learn to reflect on ourselves.

The ability to talk with empathy goes hand in hand with the ability to be alone. In solitude we find ourselves; we prepare ourselves for conversations that are real and belong to us. If we cannot gather ourselves together, we cannot recognize who other people are. If we can’t stand loneliness, we turn others into people we need. If human beings do not know how to be alone, they will only know how to be alone. While I don’t want to overly antagonize online and presence with conversation and solitude, along Turkel’s line, we can ask a challenging question: Does constant connection, phantasmagoric presence, make human beings Falling deeper into loneliness?

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