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Weekend Edition: Augmentation over replacement
If we continue to talk about the future only in the darkest, most post-apocalyptic terms, no one is going to want to go there. And we may miss an opportunity to make it amazing.
Most of the conversations I hear about virtual and augmented reality feels game-like and escapist, about creating new places and spaces that help us get away from the dysfunction of modern society. There is an almost oxymoronic tone to this narrative that is both utopian and deeply pessimistic about humanity. What if rather than replacing reality or gamifying real-world experiences, we recentered these conversations on how augmentation might be a mechanism for more creativity and better decisions? What if we brought this new way of thinking about augmentation to the conversation about the dysfunction and dis-ease of modern media systems?
I have talked about shifting our entire frame for innovation from replacement to augmentation in other conversations about the future (here and here). Too much of our public narrative about automation, for example, is about replacement and job loss, and way too much of our conversation about our digital futures focuses on virtual reality as an escape. These assumptions and narratives feel so comfortable, almost inevitable, because the history of automation is about industrial productivity and efficiency — all the way back to the ancient Greeks and their obsession with automating timekeeping. If we keep the underlying assumptions about flawed humanity and about growth and efficiency as moral goods that have arisen as the consequence of the industrialization of meaning in modern civilization, we are likely to continue to see innovation through a lens of replacing inefficient human action and decision making with hyperefficient machines and algorithms. But that lens is inherently backward-looking and misses what is vibrant and powerful about humanity. It presumes that the best ideas that we will ever have have already been had, and therefore we must squeeze every ounce of productivity and profit and capacity from what is in our current view. This perspective feels so inhumane because it is born from the need to maximize economic growth and not human flourishing.
But if we can recenter innovation on human experience, on the idea that all free and creative humans can thrive and flourish together, we might begin to feel that what we need are not more efficient versions of old models, but new models of community, work, and play. If we are ambitious about this exercise, we might start to see the inhuman capacity for information storage, rapid access, and processing made possibly by technology as ways to augment and expand human creativity, capacities that can be harnessed to and by human capabilities. In this view, automation is no longer a process of removing humans but of improving them. And rather than focusing on escape and new realities, we can talk about the limitless power of augmenting experience, of making human choices more robust. We can bring the idea of adding dimension and context to real-world experiences that often lack context to digital spaces that feel separated from the real world by digital boundaries and from the context that might help enrich them.
What if rather than just layers on the real world, augmented reality was a way of rebuilding the missing context of our digital realities? What if the answer to our healthier public sphere isn’t in fixing Facebook but recontextualizing our experience of Facebook and Twitter and the Washington Post and my mom’s blog all together? To be clear, we also need to do what we can to redesign and improve the platforms and publishers that we rely on for information, but we can also change how we interact with them now rather than waiting for their better angels to emerge or regulators to lead.
One of the core principles of our failing public sphere is this idea of context collapse (thank you, danah boyd). As a result of the rearchitecture of information and emergence of networked communication, we’ve lost the context necessary to understand what we are consuming. Combined with platforms for social discovery and consumption driven by engagement-centric business models that often intentionally obscure or accelerate our consumption of information beyond what we can cognitively manage, we are struggling to make sense of the world around us despite having more access to more information than humans have ever had. Often the information we rely on to make sense of the world and to make decisions has no clear provenance, authors of uncertain authority, questionable credibility, unknown bias and intent. As individuals, we are left to process our constant state of information overload alone, leveraging various imperfect (and often wildly misleading) substitutes for these components of trust that we need to discern information. Our modern information systems do not provide markers and models for authority, credibility, provenance, and intent for us reliably or consistently, so we substitute various versions or proximity and confirmation bias. Knowing that we aren’t understanding the world well while struggling to do our best often leads to disastrously misleading and anti-social consequences.
If we shift our innovation mentality toward augmentation, we can start to greet augmentation as the tool that unlocks creativity and understanding and empathy by suggesting more and new inputs in thoughtful and provocative ways rather than as the mechanism to escape a broken set of civic and social systems seemingly meant to exploit and demean us. This view of innovation also encourages us to turn an optimistic eye toward what a healthy human future might could be. Not a naive optimism that ignores the pain we are in and the dysfunction we feel, but one sees those experiences as symptoms of systems that have been designed to consider us and our pain as negative consequences to externalize and commonize. An optimism that allows us to see our current pain as a symptom of systems that we can transform, not an inevitable part of human nature to transcend. Humanity is the cure, not the thing to escape.