We’re in the midst of another sea change in Internet technology, from the Information Age to what’s being termed the “Experience Age.” What this means is that we’re starting to value digital experiences more than the accumulation and curation of information. But just how authentic are these “experiences”? After all, it’s just ones and zeroes. Put another way, are we in danger of tuning out – or even distorting – the physical world even more than we already do?
First let’s establish what the Experience Age is and how it’s different from the Information Age. Two apps best illustrate the difference: Facebook is a quintessential Information Age app, while Snapchat is an Experience Age one.
Facebook vs. Snapchat
On Facebook, you post information (“What’s on your mind?” is the status prompt) and it’s added to a Timeline. On Snapchat you create a “snap,” which is usually a short video or photo. The main difference? On Snapchat, the content is ephemeral and disappears – typically within a day. There is no Timeline on Snapchat. As Mike Wadhera explained, this lack of an archive forces you to break the accumulation habit inherited from desktop computing.
The second key factor in the Experience Age is that you’re in the moment, rather than curating yourself. There is a lot of social anxiety in Facebook. Does your profile convey the information you want it to? What’s the right photo to upload to your Timeline to represent this place you’ve just traveled to? What shall I write to make me seem witty and urbane? But with Snapchat, the idea isn’t to create the perfect social media profile. You’re just sharing moments in your life. As the company itself puts it, “snaps are meant to make conversation more spontaneous, visual and fun!”
Snapchat is enormously popular with teenagers. This is the generation of digital natives, for whom digital content is second nature. So it makes sense that they prefer to have digital “experiences” rather than accumulate and curate content, as those of us from the Information Age were brought up doing. For my generation (X) and earlier, content meant physical objects like CDs, DVDs, newspapers and books. But for Generations Y and Z, content is overwhelmingly digital. Content has become an experience. The agency R/GA put it this way: millennials want experiences not things.
The VR Experience: Is It Real?
While Snapchat is the most popular Experience Age app currently, it’s really just the beginning. Virtual reality will be the defining technology of this new era. There’s no doubt VR will bring us compelling new digital experiences. However, I would caution against promoting VR as an “authentic” experience. Some VR proponents have been positioning it this way, but we’re far from achieving authenticity in VR – if indeed we ever will.
Early subscribers may remember the second edition of this newsletter, which explored virtual reality content (other than gaming). In that post, I described how a company called NextVR is already broadcasting professional sport in virtual reality. So rather than view an NBA game on TV, you can experience it in VR – as if you were actually at the stadium. Now, currently the NextVR experience is not entirely satisfactory. The view is restricted to 180 degrees and you can’t choose your seat, or go and get a hot dog at half time. So the experience is limited. Still, it beats watching the game on TV while constantly checking your phone for social media commentary.
The true test of the Experience Age will be the year that NextVR can deliver fully immersive, 360 degree coverage of NBA games. I don’t know when that will be, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that it’ll happen in 2025. By that time, you’ll be able to have multiple viewpoints at a game and the streaming video will be extremely high quality. The only thing you won’t be able to do is get that hot dog! But other than that, you’ll be experiencing a game of basketball in VR that is almost indistinguishable from being at the stadium.
Is that an authentic experience, as good as being at the game? Perhaps. But let’s switch to a more controversial example. Say that by 2025, there’s an app called TinderVR. It allows you to hook up with someone… in virtual reality. It’ll feel just like the real thing. But will it be a real, authentic life experience?
I don’t think anyone can answer those questions at the present time. You’ll have to wait until 2025 (or whenever VR reaches the tipping point of being life-like) in order to judge for yourself. But if I had to hazard a guess, I’d suggest that it still won’t be truly authentic – no matter how ‘realistic’ VR is in the future. Human consciousness is as much about our physical environment as it is our brains and bodies. The whole point of VR is that it doesn’t have a physical environment, therefore it can never be a fully authentic life experience.
In my newsletter about Artificial Intelligence, I argued that we should not give up too much control of our thinking to AI. Why? Because AI lacks humanism and it will always do so. That makes it fundamentally different from human intelligence, so it’s delusional to think that AI will ever usurp human intelligence (in a qualitative sense).
I’m making a similar point here: we must be careful not to forget the importance of the physical world. Digital experiences can be fun, immersive and mind-expanding. But that’s fundamentally different to having experiences in the physical world. That said, there’s a lot of potential in blending digital experiences with the physical – indeed, that’s becoming increasingly important in many industries. Museums for example can utilise VR to augment their physical art collections, or market exhibitions to a global audience.
So I’m all for digital experiences, especially when they are combined with physical ones. But let’s not delude ourselves: digital experience on its own isn’t a replacement for real life. This isn’t The Matrix, people.