A Note On Tensions & Challenges in Virtualizing Humanity

Vennessa Miemis’s piece on Framework for a Strengths-Based Society drew out thoughts I’ve had about the seeming risks of marching wholehearted into the Digiversal Interwebs without intentionally designing online experiences that cultivate the physical & the human. Without going too deeply into it, here are my comments on the topic:

Such is the lure and danger of virtualized humanity. Can we be led into virtuality in a way that makes us more human? What design ethos and practices might wield the web as a tool to build better people? And what might this relationship, this merger between humans and machines look like in 20, 30, or 50 years? The web is so young and so shiny and we’re all rushing in to look at each other through new lenses. As you suggest, it’s rather important to consider how we’re changing the web in ways that change us…

By moving parts of our lives online, into digital networks, we’ve stepped into a virtual social & cognitive space. Humanity, as a species, is increasingly virtualized in the digital domain: we represent ourselves through crafted interfaces & intermediary social profiles, icons & avatars; we speak through bytes and 140char bursts, passing urls and embeds. This is a new form of social transaction and, likely, brings with it all sorts of subtle & not-so-subtle behavioral conditionings and entrainments, eg the dopamine burst of getting a new Follower. Our greatest human construct – the webernets – is undoubtedly changing what it means to be human. Yet, we also bring our social humanity – the innate empathy and morality that makes us care for each other, often with altruistic disregard to our own gains – into this domain in ways that empower great acts of kindness & collaboration. I guess your post highlighted for me the tension between these two aspects of “virtualized humanity” and the call to empathic designers to engineer humanistic solutions and help entrain us towards a more successful integration with the virtual in ways that reinforce the physical world.


  1. Venessa Miemis

    hey chris,

    first off, thanks for coming by EBD and sharing your perspective, as always. :) i’m still not sure exactly what you’re saying though – was there a specific response to the content of the post, or was the post just a catalyst for some tangential thinking on identity/virtuality?

    or were you just cautioning about how we would manifest the idea i presented? i couldn’t figure it out.

    but anyway, the post was rather vague, because i’m cautious of it being misinterpreted as a quantitative tool that we would use to measure/compartmentalize/evaluate each other. that’s not what i’m thinking at all. i’m also wondering how we would design this tool that, via technology, could actually help us be more human. i feel like in many cases online, we react to the content around us, instead of choosing to make decisions. i think we’re still exploring. (ok, we will be for quite some time). but it’s not too soon to put some intentionality in how we navigate our experience on the web, to reshape it in ways that will serve us.

    the idea was, how do we reinforce personal growth and learning (and then maybe a further extension of that is how do we take theory to practice); i’m imagining it evolving like a social game, almost like an RPG with a ‘personal cargo’ profile of our strengths and social connections (and subsequent actions?). something qualitative that gives you an idea of what a person is about. i think it would be interesting to at least get this ball rolling to so that there is an ‘incentive’ to learn, grow, connect in a meaningful productive way. maybe as it got more sophisticated it could give you feedback on your degree of sharing/collaborating/engagement in these social learning environments.

    and again, this is just the online component – so part of it will be to frame it so that going online is ‘dipping in’ to a resource pool, and then you go back to the physical world and affect change there.

    i think these would be tools to amplify the strengths that benefit social interactions; – but the individual’s philosophical place in the world, their connection to Nature, to Self, to the Eternal, their personal practice of mindfulness or stillness, of human contact, and of any other way they experience the Divine – will still be up to them to carry out in the flesh in their own way.

    does this make more sense?

    (am curious for your response – i don’t see a place to subscribe to comments, so if you do have a response, please comment back by me or let me know via twitter!)

    – @venessamiemis

  2. chris arkenberg

    Venessa, please forgive me if I’m being oblique. I wasn’t really responding directly to the meat of your post – the tool for self-presentation & social capital – (though I did enjoy the article), so much as I was giving voice to separate thoughts I’ve been having that were reinforced by some of the things you said. I was running with a tangent of sorts, responding to what I felt was a less-tangible but important tone running through your post.

    As you mention in your comment above, my responses were about how design and web dev might “help us be more human”. Here are some of your quotes that stood out for me in this context:

    -Maybe we’ve forgotten the bigger picture… to be about learning, sharing resources, and attaining a deeper level of understanding of each other and the world around us.

    – I’m becoming convinced that this is the purpose of the web: to use it as a tool to enhance both ourselves and the network.

    – I think we should turn the focus away from what exists out there, and instead turn inwards and look at ourselves.

    – I see the web as a tool for evolving our consciousness. Not just to be more present or mindful, or more empathetic, but to actually develop to be more fully human.

    – We compete for limited positions, and discard our true selves in place of fitting a mold.

    These passages, whether or not it was your intent, resonated with my own tendency to see a tension between being web-saavy hypercitizens and being fully-present human beings. My responses were to this idea and to the notion that intentional design & affirmative self-representation can help us be better humans both in our physical lives and in our digital lives.

  3. Venessa Miemis

    well i agree. i’m very curious to see how this meme might catch on, so the focus isn’t always on shallow self-representation and sycophantic adoration of ‘social media gurus’… there such a bigger opportunity here.

    looking forward to hear more of your ideas as this all unfolds :)

    – v

  4. Frank Spencer

    Chris (and Venessa), loved both of your posts. And, as Venessa and I have been discussing as of late, I am particularly interested in intentional human evo/devo through both tech and non-tech related drivers. Chris, I also enjoyed your tech chart based on Hammond’s 3 “Which World” scenarios, and would love to explore with the both of you the possibility of presenting just such a topic at a certain upcoming tech and culture conference. Write me, and let’s talk.

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