Student Perspectives: Lockdown, and What the Digital World Cannot yet Replace

The Student Perspectives category collects posts written by current CityLIS students.

In this post, Nina Byrom considers how Floridi’s theory of digital proxies has become a reality in the context of Covid-19 but also looks at how lockdown has revealed the limitations of the digital in acting as a stand-in for three-dimensional reality. This post was originally published on Nina’s blog https://ninabyrom.wordpress.com/2020/10/11/lockdown-and-what-the-digital-world-cannot-yet-replace/. You can follow Nina on Twitter @ByromNina.

At the start of 2020 technology and digital data already played a large part in our society, allowing us to access the ‘constantly growing amount of valuable information available today, on any topic’ (Floridi, 2015, p.489) with ease. We could talk, shop, stream, and search without leaving our homes. Then lockdown was imposed, and overnight ‘living onlife and in the infosphere’ (Floridi, 2015, p.489) which was previously a choice, became our only option.

The digital world now had to replace areas of our lives that it had previously only been partially involved in, with some replacements being smoother than others. Online shopping was arguably an easier transition as the experience remained relatively untouched; you could still browse, find what you needed, and have it all delivered. The digital experience here is what Floridi (2015) termed a proxy, where something is not only a representation of an item, but also acts as a suitable replacement for the item. (p.488)

Another example of the digital world potentially becoming a proxy for an in-person aspect of our lives is the continuing use of video conferences to replace group working and learning environments. In professions where remote working is a viable option it could become standard practice in the future, further integrating technology into our lives. However, while a digital environment does provide users with freer data access, it also increases the amount of data being acquired about users. Conversations which would have taken place in-person are instead played out in chats, and in a digital learning environment the element of socialisation that comes from being around others may well be lost. The future of fully digital work and learning relies on how much we want to use the digital world as a proxy for our offline lives, considering how much more data could be collected on us.

While some areas of our lives were replaced by digital proxies successfully, there were also areas where digital data failed to act with complete success. One of these areas was the digitisations of art and sculpture that had to replace our ability to visit museums. While digitisation does provide an image, it is arguably without a proper sense of perspective; you cannot move in relation to the piece as you would in-person because the image is fixed. Virtual tours could have replaced the experience of visiting a museum but they are also limited, by the need to cater to all potential users and so certain data is prioritised. Scale is another issue, as a digital image will always be constrained by the size of the screen it is being viewed upon. This is an example of the digital world functioning as ‘a degenerate proxy that only stands for, but cannot behave on behalf, or act instead’ (Floridi, 2015, p.488) of an in-person experience. The image stands for the art in question, but cannot truly replace it.

In a similar way, via the digital world we can access location data, videos, weather reports, and learn about the history of a place we have never been to. But that data cannot give you the experience of being in that place. While we could potentially live entirely via the digital world, and digital data is already a large part of our lives for better or for worse, lockdown has shown the areas where that data cannot be a proxy for in-person experience. Looking out of a digital window is not the same as being able to go outside.

References:

Floridi, L. (2015) ‘A Proxy Culture’, Philosophy and Technology, 28(4), pp. 487-490. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-015-0209-8

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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1 Response to Student Perspectives: Lockdown, and What the Digital World Cannot yet Replace

  1. Sharon Stewart says:

    Thank you for your post Nina. It has got me thinking about elements that are missing when replacing real experiences with virtual ones. It has given me an appreciation of my five senses. I can zip over to Paris in a few seconds on Google Earth or walk through a beautiful park online. However, I will not be able to smell someone’s perfume as they walk past or experience the aroma of freshly cut grass. I would be missing out on the taste of street food or feeling of the wind on my face. I might hear birds chirping if they were in close proximity to a microphone. Online shopping is fab but it is not the same as running fabric through my fingers or holding a top up to daylight for a different perspective. Security risks aside, my increased online presence has so many advantages but it does limit my ability to fully experience the real world 🌎. Good luck with the rest of your course. Kind regards, Sharon

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