Between wonder and harm
In a future where we spend significant chunks of our waking hours in augmented reality, our relationship with the world will change. Currently, we only interact with objects that exist at the physical layer of reality. However, in the future, objects from the virtual layer will be added to our immediate surroundings. This combination will bring wonder and magic back to our lives and re-enchant them.
Magic has been a significant part of many human cultures throughout history. In these cultures, individuals can communicate with entities that do not exist in the real world as we understand it, and manipulate the physical world through language and intention. AR will bring back this part of human culture that many of us have forgotten. It will be a magical world, a world of enchantment.
But there’s a downside. While today we can be confident (or assume with a high degree of certainty) that all of us perceive the same objects, it will be more difficult to trust the world in the future: How could we be sure that an object we see in front of us is “real”? Maybe it’s only us who see it. How would we know it wasn’t a 3D object put there to manipulate us? This future AR world will also be a world full of dangers.
The wonder: an ancient world come to life
Man’s relationship with technology is a double-edged sword. Human progress has always been linked to technological inventions — from the needle that allowed Homo sapiens to sew warm clothes and survive in cold climates to the train and the airplane that made the world a village — but these inventions also distance man from the world. In general, the less a civilization is based on technological aids, the more connected it is to nature. And the more it is connected to nature, the more its members experience the world as multi-layered. For example, members of oral societies that don’t even use writing testify that they perceive additional layers of reality that we do not, and therefore are often able to communicate with non-human beings. They live in a more-than-human world.
These societies live in a world filled with magic, beings, and a deep and almost non-dual relationship between man and nature. The progress of technology has removed this magic from the world, or at least kept it hidden from our sight. The more we use technology to mediate the world for us, the more we become blind to its magic.
Augmented reality is a reality that includes magic. Walk into an immersive world and you will walk into a magical one. At every street corner you could find digital beings to interact with. Users could summon digital objects and experience shared hallucinations with others.
While it’s true that more technology isn’t the answer to our problems with technology and the world, human progress comes hand in hand with technology whether we like it or not. By understanding that AR technology can bring magic back to the world, we can correct some of these flaws. We can also be reminded of the additional layers in our relationship with the world. The world of augmented reality will remind us of the ancient world, a world in which magic was a vital part of society.
Augmented reality will remind us of the power of dreams and visions, and how we can share them with others. It will remind us that language can influence reality: a line of code equivalent to “Let there be light” will illuminate the room. At a time when imagination and creativity have been relegated to the corner, we could once again rejoice in shared creation with others. We are not only returning to a lost dimension but also opening up new worlds in which creativity is common.
In a world where immersive AR is commonplace, smart glasses could connect to a database that collects data about specific trees and help us communicate with them. We could find out about their mood and health by asking them. Elves, fairies and other beings could guard the natural environment. We will communicate with them, bring them offerings and receive instructions on how to improve our relationship with the environment. This techno-pagan reality will remind us of what we have forgotten: nature is not mute.
Of course, augmented reality will come to fruition in many fields and probably revolutionize some of them: education, health, gaming and media, tourism, and accessibility. But re-enchanting the world is the most meaningful thing augmented reality can give us. This is a value in and of itself; it precedes questions about its realization.
The harm: using magic for selfish ends
As magical as augmented reality can be, it’s not without its dangers. As history has shown, malefic black magic has always existed alongside benign white magic, with the selfish intention of controlling and causing confusion.
In addition, as technologies developed and industrialized in recent centuries, people’s interaction with reality became increasingly technologically mediated. This led to a concentration of power in fewer hands, as well as the gradual disappearance of multiplicity from human life. People in pre-industrial societies lived in a world infested with strange beings that challenged any central authority. And prior to the ancient great civilizations, it was impossible for any single person to control reality. Reality was just too vast, too plural, and too distributed for anyone to control it, let alone humans.
The magical world of augmented reality arrives at a time when political and economic grips are tightening. We live in a world where giant corporations want to control every aspect of reality. It is this paradox, of a stratified magical world controlled by a single player who uses magic for selfish ends, that poses the greatest danger from this technology. There are many ways in which this danger can manifest itself. Here, we will focus on problems and dangers related to design. This is because AR designers are the magicians of this technology. As creators of this new world, they are responsible for making it a better place.
Philosopher of technology Cody Turner divides these dangers into three groups: Digital distraction, digital divergence, and digital deception.
Digital distraction is bound to increase because, with the introduction of augmented reality into our lives, personalized internet ads will become 3D objects in the real world, placed there specifically for us. Imagine walking down the street and seeing 3D models of the shoes you want so badly everywhere, with a call to action bearing your name. How could you concentrate on anything else?
Moreover, the increasing gamification of every aspect of our lives combined with AR will create a very distracting environment. Augmented reality apps will make it more difficult to distinguish games from reality, since they may reward us for doing things like shopping at the supermarket or picking up trash on the street, just like catching Pokemon. As a result, we may begin to view everything we do through the lens of play. No one wants businesses to give them positive or negative feedback on the actions and decisions they make in real life. This means outsourcing morality to commercial companies.
Digital divergence will increase because users of different AR platforms may experience different realities even when they are physically at the same location. A user of company X may see different objects than a user of company Y. Furthermore, just as we each customize the apps on our smartphones, it’s likely that we will also do the same with augmented reality, and so our digital bubbles will expand to the real world.
One can only imagine how different augmented reality will look for the haves and the have-nots. There will be those who can afford to purchase advanced hardware or software upgrades and those who cannot. The world seen through AR glasses might look very different for people from opposite political perspectives. Apps may offer us to block certain people from our field of vision — or to do so without our knowledge. These can be people of a certain ethnicity, gender or political affiliation. The rift we see in social media will spread outside of the computer. This digital divergence will become an almost metaphysical gap.
Digital environments and political interests will combine to create something that will make today’s online rift look trivial. Today one can still take solace in the fact that there is a reality beyond bot-infested social media, fake news and political manipulations, but in the future reality itself may be controlled by corporations and politicians. Imagine a country that oppresses a certain ethnic, religious, or gender minority, and offers a tax break to an AR company to design augmented reality that meets these values.
While designers should consider the above issues, the most dangerous one, which falls entirely on the shoulders of designers and creators, is digital deception. The threat of fake news and deep-fake propagating outside the computer is rightly noted by Turner, but the danger is much more dire. It is not only that actors who wish to manipulate us could introduce any object into the reality we will perceive through our glasses. When augmented reality enters our lives, everything we know about reality will change. Today, we know what we see is really there, in a phenomenological sense. Meaning, we naturally interact with reality as it appears in front of us. However, digital images and videos have become so realistic that it’s nearly impossible to distinguish them from the real thing. A few years from now, we won’t be able to tell whether an object is real or virtual. In philosophy, this is called epistemological skepticism, meaning the impossibility of being sure of anything. It calls into question whether knowledge is possible at all. The mixing of the virtual and the real in AR may lead to such a scenario.