Artificial dualities, digital yoga and the embodied web

I call it artificial.  Clay Shirky calls it "an accident of history".  We’re talking about the distinction made between online & offline.  The other common terms for this pair is virtual & real or (dare I even say it) cyberspace & meatspace.  Whatever the language used however, the problem I have is not with the words per se but with the split itself.

Differentiate then integrate.  For any innovation in whatever field to really become pervasive, it pretty much has to follow this simple three word formula.  If you’re reading this blog, more likely than not, you’ve lived through the period where the internet and web technologies have differentiated and now we are in the first real phase of integration.  If you’re not sure what differentiate means, the simple test is to remember life before Facebook.  If you’re not sure what integrate means, the test for that is to remember life without email. See!

This is why Clay talks of making a distinction between online and offline as an accident of history.  No ten year old uses this language because their digital life is conditioned so early.  Show me the person today who considers a phone call a virtual experience.  But back in the day, holding and speaking into a piece of metal resulting in the voice of your grandmother who lives in Idaho must have been a pretty ethereal experience.

The reality of our lives contain all experience, be that spent reading this post, slaying a demon on World of Warcraft or having a coffee with a new friend.  By using stark binary dualities as virtual and real, we are distinguishing one as having more substance than the other.  This is separation and perhaps a disservice – our world probably has enough of that.  Let us consign this particular accident of view to history and instead move to a far more interesting problem.

A relationship that I am finding much more useful to explore is that between the non-binary pair of web and place.  Or to use an equivalent spiritual pairing, mind and body.  As a culture which has become ever more dependent on the intellectual faculties of mind since the Renaissance (thank you M. Descartes), our disconnection between mind and body has become increasingly acute.  In fact, the information economy in which most of us live pretty much does not require our bodies at all, much of the time we may as well be brains in vats.

The Sanskrit word yoga means union, for through its practices body and mind, though never ever really apart, are invited back into intimate relationship.  This can take effort, it certainly takes patience and commitment but the results are well worth it since they are harmony, peace, learning and a strength that can move mountains.

(Please excuse any contradiction but) There is danger in the web remaining a web-only phenomenon.  So what we need now is a digital yoga – the reconnection between web and place.  I call this the Embodied Web. Enough brains in vats.  Let’s get integrating.

Thankfully of course this is inevitable. Thankfully of course this is already happening.  Alternate reality games, geo-social networking tools like Brightkite and everyone born in affluent circumstances since 1992 are all early examples of this artificial boundary becoming more and more blurred.  You’ll probably be alive to see it dissolve completely.  Be excited.


  1. Very interesting reflections, Rohan, thanks.
    One question though, why is virtuality and spatiality seen as representing a duality that needs to be reconciled? They are not related to each other at all. The only thing they have in common is both being media for communication and interaction. Spatiality however allows for various types of interactions to happen, virtuality doesn’t.
    Interaction is what we are interested in here, but the medium steals our attention 😉

  2. “Spatiality however allows for various types of interactions to happen, virtuality doesn’t.”
    Instant messaging
    Read-only material
    MMO platforms (Second Life etc)
    Blogosphere writing/reading/commenting (here)
    Video consuming/producing/sharing (Youtube etc)
    Music sharing/consuming/producing (bitTorrent etc)
    Image producing/sharing/consuming (flickr etc)
    VOIP audio-only or video calling (Skype etc)
    Mass collaborative platforms (Wikipedia etc)
    Lifecasting platforms (Twitter etc)
    Old fashioned email
    Or am I missing something?

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