Wednesday, January 03, 2007

When X replaces Y

Whenever you hear "X will never replace Y", consider it with skepticism.

For instance: calling on the telephone will never replace visiting in person. Sending an email will never replace sending a handwritten letter. Sex via the internet will never replace face-to-face sex. Electronic gaming will never replace face-to-face gaming.

The first two of these most of us no longer agree with, while the latter two some of us may.

But when we say that "X will replace Y", we really need to break this down:

- What is it about Y that we feel can not be duplicated with X?
- Is this a technological limitation, or a psychological one?
- Is there anything overwhelmingly seductive about Y that will overcome our loss from losing X?

For calling on the telephone rather than visiting, the objections were: Walking is not only convenient, but simple and cheap. People don't need excuses not to get out of the house; going out is an ingrained habit, anyway. Walking time allows one to collect one's thoughts. What do you have to say to someone so often and so immediately that can't take the time of walking over? You can't replace the socio-psychological connection of human to human interaction, not to mention all of the non-verbal communication from a face-to-face encounter.

But we all know that, reasonable as these arguments were, they didn't prevail. Telephones became cheap and ubiquitous. Telephones opened up communication possibilities that didn't exist previously and therefore could not compare to visiting, such as cross-country or international communication. Telephones changed the very nature of our communication from prepared and significant to spontaneous and casual. We learned to live without the non-verbal cues. The initial anonymity of the telephone (you don't know who it is until you pick it up) became a reward/gratification system, akin to not knowing who a visitor is until they are close enough to recognize.

The same is true with email vs letters. Email overrode writing letters not because it duplicated exactly what letters did. Instead, we lost the measured, formal aspects of letters in favor of the spontaneous, global, instant, and casual aspects of email.

When we project into the future, we have to be careful to compare things that fulfill similar yet not identical needs. For instance, asking whether motorized chairs will replace face-to-face sex is not a sensible question, because they have no overlapping aspects at all. But asking whether sex via the internet will replace face-to-face sex is sensible, assuming that at least some of what we need from face-to-face sex can be replaced with sex via the internet (tele-dildonics). I think this is true.

Sex via the internet vs face-to-face sex sort of follows the same patterns as email vs letters. We lose the formal, considered, and face-to-face aspects of sex in favor of convenience, distance, surprise, and anonymity. However, sex is more than just stimulating one part of the body; it also involves sounds, smells, tactile sensations all over the body, partial surrender of the body to the other's control, the feel of fluids and other discharges, and face-to-face pattern recognition and the psychological aspects that this entails. Is this simply a matter of overcoming technologically (probably not using whole-body suits, but through directly stimulating areas of the brain and nerves)? Or are we willing to lose some of these in favor of the benefits?

Face-to-face gaming vs electronic gaming follows a similar pattern; I'm not talking about the formal computer games currently produced (World of Warcraft, etc...), but simply using long-distance communication to play games with as much control over them as we would have in person (e.g. boards and pieces we can control as we like using our input devices). Electronic gaming focuses one's attention away from physical humans to a flat screen. While we interact with people, either outside our vision or via our limited communication through the net, we lose that same psychological sense, freedom, formality, psychology, etc. We gain spontaneity, the ability to bridge distances, anonymity, and other aspects. It seems to me that we will eventually give up the face-to-face aspect of games just as we did for conversations, letters, and other similar activities.

Which, as in all previous cases, involves a loss.

While we send very few letters, we do still visit each other when it's convenient. We still enjoy face-to-face sex, and probably will so long as it's convenient. We probably will always enjoy face-to-face games, so long as it's convenient. But we seem to be more and more a technologically assisted species.

This morning I woke up with an alarm clock. I took a shower with boiler heated water. I took my car and called via cellphone to coordinate with my daughter to drop off her backpack that she forgot. She met me at a certain moment by the clock. Then I picked up my son to take him for an electronic blood-pressure test, which also required cellphone contact with both him and the nurse. My car brought me to each place and then to work.

Whatever would my life have been life without these items: clock, car, phones, boiler, blood pressure gauge? I would have had to build up a body capable of measuring time. I would have had to endure cold water, no showers, or wait for a fire to heat the water. I would have to take hours to get to all these places, and not be able to contact anyone during transit. In fact, my children would have had to be responsible for all these things on their own.

As a result, I could accomplish much fewer things during the day, and would only expect to either have a shower, or see my daughter, or see my son, or go to work, but not more than one of these.

Of course, my work involves computers and technical writing about complex software systems that run complex computers that control television scheduling that beam programming to people watching on their televisions. Wipe all this away and what's left?

Writing, walking, medicine, face-to-face family, eating, living in a house, talking, playing games. All the things that I use this technology for in the first place.

I can't really escape from all of it. I wouldn't have advanced medicine without all the technology to model it, extract it, and test it. I wouldn't have enough work without so many artificially created needs to fulfill. I wouldn't have as nice a house without light building materials. My family would be out of contact with me for days, weeks or months, rather than with me in bits and pieces all the time.

So X has replaced Y, and will continue to do so. And some of X gets lost on the way, in favor of the greater benefits of Y.

But sometimes I wonder: how much of X can be replaced by Y before any semblance of X no longer exists?



Anonymous said...

X can never be replaced by Y but do you consider an improved X a Y?

It is impossible to replace a physical (X) with a digital (Y) and still be the same. However an improved version of the same type could easily evolve it rather then replacing it.

It is hard to do this with the physical, a phone call is a substitute but not a replacement for a face-to-face encounter. Nothing could replace a face to face encounter.

However phone calls with video is an improvement and is something that could easily replace a phone call and still remain the same as a phone call.

I say Y is a completely different thing on is own and a substitute to X but not an X.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Kamen: For the sake of this article, I guess I was talking only about an upgrade that involves a tradeoff. It's certainly possible, sometimes, to simply get the best of both worlds; that would just be X' .

Although I disagree that phone calls with video represent a clear improvement over non-visual calls. Better sound quality calls I would agree with.