'The digital and physical are increasingly meshed [they] dialectically co-construct each other...This is opposed to the notion that the Internet is like the Matrix, where there is a “real” (Zion) that you leave when you enter the virtual space (the Matrix) - an outdated perspective as Facebook is increasingly real and our physical world increasingly digital' (Social Media commentator Nathan Jurgenson).
The movie The Matrix challenged our ideas about reality and played with our fear of machines. We came out of cinemas asking ourselves whether we would take the blue pill or the red pill: if we could ever face the desert of the real. For Jurgensen the split between reality and vir-tuality in the Matrix is a metaphor for our everyday relationship with technology and digital, online spaces.
The complex consequences of our online interactions have become increasingly apparent in offline spaces in recent years. Some have sought to separate the online from the offline, while others (like Jurgenson) tell us that we should no longer believe in the myth of 'digital dualism'. Such dualism suggests that on- and offline worlds are separate (or what happens online stays online) when it is more often the case that online and offline realities operate in relationship to one another. As Jurgenson says, we are living in a type of augmented reality that combines the digital and the physical.
Rather than seeing the physical and digital at either ends of a metaphorical sea-saw, perhaps it is useful to reflect on their combined manifestations in our everyday lives. In other words, what does it mean to live in an age of augmented reality?
We've seen how online and offline fields collide through recent reports in the media. On one end of the scale we have Twitter hype psyching out Olympic athletes, and at the other end we have the role of social media in revolutionary movements such as the Arab Spring and global Occupy (Wall Street) movements. The digital and the physical are embroiled in a relationship, each shaping the other as users move back and forth between the two fields.
This back and forth is clear when we look at the use of Weibo - a Twitter-like space - by 'tech-savvy' young people in China and the responses of the Chinese government. Online rumblings of a protest gathering in Beijing (around the time of the Arab Spring in the Middle East) were responded to by both protesters and police. Initial protests were quickly quelled by the government. The irony is that the government – by stationing security guards on street corners, by banning revolutionary language such as ‘Jasmine’ on social media platforms – actually contributed to the revolutionary fervor. 'The tug-of-war between the government and the people over truth and rumor happens every day in today's China. The rise of social media has made the struggle harder and the stakes higher', says Gao for The Atlantic.
Events that occur online have consequences in the ‘real’ world in much the same way that real world events appear online in various forms and in various places. Understanding which came first – the real or the virtual – will not always be as straightforward as we expect. Perhaps, as social theorist Slavoj Žižek has suggested, the task is not to find the difference between virtual reality and real reality. Our task should be to understand the real consequences of virtual events and the virtual consequences of real events.