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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

A Hole In The World


There is a space in her home. It is a 8’x8’x8’ cube. Or 3m x 3m x 3m if you like metres. When she enters it, one wall lights up with the Internet. She finds a webcam in the Amazon delta. The climate control in her Cube reproduces the temperature, humidity, sound and light levels of the webcam in minutes. Sweating, she rents a virtual drone and flies. She wants to get to the coast and meet some people there. When she reaches the blue-and-muddy water, the children come running out to their cube and screen. She smiles and speaks, hoping the translator will do a reasonable job with Portuguese. It does not, and the children laugh and roll around on the ground. 

All the technology to do this is there already. It is not expensive and can get cheaper if we keep electric cars and spaceships on hold for a while. We don't need to isolate ourselves with expensive VR headsets - we need to share screens.

We need reliable batteries, broadband, a projector that can project high resolution images vertically without having to be placed horizontally away from the wall. All of this exists. We need a climate controller that can cool, heat and humidify a small space quicky. We need 3D surround sound and variable lighting. All exist.

The idea is really simple. Imagine you are on a video conference with someone, using Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp video or whatever works for you. You would be using a screen of some sort, and so would the other side. On your screen you see a bit of the environment of the other side, just as they see a bit of your environment on their screen. Now imagine if your screen was the size of the wall in front of you and it was the same on the other side. It would now be as though the two walls have merged into one glass wall – the two environments have become one. If you are in your study and your friend is in her living room, it would now look to you as though her living room was an extension of your study. Similarly, to you friend it would look as though her living room had your study attached. There would be a hole in the world connecting your spaces.

To enhance presence, you would need to match the sound, light temperature and humidity of the two connected environments. You could decide which one to replicate on the other side. It would be cheaper to do this to a small, enclosed space, hence my suggestion of the cube.

We can create this world, a world as alien to a virus as a virus is to our biological selves. Unless, of course, we would rather go back to the world that we left behind. A world where we kill the enemy and live happily ever after. Just as there are people who want to go back to the 20th century or the 7th – even today.

COVID19 has changed our world, swiftly and immensely. It has emptied the world and put people in their homes. It has closed commerce, industry and almost all physical human interactions. It has shut down the world as we knew it. We need to create a new world.

We are now alone, except perhaps for immediate family. We have to avoid the outdoors, except to get food and medicines. We have to be as clean and isolated as possible. In the process, along with the COVID, we will also avoid all other infection, viral or bacterial. Presumably, we will need less medicines. Presumably, we will need less food.

Gradually, we are getting used to the ideas of silence, clean air and living with ourselves.

Along with this physical isolation there is a growing new world, seething with activity – the Internet. It is rapidly replacing the unidirectional world of television and print. In this new world, we live with the Internet (I think we should get used to spelling it with a capital I). It is our collective consciousness, our collective Self. It has no physical form, it exists but is not ‘anywhere’.

We access the Internet all the time, with devices, usually small phones, tablets or laptops. Sometimes we use a desktop screen and love the size and presence it offers.

We respond differently to large screens than to small ones. I learnt this from watching children learning off the Internet on large screens. Large screens have large presence. Large screens can be seen, shared and heard by others. Children clustering, physically or virtually, around large screens learn rapidly through shared experience. Twenty years ago, I saw this by embedding Internet connected computers into walls in public spaces in the slums and villages of India. The experiment was dubbed the ‘Hole In The Wall’ by the media. Over the years, the hole in the wall became ‘Self Organised Learning Environments’ in England and then the ‘School in the Cloud’ all over the world. But it remained a curiosity in the physical world of classrooms and playgrounds and shopping malls.

I think we need those ideas now in our new world. From social distancing we can move to a life that is more full of activity and learning than it was ever before. 

We need a Hole In The World.


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