In Real Life Excerpt #2 — from “Technology and Spirituality”

It’s tempting to think of the Internet as a place. We’ve learned to relate to it as a world on the other side of a window. We open the window, see this virtual world on the other side, and we can just barely reach through using these strange controls we’ve learned to manipulate. We can’t enter with our whole bodies and walk around the place—not yet, anyway—but in order to access the Internet, we do have to go there. When we turn our attention back to the physical world, we leave the Internet. It makes sense that the Internet feels like a place. That’s how we’ve designed it.

But clearly the Internet placeness is a metaphor. It may feel like everyone in a comment thread—or even in a virtual dungeon full of goblins—is in the same place together, but it’s not true. The others probably left their message an hour ago and are back to work by now. Even if anyone else is present at the same time, it’s not as though they’re in a room with you. They’re looking at a different instance of the same data rendered somewhere else. You’re communicating through a long, byzantine contraption from two different places.

But that doesn’t make your shared experience any less real. You’re both having experiences as real as any other. But the experience isn’t taking place in the Internet. It’s taking place in your body as you interact with the information on the screen. A real place provides an embodied experience. Even if you were in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment projected into a helmet, you’d still be in the same place as you would be if the power went out and the helmet blinked off.

This kind of weirdness is what makes the newly networked world feel unfamiliar. That alienness increases the temptation to treat online conversations or experiences as taking place in their own discrete, virtual space. The rules aren’t the same there as here. Surely that must be somewhere else.

But we’re tricking ourselves by believing that. The Internet doesn’t actually have the qualities to make it a place. That illusion of “going there” and “coming back” is caused by inadequate technology. We don’t actually leave the conversations we have online when we shut off our screen. We pause our connection to them, but they’re still there.

From Chapter 3: “Technology and Spirituality”