The Technium

Things We Didn’t Know About Ourselves

The fact that everyone alive on our planet is now connected electronically is not a surprise. This universal connection has been a scifi theme for many decades before it happened, and this view of universal connection was not that difficult to imagine once radios were invented. Televisions connecting each other seemed inevitable once we had telephones. They were called desktop picture phones at first, and they were long expected, and in fact by this century considered long overdue. 

But the smartphone — a small pocketable screen – was not at all expected. It was a complete surprise because no one thought it would be possible to engage with such a tiny screen. It was a shock to everyone (including me)  that a screen smaller than my palm would be enough to watch a movie, or read a book, or get your news. That kind of behavior seemed to go against “what everybody knows” about movie watching and book reading. In fact the idea of an appealing micro-window seemed contrary to what we thought we knew about our physiology – that we needed a wide view with high fidelity, and that it was unnatural and uncomfortable to have to restrict our gazes into such a tiny screen. Turns out we were very wrong. We have zero trouble watching hours of movies on this sliver of a screen. This comfort with a small screen was one of many things we did not know about ourselves.

There are so many other things we didn’t know about ourselves. We had been painting and observing images for thousands of years before we discovered that we can fool our own eyes and minds to perceive motion by rapidly flicking a series of images with minor alterations. These illusions are called movies. We didn’t know we had this ability to perceive motion until we had the technology to manifest this ability. In other words, we could not have known this about ourselves until we invented cinema.

We are discovering something similar with VR. We didn’t know we can be convinced of the presence of something by generating a volumetric, spatial image of it.  Rendering an image spatial makes it feel like it is present, even when our logical mind knows it is not. This trick makes VR worlds feel real. We also could not have known this about our own eyes until we invented VR technology.

I am pretty sure that we did not know that we humans much prefer personal attention to personal privacy. Until we invented the technology of social media, we thought we naturally favored privacy over attention, but we were also wrong about that. We found out that when given a choice people prefer to reveal themselves to get personal attention rather than the obscurity of privacy.

All this should make us wonder how many other things we don’t know about ourselves? And what kind of technology do we need to uncover them? Also, it is possible that every bit of complex technology will in its turn reveal to us something about ourselves we did not know. Part of inventing and taming our inventions is coming to terms with the new things we learn about ourselves.


© 2023