The Evolution Of Togetherness — From Phones To AR
Recently, we’ve been thinking a lot about how togetherness has changed over time. Here’s a brief overview of how new modes of communication gave rise to new modes of consciousness — and new kinds of human experiences.
I was born in 1986, at the tail end of what one could reasonably call the Telephone Era of human existence. You don’t need me to tell you that the telephone revolutionized many aspects of our daily lives and industry, but what the telephone did to our minds is frequently overlooked.
For the first time in the history of human existence, perhaps in the history of the universe itself, it was possible to share a moment of togetherness at a distance.
Togetherness is an interesting concept in and of itself. Naively, perhaps because of our genetic memory of only being able to communicate in each other’s immediate physical presence, we might think of together as something that happens when we are together in the same space, but even a moment’s honest reflection will show us that that simply cannot be what togetherness truly is.
We have all felt alone in a classroom, at a party, or in a particularly painful argument with a loved one. Togetherness, it seems to me, is ultimately a mode of consciousness: one where we make room for someone else in our consciousness, and we feel that a reciprocal room has been created for us in theirs.
The Telephone Era expanded our ability to be together and gave birth to a generation of humans with a fundamentally different understanding of what social interaction entailed. Now we could, through the aid of a magical device tethered to our wall, be social with someone that wasn’t physically present — just emotionally present.
As I grew up in the early stages of the Cellphone Era, another radical change in consciousness followed. We became untethered from our walls and could bring our telephone conversations with us out into the world. What’s so radically new here is that, like a turtle, we could now bring our space with us where we went. There was no longer any need to ever feel alone. In the cellphone era, my teenage sister didn’t have to feel unsafe walking home at night — she could give me a call, and I could walk her home, at a distance.
In the Cellphone Era, loneliness was almost purely a function of social status and not of physical proximity.
Then came the Chatroom Era, and human consciousness went through its most radical change yet. Growing up on the internet, I had moments where I felt almost alien to older generations. For the very first time, perhaps in the history of the universe, it was possible to carry more than one conservation at a time. To be present in more than one room. To share more than one moment.
This was the ground floor of what some would call the Metaverse: a digital and technological domain unconstrained by our biological limitations, where we could inhabit radically new modes of consciousness. I often say I grew up on the internet because, in the Chatroom Era, the internet truly felt like a place I could inhabit. These were my friends. These are my social circles. I am this username. I inhabit this digital identity. Rather than sitting in the familiar warm light of our ancestral fires, we sat in the shared blueish glare of our displays — fully present in a moment.
When the twin towers fell in 2001, I ran upstairs to go back to GameRanger. This was an online community for Macintosh gamers, a very niche community indeed, that still boasted several tens of thousands of registered users at the time. On GameRanger, I consumed a live feed of reactions from all over the world — but also from people on the scene. Not only could I see the images unfold on live TV when the second plane hit, but I saw its emotional reverberations in real time from people in New York. As weird as it may sound, coming from a Swedish person, the experience was life-changing. Knowing that this forcefield of human emotion echoed through the cross-continental cables and airwaves, with a delay measured in milliseconds, was an eye-opening experience that taught me a valuable lesson about the spaceless reach of empathy and connection.
When the cellphone and the computer eventually merged in the Smartphone Era, it was anyone’s guess what new radical changes might come with it. We immediately noticed how it disrupted industries and old inefficiencies, but it took a while before anyone really noticed how it disrupted human consciousness.
With the rise of Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks, the internet stopped being a place where people genuinely hung out. Communication became asynchronous, no longer real-time. “Social media,” perhaps one of the greatest misnomers of all time, turned off the social aspects of the internet and large parts of our entire culture in the span of a decade. In their wake followed alienation, loneliness, social anxiety, unrest, and declining mental health. The once vibrant substrate of the internet, once home to a flourishing new kind of human consciousness and connectedness, became a desert of self-promotion and disconnectedness. The smartphone era had given way to something dark and dystopian: The Wall Era.
In the Wall Era, conversations are no longer expected to happen in real time. Moments of connectedness are far in between. The internet is a place full of angry strangers you’re dying to correct, and togetherness is something we are lucky to experience for a brief moment while choosing Netflix movies to disappear into. In the Wall Era, we are alone and alienated and technology has started working against human connectedness.
So what’s next?
The metaverse is a state of mind. It is togetherness in a moment. We believe that shared augmented reality, the ability to render information precisely and intersubjectively in space, is the next big leap in human communication. Once again, the limits of togetherness and communication will be pushed, and human beings will be able to communicate at levels of bandwidth almost unimaginable. Our hope, and our mission, is to use this powerful new medium to create new moments of togetherness. When augmented reality is shared, it brings us back into the here and now and allows us, once again, to experience each other as friends rather than strangers.
— Nils Pihl, CEO of Matterless