What Does Being “Online” Mean?

plugged-inFirst published October 24, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

If readers’ responses to my few columns about Google’s Glass can be considered a representative sample (which, for many reasons, it can’t, but let’s put that aside for the moment), it appears we’re circling the concept warily. There’s good reason for this. Privacy concerns aside, we’re breaking virgin territory here that may shift what it means to be online.

Up until now, the concept of online had a lot in common with our understanding of physical travel and acquisition. As Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card discovered, our virtual travels tapped into our evolved strategies for hunting and gathering. The analogy, which holds up in most instances, is that we traveled to a destination. We “went” online, to “go” to a website, where we “got” information. It was, in our minds, much like a virtual shopping trip. Our vehicle just happened to be whatever piece of technology we were using to navigate the virtual landscape of “online.”

As long as we framed our online experiences in this way, we had the comfort of knowing we were somewhat separate from whatever “online” was. Yes, it was morphing faster than we could keep up with, but it was under our control, subject to our intent. We chose when we stepped from our real lives into our virtual ones, and the boundaries between the two were fairly distinct.

There’s a certain peace of mind in this. We don’t mind the idea of online as long as it’s a resource subject to our whims. Ultimately, it’s been our choice whether we “go” online or not, just as it’s our choice to “go” to the grocery store, or the library, or our cousin’s wedding. The sphere of our lives, as defined by our consciousness, and the sphere of “online” only intersected when we decided to open the door.

As I said last week, even the act of “going” online required a number of deliberate steps on our part. We had to choose a connected device, frame our intent and set a navigation path (often through a search engine). Each of these steps reinforced our sense that we were at the wheel in this particular journey. Consider it our security blanket against a technological loss of control.

But, as our technology becomes more intimate, whether it’s Google Glass, wearable devices or implanted chips, being “online” will cease to be about “going” and will become more about “being.”  As our interface with the virtual world becomes less deliberate, the paradigm becomes less about navigating a space that’s under our control and more about being an activated node in a vast network.

Being “online” will mean being “plugged in.” The lines between “online” and “ourselves” will become blurred, perhaps invisible, as technology moves at the speed of unconscious thought. We won’t be rationally choosing destinations, applications or devices. We won’t be keying in commands or queries. We won’t even be clicking on links. All the comforting steps that currently reinforce our sense of movement through a virtual space at our pace and according to our intent will fade away. Just as a light bulb doesn’t “go” to electricity, we won’t “go” online.  We will just be plugged in.

Now, I’m not suggesting a Matrix-like loss of control. I really don’t believe we’ll become feed sacs plugged into the mother of all networks. What I am suggesting is a switch from a rather slow, deliberate interface that operates at the speed of conscious thought to a much faster interface that taps into the speed of our subconscious cognitive processing. The impulses that will control the gateway of information, communication and functionality will still come from us, but it will be operating below the threshold of our conscious awareness. The Internet will be constantly reading our minds and serving up stuff before we even “know” we want it.

That may seem like neurological semantics, but it’s a vital point to consider. Humans have been struggling for centuries with the idea that we may not be as rational as we think we are. Unless you’re a neuroscientist, psychologist or philosopher, you may not have spent a lot of time pondering the nature of consciousness, but whether we actively think about it or not, it does provide a mental underpinning to our concept of who we are.  We need to believe that we’re in constant control of our circumstances.

The newly emerging definition of what it means to be “online” may force us to explore the nature of our control at a level many of us may not be comfortable with.

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