Current Affairs

Welcome to the Phygital World

12th November 2020

Franco Viviani, former President of the International Council for Physical Activity and Fitness Research, and anthropologist at the University of Padua, Italy, reflects on the rise of the phygital, which is supposed to bring the best of both worlds – but at what costs?

When we talk about innovation, one word that has recently emerged is phygital, the combination of physical and digital and the testament to the close relationship between the real and the virtual realm. It indicates the ability to navigate the world with the imagination, a big part of human nature, as it permits, for example, to appreciate a book or a film.

The recent pandemic has greatly restricted our ability to move physically and expanded the virtual world beyond measure. This has made some of us freer, and others more anxious. Some activities have become more profitable, especially the ones for which virtual is better than nothing. However, it does not allow a full-blown communication and the development and transmission of emotions and ideas. We unconsciously know that virtual technologies, perhaps, only offer a pale imitation of the multi-sensory experiences of life and that there’s still a long way to go to incorporate them into the virtual world.

In these notes I’d like examine two phenomena that are taking currently ground: the explosion of virtual meetings and digital vs paper reading, and this from an anthropological viewpoint.

A dystopia?

Once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, there is a real chance that we will be increasingly still be using virtual spaces in our daily lives. But we are also concerned that all these virtual offerings could lead us into some kind of dystopia. If utopia means a perfect paradise, dystopia – a term generally used in fictional settings – means the exact opposite, like George Orwell in 1984 and Lois Lowry in The Giver greatly described. We fear to end up experiencing loneliness at home, reduced privacy and poor cultural experiences without the corroborating “touch & smell” nuances of in-person interactions. This may also have some repercussions for associations that usually gather people from the different corners of the world. This implies that, apart from difficult logistics, vocabulary, procedures and unstated assumptions will vary from place to place, leading to poor communication and misunderstandings, which themselves are connected to two problems: peripheral participation and non-verbal communication. 

Usually we tend to see the coffee breaks of a congress as relaxing moments only. In reality, they foster the so-called peripheral participation, which is very important in every professional environment. It allows for newcomers and old-timers to meet and forge relationships, and, as such create a sense of belonging and community. It also permits to build a mental map of “who knows who and/or who does what”, so that each and every participant’s expertise is recognized. 

However, virtual meetings can’t always capture all the nuances of non-verbal interaction and in-person interplay. The fact is that non-verbal communication has been poorly studied so far, even if we are perfectly aware that hand gestures and body posture are an important part of conversations. Already 80 years ago, Birdwhistell assumed that most of our body movements contribute to activate a social meaning to a conversation 65% of the time. When we observe, even unconsciously, the signals coming from another body, we understand much better whether it will be possible to trust each other and cooperate or not. Unfortunately, most of the video sessions that are live or recorded for a virtual congress only show the upper part of the speaker and, even if we get to see a face, despite the most sophisticated high-resolution screens, we are not able to detect other signals, from gaze to the inclination of the body that, conversation analysts say, are very important. 

Of course, some attempts to promote a more nuanced peripheral communication have been devised for the virtual world, including virtual reality projections, videos, avatars and so on. For example, Hallway created a virtual breakout room for remote workers to scheduledvideo chats. Anthropologist Elizabeth Keating also mentions the interesting Watercooler website which offers the possibility to replicate the chance encounters that happened spontaneouly in an office.

All these endeavours to improve communication are welcome, of course, but human interactions taking place in the flesh are fundamental. The study Work Reworked from Microsoft shows that both managers and employees appreciate this smart way of working while others cling to old habits. This could provoke a sense of isolation and a reduction of the pace of innovation. At this point an imaginative effort is required, in order to provide users with unique interactive experiences. In my opinion, companies and associations must define all the actions to be taken with the aim to create and integrated ecosystem in which the physical and digital worlds can coexist. Useful tips can be found in the Work Reworked whitepaper.

Digital vs paper reading

Moving to the digital vs paper reading now.

According to Statista, a digital market “outlooker”, the user penetration of eBooks in the States will be around 17% in 2025. The eBooks segment revenue is projected to reach US$16,647m in 2020. In 2019, an individual Chinese reader read about 2.84 digital books a year. Reading remains one of the most important activities to reduce dementia, even if doubts remain on the effects of online vs paper reading. 

Our evolutive history tells us that writing has been invented recently, around 4000 years ago. During childhood our brain is forced to adopt new circuits for reading, using neural tissues that were predisposed to other activities, like vision, motor coordination and vocalization. These reconverted regions were supposed to recognize objects, so eyes and hands are actually equally involved in writing and reading. And there is more: the brain circuits of five-year-old children who are asked to write are activated when the children hand write letters, but not when they typed them on a computer keyboard. 

Studies published since 1992 agree on one fact: paper is ‘better’ the digital in many areas. Among them: digital holds back the reading of long documents and this can subtly affect the understanding of a text. The mental resources needed to read on a screen may be higher than reading on paper, making it more difficult to remember what has been read. Those who approach a tablet or a computer have a mental state less inclined to learn, because there is a tactility in the paper that could predispose to greater reflection. 

It has also recently been discovered that we have mind maps that help us represent shortcuts when choosing a path in our environment. Similarly, when we read, in addition to interpreting letters as objects, we can perceive a text in its entirety as a sort of physical landscape. The details are not clear, but when we read, we construct a mental representation of the text, close to the maps we devise to navigate our environment.

Then, screens and books have different ‘topographies’, which elicit different mental maps. The book favours orientation (it has a right, a left page, eight corners and so on). Turning pages is similar to walking down a path. Even the thickness of the pages helps. The digital does not allow this intuitive navigation and inhibits the maps. The screen has forced our brain to adapt and just browse texts, rather than absorb their meaning: when our index touches a screen, we use the so-called F-pattern -we just read the top lines and then just scan the text down quickly. This is different from the linear fashion we use when we read a text on paper, as we utilize sensory details in the layout to remember where key information lies. Some Chinese researchers have demonstrated that brain and hand move in effective unison when learning how to read and write, so it is possible that new digital learning methods hinder learning, because hand writing leads to better reading and comprehension skills. 

What this means for the future is unclear. For example, a study of 32 couples with children aged 3 to 6 showed that children remembered stories read aloud more than those seen with photos, videos and games, which acted as distractors. A subsequent study carried out on 1226 parents showed that children prefer a story read to them from paper rather than an e-book. The fact is that the “modesty” of a book is its strength, even if, by now and with digital innovations, this will soon change. To conclude, a paper or digital choice must be made on the basis of the degree of distraction which we are ready to undergo: there is no one single way to read and learn.

Today, many of us are hyperconnected, with an increasingly close and sometimes symbiotic relationship with technology and, thanks to it, we manage to inhabit two worlds simultaneously. This evolution of human experience has led to the tendency of no longer perceiving a clear boundary between the physical and the digital, moving from one to the other with spontaneity. 

In order to enjoy an authentic phygital experience, three elements seem to be required: immediacy, immersion and interaction. To realize this, it is necessary to create a technology that permits immediacy and immersion on the one hand and, and on the other, a “healthy” physical interaction. In addition to innovative and smart technologies, it is necessary to develop and integrate contact points, and the ultimate effort will be the optimization of the workflow through a perfect coordination of communication channels. Not an easy task. Clearly the ideal consumers of phygital experiences are the so-called “digital natives”, ie Millennials and Generation Z. The “digital immigrants” – like me – can join the game, but with much effort.

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