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Virtual Worlds and 'Intimate Computing': the Future of Digital Play

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By:Tom Chatfield

The recent story of human-digital interactions is one of steadily increasing closeness: we are moving from merely 'personal' computing to something that you might call 'intimate' computing. Modern smartphones and tablets, with their touchscreens and their constant presence in our lives, are extensions of our selves in a way that no digital device was even a decade ago. They are the channels through which we interact with even the most important people in our lives. They are where we work and play; where we hang out with friends. They are the first thing many of us touch when we wake in the morning and the last when we go to bed at night.

Our relationship with technology is, it seems to me, one that's increasingly governed by the dynamics of leisure and play. We have an incredibly satisfying sense of control when we are plugged into the best digital tools - and, increasingly, a gnawing sense of anxiety when we are unplugged. There is the pleasure of the most serious kind of play: the agency that comes from transforming the world into a kind of game, full of achievements, progress and certainties.

When you consider the power the devices in our pockets are going to have in even a decade's time, it's also clear that this integration of digital tools into the texture of daily living has barely begun. The layers of digital information and interaction that we bring with us, wherever we are, are only going to increase in both complexity and ease. We're looking at a future not of immersive virtual worlds, but of a virtualised version of this one: everything around us augmented by the power of personalised devices and services.

Some of the trends this points to are wonderful, some troubling. Everything in our lives, from clothing, to food, to our own health, is already starting to have its digital shadow. Who safeguards and owns this data, and what they do with it, is a big question. A bigger question still, however, is how the coming decades will affect what it feels like to be us. As we distribute more and more of our selves across technological services and devices, what feels most "real" in many lives is migrating from where we are to something intangible: what we bring with us, everywhere and anywhere; and what we wish others to bring in return.

Tom Chatfield will be giving a talk at the iq2 If Conference November 25-26 at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

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