‘Religions’ in the use of new media

Let me start this blog with some thoughts on what I believe to be the most fundamental decision when working with virtual worlds – or any other online medium, for that matter: the question of whether or not to utilize the distinct features of the medium.

In the case of virtual worlds this means either making use of 3D space and spatiality, customizable embodiment, responsive virtual architecture and landscape, configurable environment with interactive and behaving objects, navigation, physics, and the possibility of visualizing and embodying data from databases, dynamic web services, and possibly other virtual worlds, etc., or… creating a place where users’ simply ‘park’ their avatars just anywhere with a view to a 2D screen on which they enter and modify numbers in a conventional spreadsheet or edit text in a text document.

By my choice of words and the imbalance of passion towards these two opposed approaches you can already tell that I am a believer. I believe that a new technology/medium should not be used in the same way as an older, conventional one, just because that one is established. Rather should we focus on the distinct features of the new medium, to get most out of it. For example, the TV was not used to display static pages of the daily newspaper, right? For people to sit in front of it and try to read it? No, it was used to show moving pictures right away! Now, with this image in mind, thinking about virtual worlds again, why would we want to focus on displaying and editing 2D documents, when we can do so much more with this medium? (Note: this blog is concerned with collaborative work and learning only, obviously there are other applications of virtual worlds where 2D documents are not even thought of)

The answer seems apparent: because we are used to work with 2D documents. Have been doing that for the last decades. Actually, most of what we information workers do is creating, modifying, and sharing 2D documents of all kinds, day by day. Our digital world is built around 2D documents; reading and writing, the Gutenberg paradigm is still all over us. What started out as an imitation of the office world, the desktop metaphor now seems to be indispensable – it seems to be vital for collaboration tools and systems to focus on 2D documents in order to make useful collaboration tools. But… is it really?

That is to say, the answer to the question from before could be: because we don’t know yet how to best use the medium for it to support and foster our collaboration endeavors – we are not sure how to design the virtual world, let alone what to do and how to interact using these avatars. In order to get some real value out of the virtual experience, that is. This is why we stick to the traditional. And it is exactly what I am convinced we observe when we see how virtual worlds are mostly used for collaborative work and learning: avatars sitting at tables or standing still (in extreme cases directly facing a wall), and chatting – it’s like using the virtual world as not much more than a chat room with some neat graphics and an enhanced feeling of presence. Which is alright. However, it can be so much more than that.

So, there are two opposite approaches to follow, two ‘religions’ to choose from:

  • the defensive approach: creating and designing virtual worlds and collaborative activities in them to best fit into our existing and established working and learning culture, or
  • the offensive approach: taking up on the offer of utilizing the novel possibilities and features of virtual worlds to form innovative ways of working and learning together, utilizing the concepts of space, spatiality, and embodiment, while letting go of 2D documents for a moment.
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