Making content meaningful: Neuroscientist Beau Lotto on bridging the gap between digital and physical
Neuroscientist Beau Lotto argues that digital content is meaningless, neither existing fully in the digital world or in the physical. By occupying the space between however, placed in the physical world and accessed through our digital windows, a new meaningful kind of engagement is possible.
Traces, an immersive digital messaging platform
Information is meaningless. This is literally true… even at the most basic level of our senses. In fact the light that your eyes detect is wholly inadequate for telling you what to do. This is because it doesn’t come with a set of instructions. This fact, that (sensory) information is wholly ambiguous, is the fundamental challenge that our brains evolved to solve. And simply looking at the world, much less at a 2D screen, is not how it solves it.
Instead, it evolved to engage with the world in a continual process of trial and error. The consequence of this is that what you see, and even conceive, is shaped by physically engaging with the world.
How the brain creates its perceptions of the world is a barrier to its ability to engage positively with digital ‘social platforms’. Why? Because the brain needs meaning – a meaning it creates, not by passively receiving ubiquitous ‘content’ through a relatively impersonal broadcasting system, but by interacting with those we care about in the world. This isn’t a suggestion or a philosophy. It’s what happens.
It’s not surprising, then, that many social platforms ironically decrease our social bonds with one another (or indeed with oneself), while simultaneously devaluing creative content shared.
Now, one could take the view that the digital world is therefore bad for us. And that would be a typically, conservative response… ie one that misses the deeper point that it’s best to work with human nature rather than against it.
How then can the digital become meaningful? By occupying what I call ‘the space between’. Increasingly digital content is living neither fully in the digital world nor fully in our physical one. Instead, by placing content in the physical world around us and by accessing that content by turning your phone (or wearables) into a window into that world, a wholly new kind of engagement becomes possible – one predicated on the gifting of experience.
This is meaningful because we know from research that giving increases our wellbeing. We also know that people pay more for experiences (and feel happier with their purchase) than if they spent the same amount of money on a physical object. This, I believe, provides a necessary context for thinking about social platforms in the future.
All of this is would simply be neuroscientific data and philosophical theory if it weren’t actually grounded in an example.
Traces is that example. Traces is a new immersive digital messaging platform that enables users and brands to gift experiences to others in the place and at the time that matters most – where and when you are now. By making the world part of the message, our scientific research has shown that Traces makes digital content meaningful in ways that haven’t been possible before.