David Eagleman presents a fascinating TEDTalk where he proposes the idea of using electronic data to add to the way we “sense” our world. Just as a blind person is able to learn how to make sense of bumps on his or her fingertips while reading braille, or a deaf person is able to translate the digital impulses from a cochlear implant imbedded into the inner ear, very soon, we could make sense of digital data communicated to us through a piece of equipment connected to our bodies.
This means we could get real time, streaming, sensory feedback about all sorts of digital information, including the state of operations in our factory, the stock market, trending Twitter tags, and even the pheromones or heart rate of the person we are talking with. The implications for communication are even more intriguing. For instance, getting real time, continuous information from big data, streamed to us through patterned vibrations on our device, would provide a subtle, background sensory input similar to what we get from our nose, ears, or eyes. This kind of information could help us make decisions based on what “the mob” views as positive or important. But is big data really the best way to make decisions? How would this change the way we perceive and experience our world? What happens if someone is able to manipulate the digital information, and ultimately, change the way “the mob” perceives and responds to reality?
And what about individuals? Sherry Turkle talks about a “collaborative self”, where identity is formed and shaped by the multiple layers of digital connections we have with friends through texting, snapping, and tweeting. What are the implications to our identity if we are able to “feel” not only what our friends are thinking –in real time–but also what a global audience is thinking or feeling?
And what about our cognitive processing? While we already have learned to multi-task information from our natural senses (i.e. hearing and seeing and tasting at the same time), what are the implications to how we think, or what we think about, if our brains are trained to continually process a new sense–one that is streaming real-time big data? What are the implications to our already fractured ability to focus? What are the implications of the way we interact with people? Can we truly focus on the here and now, to the person sitting in front of us, if we have this constant stream of information coming to us from our sixth, digital sense?
Clearly, the idea of adding a new digital sense to our existing five natural senses is completely intriguing. Please check out the TEDTalk. It is definitely worth the 20 minutes. And, who knows, before long, you won’t have to sit and read a blog like this–you can just feel it as the digital vibrations flow through the background of your mind.