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Augmentation vs Immersion: The debate that never was

Tateru Nino

Since around the middle of 2006 a debate has swirled back and forth, over Immersion vs Augmentation, sparked by Henrik Bennetsen. Discussion groups in Second Life have wrangled over it, blogs have argued the point in no less than three directions, papers have been presented on the topic. We've been a part of that ourselves, in the past.

The curious thing about the debate, though, was just how spectacularly varied the positions were, and how none of them seemed to form divisional boundaries-- a very curious thing in what you'd expect to be such a polarized topic.

And then, just recently, we finally realized ourselves that the reason was that the terms of reference were essentially flawed and as a result, more than half the material written on the topic is invalid for all practical purposes.

Augmentation extends, expands or adds to your abilities; computers, mobile phones and virtual worlds provide various forms of augmentation. Augmentationists use Second Life as a tool to expand their income, skill-set, social sphere, job network, whatever

The Immersionist viewpoint is pretty much always given as "that SL is its own thing and should not be contaminated by anything from the outside". There's just one problem with that.

That doesn't describe immersion. It's not even close. That's Escapism, essentially (or Separatism, if you prefer the word) but it isn't immersion.

Immersion is about attention (or getting wet, or astronomy - but those aren't really relevant definitions to the topic at hand). Immersion is fundamentally focused and concentrated attention. The sort that is vital to Escapists, and to Augmentationists, if either are to derive benefits from a virtual world.

Let's a priori assume for the moment that Escapism and Augmentationism are two ends of spectrum. Immediately, Bennetsen's observations make sense. The confusion with the word immersion is what's clouded the essential debate thus far, as many commentators on the topic have wandered between the provided definition and the pre-existing definition.

While Escapism and Augmentationism are distinct philosophical positions (things you choose), immersion ultimately is a mental and circumstantial quality that is equally applicable to either (something you have, independent of both positions).

In a sense, this is a debate that never was, with immersion getting falsely caught up in a struggle between polar positions, where it had no place as an option. Problem is, unless everyone's using the key terms in compatible ways, no useful discussion is taking place.

Augmentation vs Escapism -- now that's an interesting sociological tension!

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