In praise of meatspace

Digital technology is changing the world, but don’t be too hasty to ditch the old ways of doing things.

I was recently introduced to a new phrase that is supposedly catching on in the tech community: meatspace. It describes the physical world – the tangible counterpart to the virtual or digital world. To me, it sounds slightly derogatory, similar in tone to what I was once told was common parlance for passengers among airline staff, “self-loading freight.”

Now, I love much of the digital world and what it allows me – and billions of others – to do. I’m a heavy user of many of the generation of new brands it has created. However, as a sci-fi buff, I also have some sympathy with Stephen Hawking when he said, “Success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst.” The fact is we don’t how the digital world will change our world, as Hawking added. “We cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”

So, for now, it seems right to reflect on what we hold dear in the real world. To paraphrase Marc Anthony from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Friends, avatars and marketers, lend me your earbuds; I come not to bury the virtual world, but to praise the meatspace.”

Let me start with the benefits of real-world connection when working with other people. Teams, Zoom, Miro and all the other platforms can make working with colleagues near and far an effective experience – and one that is more environmentally-friendly than the travel-reliant business meetings of the past. However, it still doesn’t fully compare to meeting, talking, and working with other people physically.

In a creative industry like marketing, the opportunity to spark and build ideas together is more fruitful for many people if they have other ‘meat’ in the same room. Energy levels are higher, and people can’t pretend they are paying attention while they’re actually doing something else, like answering the never-ending stream of emails.

On a more day-to-day basis, working remotely can be useful, although the jury seems to be split on whether or not it really yields increased productivity.

Undeniably, though, it does improve numerous aspects of modern life. It does away with the daily commute – a double benefit of generating less pollution and saving time. Personally, my commute dropped from an hour each way, to a 30-second walk through my garden to my converted shed/workspace. It also gives people a bit more freedom to manage their work hours, which can help with things like the school run.

Surveys have suggested that many leaders still want to see employees spending more time in the office, often for reasons of communication and creativity, as well as for sustaining culture. My prediction is that, where feasible, many industries will move to a two or three-day office week, with the remainder spent working from home or remotely. The implications are enormous.

The final – and perhaps most important – reason to praise meatspace is, that like all humans, I am a social creature; in my case, one who cherishes interactions with the world in its many shapes and guises. I enjoy meeting people, whether old friends and family, or new people from different places, backgrounds and cultures. Simply put, I enjoy being in the real world.

Augmented and virtual reality will have a role in my future life. But I’m not prepared to give up my meatspace any time soon.

Giles Lury is a senior director at brand consultancy The Value Engineers.