By Jennifer Golbeck
Laurence Scott was born in the twi- light zone between generation Xers and millennials, coming of age as ocial media emerged on the web and changed the world. The Four- Dimensional Human is part tech-
philosophical treatise and part literary
memoir, exploring how constant connec-
tivity has changed us and our interactions.
Scott’s 4D human lives in the physical
world and in the ethereal online space, occupying both at the same time. Online interactions are free of physical constraints, and
time operates differently there, but it inevitably comes back to affect our offline lives. The
strangeness and tension that emerge from
this is the core theme of the book.
Life in the fourth dimension is most eloquently captured in the book’s opening example, in which Scott describes being out
for the evening in Dublin with his college
classmates and tutor. They descend into a
basement wine bar, full of books, flowers,
art, and gilt. The tutor orders champagne,
which arrives at the same time Scott receives a text from a new connection. He
busily responds, missing the toast. This
state of being physically in one place but
drawn, through technology, to somewhere
else is an eminently relatable experience.
Scott does not advance an argument so
much as he shares reflections on a bouquet
of topics, moving from one to another like
a bee moves between flowers. They include
some that you might expect: how technology has enabled changes in language, the
emergence of “sharing” culture, the appropriation of ideas, and new ways of dealing
But he also ranges more broadly, com-
paring the emergence of colony collapse
disorder in bee populations with our “on-
line migration … to a virtual hive,” arguing
that Gap’s 2014 “Dress Normal” campaign
tapped into our collective anxiety about
modes of self-expression in the digital age,
and chronicling a failed attempt to replace
time zones with a decimalized system
of a thousand beats known as “Internet
Time.” His conclusions tend to be that our
“fourth-dimensional” experiences are of-
ten strange, anemic, or disconcerting, but
he leaves hope that we can find a way of
living happily in this new world.
Scott has clearly thought deeply about
all the issues he explores. The book is
carefully crafted and eloquently written.
It is also a refreshing departure from the
libraries of tech books written by self-proclaimed futurists filled with bold claims
and (empty) promises about how technology is changing the world.
That said, the book truly is part memoir,
and some of Scott’s experiences are far from
universal. He spends a few pages early on
describing “the strange sorrow that Skype
provokes,” a sense of isolation that he finds
distinct and profound when compared with
phone calls. Although it may be an experience shared by some, this is certainly not a
universal reaction. Research has shown that
for many people, Skype actually reduces the
feeling of distance (1–3).
He also writes at length about Airbnb, de-
scribing it as voyeuristic for the way it lets
us see into others’ homes and also as evok-
ing the uncanny valley for giving us a feel-
ing of home when we are away. But people
were renting houses, complete with listings
with pictures, well before the Internet, and
I was left unconvinced that moving this in-
dustry online has produced any fundamental
change in the experience.
Let’s cut to the chase: Are you going to en-
joy this book or not? The answer is a big “it
depends”; some people will love it and others
will have strong feelings in the other direc-
tion. Fortunately, you can quickly find out
what camp you are in with this simple test.
Consider this passage that deals with
originality online: “The digital, in one strike,
manages to sublimate the real and petrify
the ethereal. As a result, we feel our lives
evaporating and solidifying in the same
breath, and as when something very hot
meets something very cold, we feel cracks
beginning to form.”
Like it? Then you will love this book.
But whether or not you add The Four-
Dimensional Human to your summer read-
ing stack, it is a valuable book that brings a
fresh perspective to the topic of life online
1. R. Longhurst, Environ. Plan D. 31, 4 (2013).
2. R. C. King-O’Riain, in Internet and Emotions
(Routledge, Abingdon, 2013).
3. A. Aguila, Exp. Media Ecol. 10, 3 (2012).
In real life
An essayist offers an intimate glimpse into the digital
technologies that are redefining the human experience
Ways of Being
in the Digital World
Norton, 2016. 272 pp.
The reviewer is at the Social Intelligence Lab, University of
Maryland, College Park, MD 20742, USA. Email: golbeck@
“... [I]f you dabble in other realities, then you shouldn’t expect to remain unchanged,” writes Laurence Scott.
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