The Blurry Line Between the Cyber and Physical Worlds

December 10, 2018 by Linh Chi


You poke your hands into your pockets in search of your oh-so-precious credit card, only to realize that it’s not where it’s supposed to be. Your heart drops, your brain stops, your hands start sweating and you frantically try to remember where you could have dropped it. Now, if you take a second to assess the situation, you would realise that what you actually lost was just a mere piece of plastic linked to a sum of money in a virtual realm. The money that you were in possession of was not actual money, but rather the concept of it.

It doesn’t take long for one to notice the pattern repeating across various nations nowadays, that of the increasing focus on the development of advanced technological systems. Take Korea, for example: public transportation is handled through the T-money card, Internet banking is widely embraced by the population and credit cards are generally preferred over cash throughout the country. Another example would be Estonia, which is the only country in the world so technologically advanced that every one of its citizens possesses an e-ID (electronic identification). The voting process there is also handled electronically, referred to as e-voting. Ever since the beginning of the 21st century, the world has witnessed the transformation of items used in daily-life – from their physical forms to intangible ones.

A proliferation of new terms with the prefix “e” attached are appearing: e-mail, e-banking, e-book, e-cash, e-ID, e-voting, e-verything. It no longer seems strange to have everything available under a person’s fingertips, a mere click away –  people look up from their phones or laptops only to find themselves already part of a virtual world in which everything is connected to the Internet. The virtual world has been so deeply integrated into people’s lives that they cannot draw a clear line of separation from that world without a definite sense of loss. This is where the line between the “physical” world and the “cyber” world begins to blur. Humans, it can be said, are currently living in “cyber-physical spaces” (Tsigkanos, Kehrer, and Ghezzi, 2016).

This phenomenon can be further described as a “cyber-physical system” in which “computational elements heavily interact with physical entities” to control or facilitate social processes through information and communication technologies (or ICT) (Tsigkanos, Kehrer, and Ghezzi, 2016). Since the advent of the Internet, information has earned itself an intangible value. People know that it’s there, but at the same time it’s not actually there. It does not possess a physical form – one that can be touched, smelled, or felt - yet it still reaches into the physical world to obtain a definite value, one that can be measured in terms of money.

Social media enterprises are a great example of this idea. According to Statista (2017), Facebook makes approximately 40 billion dollars in revenue each year by means of collecting users’ data for their advertising platforms. The information Facebook gathers includes name, gender, age, email address, relationship status, shopping habits, websites visited most frequently... and the list goes on. All of these records are categorized as “data,” the existence of which is completely based within a cyber realm. Yet the value of such data is so essential that it has played a fundamental role in Facebook’s transformation into an extremely successful multinational company.

It’s amazing to see how many people have taken data for granted. An incredibly minor portion of the population is aware of just how valuable it has become, and how much more so it will be in the future. One reason for this lack of awareness is due to the commonplace nature of data itself. The Internet has turned data into “public goods,” a “commodity” available to everybody. This, as a result, blinds many from recognizing its true value.

This unconsciousness is currently being exploited by data-based enterprises, a fact which has the potential to lead to great social repercussions in the near future. The Facebook Data Breach Scandal in 2018 alarmed the world, and alerted the public as to how their information is being abused without their knowledge. Up to 87 million Facebook users’ personal data had been “harvested by Cambridge Analytica,” basically meaning that Facebook has granted this third-party company access to Facebook users’ profiles and the information its users generate while using the website. Thus all of a person’s supposedly private information is readily available in a virtual realm, in constant danger of being exploited for profit and vulnerable to cyberattacks (such as identity theft, hacking, etc). All of this usually happens without the users being informed, though one common argument these companies make to defend themselves is that people have given their consent by agreeing to the Terms and Conditions before using their services.

How many people take the time to read all the Terms and Conditions before pressing the “Agree” button? Companies are fully aware that users are ignorant of how their own valuable data is used, and are taking advantage of that ignorance to generate an unimaginable amount of profit. It’s a pressing matter now for the general population to be educated about the intangible value of information, and become more aware of the rapid convergence between the cyber and physical worlds. Money does not merely come in the form of cash anymore, but as a series of numbers which can only be accessed through the use of technology. New forms of alternative currencies are coming into widespread use, such as Bitcoin. The lives of 21st century people are being transformed by ICT. It is time for the populace to awaken to that reality, and be prepared for what might come in the future.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.