A Question of Reality

We think we know what reality is. Our lives are filled with work, sex, and food that we consider to be real. The processes within your mind, where you categorize the input of your senses and turn it into recognizable patterns, you also consider real. For most of human history, reality has been a fairly easy to define thing: reality is the world around us that we can see and touch and smell and taste. But the boundaries of reality are shifting. With the ever-expanding world we are creating in the spaces between our computer screens, we suddenly find ourselves in the position of questioning what is more “real”: the things we can feel with our hands, or the things we feel with our hearts?

A Subjective Narrative

Growing up in the 80’s, we did not have a computer in the house. The progenitor of modern gaming systems was allowed into our home only reluctantly by my mother, who viewed such pastimes as completely without value. Television was likewise viewed as so much brain-rotting crap. We did watch movies, but mostly we read books. We had a whole library of books, and even that was not enough to assuage the need to visit the public library or the bookstore for more. Each book became it’s own miniature reality, a world apart where we could interact with possibilities otherwise outside our reach. Books, however, have a limited reality scope, in that the characters (for all that they might seem like your best friends at the time), will never truly understand you. It is a one-way street.

The more common 80’s childhood, as experienced vicariously through my friends, was that of a never ending grind in the service of coming home to watch sit-coms and evening soap operas. On our t.v. screens fictional characters traipsed blithely through their own never-ending work weeks, albeit in more interesting jobs than their silent witnesses. Already, the concept of an alternate reality in competition with our own was creeping into our mass subconscious, to the extent that many a family found themselves “keeping up with the Cosby’s” without ever truly understanding where the beige carpeting and matching sofa were coming from.

Years later, during a visit with my in-laws, I witnessed what was becoming an increasingly common dilemma for parents everywhere. My little brother-in-law (who was about 15 at the time, and not actually very little) was spending copious amounts of time locked away in his room, staring into the computer screen and playing World of Warcraft. His parents were concerned that he wasn’t going out much anymore, wasn’t interacting with the family as much as he used to, seemed to be wasting his life on some escapist timesink. I shook my head along with them, concerned about this lack of connection to “reality” as we knew it. I worried about this tendency in the younger generations, whether it would leave them all somehow mentally crippled, unable or unwilling to go out and interact with the “real world”.

At the ripe old age of 30, I signed up for an account on a site called Newsvine.com. And I entered a new understanding of reality.

I had been involved in online communities and activities before, but this was different. Suddenly, I found myself glued to the computer screen for hours each day. At first I convinced myself that it was simply the satisfaction of finding what seemed to be an appreciative audience for my love of writing. When I realized that the hourly breakdown of my online time each day was more on the scale of three hours surfing other’s articles and commenting on them to every hour of writing, I decided I couldn’t kid myself anymore. I had effectively traded out part of my “reality” for an online existence.

What was it, then, that had gone wrong with my priorities? How could the world I was witnessing on my screen seem just as real and valid as the one around it? As time progressed and I found myself unwilling to alter my behaviour, I began to realize that the people with whom I interacted online were truly what I thought of as my friends. Some of them were even much closer and dearer to me than many of the people I knew in the flesh. I sat around on Newsvine columns, in chat boxes, and chat rooms, drinking and kibitzing and generally doing all of the things that I would have done with friends in person, with the possible exception of getting nearly arrested by the cops for disorderly behaviour. After an immensely enjoyable night of drinking in a chat box with an online friend, I hit on the notion of an online drinking contest, wondering if the sense of connection and reality would maintain when multiple people were involved. We killed the chat room repeatedly, but the sense of community and mass revelry was undeniable. And then, just when I was getting used to this new version of “real”, the worlds collided. An online friend crossed the ocean to come and hang out in the flesh. And despite all the caveats I had sensibly been striving to hang on to, we were just as intimate real friends as we had been via the conveyance of electrons. A mass meeting of Newsviners several months later once again confirmed my inner reality. In a room of people I had technically never met before, I was not among strangers…I was among friends.

Reality Is What You Make Of It

Science Fiction has long predicted a future where our traditional sense of reality will be supplanted by something…other. In recent years, fiction such as Neuromancer by William Gibson and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson have explored the possibilities of a world created inside computer networks, exploring the concept we early on termed “Virtual Reality”. The assumption buried in the term is that we may approach reality with our fictional universes, but that they will always remain somehow lacking, a shadow of the genuine which can never quite embody the substance of the “real thing”. But what will we call it if this assumption turns out not to be true?

Certainly, quite drastic measures would have to be taken before our bodies could subsist without maintenance in the offline reality. But how important is eating and excreting to the value of a reality? When our work can take place there, when our social activities can take place there, when our learning (both formal and informal) takes place there, when even the sensual pleasures of sex can take place there…will we really continue to think so highly of the reality where we simply maintain the hardware which enables us to continue to interact on a plane with so many more possibilities? What is truly essential to the “real”?

In recent years, more and more online avenues have opened for the casual user, like neighborhoods where we can take up residence. While Newsvine may appeal to those inclined toward news debate, sites such as Second Life offer a much less idea-centered, more all-encompassing landscape. In Snowcrash, Stephenson envisions a future wherein much of human existence takes place inside a computer-generated universe, with residences and jobs there seeming perhaps more “real” to the participants than those on the outside. This is precisely what Second Life attempts to embrace, with homes, stores, social encounters, etc. that the users can tailor more closely toward their ideal state. At this time, Secondlife falls short of the kind of all-consuming experience portrayed in Snowcrash, but it is only a matter of time before our technology catches up with our vision. With 7,132,748 current inhabitants, it is certainly not a lack of desire on the part of the users preventing us from plunging forward.

An online existence certainly seems much more appealing in many ways than what we are used to. Online, the only aesthetic limits are your imagination and programming skills. Those who prefer to work with their minds, rather than their hands, have found the perfect venue. We are freed from the laws of physics, and replace them with our own set of laws, organized and structured to agree with our sensibilities. The only things lacking at this point are a more universal understanding of the world we are creating, graphics so convincing we can’t tell the difference from objects on the Outside, and the ability to stimulate all our senses (rather than relying on sight and sound, as we have done for years). As more and more people drop out of this world to spend their time online, these technologies will be the ones which pay, and therefore they will certainly be developed — probably before we come up with a cure for cancer.

Reality Is What You Can Get Away With

The fears of an alternate, human-generated reality replacing our own are long-standing. In recent years, many story-tellers have taken a swing at addressing our cultural distrust, perhaps none more effectively than the Wachowski brothers in their portrayal of The Matrix, in which reality as we know it turns out to be a computer-generated sham designed with the sole intent of placating our “real” bodies so that they can continue to serve as power sources for our robot overlords. The question of reality validity is central to The Matrix, perhaps nowhere more clearly expressed than when Cypher expresses the sentiment:

You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize?
Ignorance is bliss.

No matter how deeply we may fear change, the future is rushing up to meet us. The children of current western cultures are growing up understanding the value of an online existence. The children of third world countries, growing up in locations where setting up free computers with Internet access is a favourite philanthropist pastime, have all the more impetus to place getting their own connection at the top of their priority list. After all, what could possibly make an Inside existence more appealing than an uncomfortable or intolerable Outside one? What our generations struggle to embrace, our children will intuitively understand and accept. No matter how we may question this path as a measure of “progress”, it is pointless to deny that we have crafted a straight route to this increasingly inevitable destination.

While we are busily giving birth to our peculiar dreams…what will become of the world Outside, the one currently plagued with pollution, deforestation, and rampant violence? Realistically, getting the majority of the world’s inhabitants to consider Inside their primary reality may be the surest way to save our planet. Inside, there is all the space, all the stuff, all the potential we could ever need. The limited resources of outside will become the subject of less competition, production of “real” stuff will become devalued, reducing pollution and allowing the land to reclaim some of its former glory. Online sex will be the new “safe” sex, and overpopulation will eventually dwindle back to a more reasonable level. The violent side of human nature will be directed to destroying computers and systems, reputations and patterns, as information becomes the most vital currency. Given a little conscious ingenuity over the next twenty years, we could find ourselves in the position to create both a utopia Inside and Outside. Perhaps Outside will become a popular vacation spot, easily accessible even on the shortest of weekends.

Once the Inside experience can fully embrace our senses, the only real barrier to a significant portion choosing one reality over the other are the mundane practicalities of continuing to exist in bodies of flesh and blood, even while our minds may be focused elsewhere. Somehow we must continue to generate electricity, must continue to exercise and feed our bodies if we expect them to continue to support our ever more important brains. We will have to continue to procreate in some manner, and must therefore continue to raise our children. How will we continue to navigate these tasks, when every minute spent away from the computer comes to be viewed as taking part in an inferior reality? And how will our choices in doing so slowly alter our internal programming: our dreams and desires, morals, methods and capacity to process information,and our mythology — both personal and cultural?

The history of humanity has been that of relatively small groups determining many fundamental aspects of the reality of the whole, manipulating the masses through mythology which they market under different labels: religion, politics, entertainment, advertising, etc. The vast majority of the people, meanwhile, merely serve as the producers of necessary goods and services. What happens when the goods and services wanted require logic and reasoning rather than strength and manual skill? Who will hold the reigns in a world such as this, and will it force the masses into a heightened responsibility for their reality?

Perhaps most important is the question of whether we will approach the new reality with a full awareness of the consequences of our choices, trying to foresee the long term ramifications in an effort to shape a world in which we can all find our own versions of happiness, or whether we will once again plunge blindly in to create a nightmarish muddle from which we do not know how to awake? When everyone has the potential to shape the world, perhaps it behooves us to recognize that each of us has a responsibility to protect it, and to try to reach a consensus on what it should be.

2 thoughts on “A Question of Reality

  1. Celestina,

    I see technology is more efficient at courtesy than I. You were quoted — and complimented — on my blog this weekend. After directing more than one friend to your post via email, I realized you deserved a more public mention. You’ve caused many of us to stop, reflect, and discuss.

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