Monday, January 06, 2014

The fallacy of "real life"

I am writing this post because I sometimes get fed up with all these self-righteous people who explain to me, condescendingly of course, what "real" means and how important it is compared to what I may be doing, which has a lower value of reality, often approaching zero. I am hearing that texting or using an instant messenger is not carrying a conversation. That love is attention and that I should always focus that attention on one thing or another (mainly on their person, though). I watch too many movies instead of going out to parties, I read books instead of talking walks, I throw myself into an online game or some news item instead of noticing to my wife's needs, I stay indoors instead of going out. You see, for these people, going outside the home, physically interacting with other humans with no hope of escape and watching events unfold with your eyes (smell them with your nose, touch them with your own skin) rather than seeing them on a screen is what is "real". Well, I am here to tell you all: bullshit! There is no such thing as real since the time a brain was invented.

Now, I could be as condescending as these people are and explain to you how neurologically a brain is trying to project the world, as perceived by the senses, so that it can fit in the head and can simulate events before they happen, thus leading to informed decisions. Or I could bore you to death by demonstrating that two people can never ever have access to the same reality. I won't do that, though :) What I will do is just give you some counter-examples that will prove, I hope, that there was never a common reality to begin with and that technology only enables a process that is too old and too human to ever stop.

When I was a child my parents were thinking that going out would be good for me. I, however, wanted to stay indoors and read books. Not on a PDA or on a computer, but on actual paper, the only things that were then available to me in Romania. They would talk to me, you see, ask me to come to lunch, or ask me a question or try to interact with me for some reason or another. I, however, was lost 20000 leagues under the sea or on some alien planet or in some cave, running from a crazed killer. I couldn't hear them. More, I didn't really want to. They could, of course, smack me in the head and that would certainly feel more real than what was in the book, but does that mean it was not real to begin with? And I will have to say that, even if some written scenario was complete fantasy, I was interacting with it, remembering it, training my mind on it, maybe even believing it could be real or that it was real already. The contents of the book were changing my personality and my knowledge and, on any further "real" interactions with other people, changed them a bit, too. It's the same thing as believing the things said in an electoral campaign and then changing your life's course to account for that. At least sci-fi has a small chance to happen!

My point is that the process of losing myself into a parallel world, whether of my own creation or somebody else's, is something that people have been doing for a long time. Technology is not creating this phenomenon, it only enables it.

And then there is the hypocrisy. Some fantasy book is something not real and I should do something that counts, you say, but you don't have the balls to say the same thing to a religious nut who advocates prayer every Sunday (or perhaps a small war). That would be insensitive to their beliefs, you say then. They have the right to lose themselves in a complete fabrication because they are not the only ones. There is a whole pack ready to tear you to bits if you try to stop it. I have news to you! The readers of books may not be a tight knit pack, but their set includes the set of people who read religious books and believe in them, too. The book readers group is a lot bigger, if a less ferocious, tribe. We are not to be feared, but that doesn't mean you are not insensitive to us.

So now it is easier to watch a movie or a series to become lost in some fantastic universe. It is easier to split communication into small text bits that are sent only when and where you want them. It is a lot easier to imagine you are in a circle of friends, even if you've never actually met most of them. Is that bad? It's like accusing the inventor of writing of making people listen less to other people speak. Don't get me wrong, I am not advocating replacing the old and tried methods of human interaction with technological means; I am instead revolting against attempts to limit the methods I find best for me.

And literary fantasy is not necessarily the stuff that shapes your thoughts for a while. It can be something acutely technical, like a recipe for cake, or a legal contract, or a video explaining how to do something. Neither are "real", they are just information. Then comes your decision to bake the cake, memorize the recipe or just forget the whole thing. And when has anything you've read in a legal contract have anything to do with reality?

I believe that all this propaganda for the concept of reality - itself just a fantasy of the accuser - is used to hide a more brutal thing, one that is harder to accept. I submit to you that when someone prefers to read a book or watch a movie rather than talk to you, it is because you are less interesting. When children prefer to text on their smartphones while ignoring their parents, it's because their parents are boring. When someone prefers indoor activities to outdoor activities, it's because the things you did outside when you were young, the things that made you feel healthy and proud, are becoming less and less relevant. A conversation is two-sided only and continuous only if both participants are incredibly interesting, otherwise there are other options now. Eye contact doesn't communicate the amount and quality of information that makes it worthwhile anymore. And love, the ultimate feeling, the thing that makes the world go round, the stuff of dreams and fairy tales, love just has to be of a certain quality nowadays before it becomes attractive. Reality is boring, it's the low bandwidth information flow of yesterday, the only people living almost exclusively in it are termed savages and peasants and other derogatory terms that you don't want attached to you. Be Zen! Be aware of and absorb everything that is happening to you, instead of choosing the things you want to see and hear and not smell. What pretentious crap!

Learning is now multithreaded, a web of fantasy and fact that just comes at you from all directions and that needs you to determine at every step how reliable, interesting or "real" it is. Other people are just data points and tools to help you achieve goals. Friendship is distributed. Identity is multiple and depends on context. People choose to live in fantasies now, because they can do it easier and better than before, when they still would have chosen it, but they didn't quite knew how. There is an app for everything because we thought of it first, someone created the app and people find the need to use it.

Technology does not ultimately change humanity in unwanted directions because technology has no desires. If humanity changes - or gives technology desires :), it is because it chooses so. It might be a bad choice, but it's a choice nonetheless. And people that find themselves overwhelmed by that choice should refrain from trying to rebrand past as reality.