The Perilous Lack of Reality in Virtual Life

I, like most of us, have begun to think seriously of late about various socio-political things facing us everyday (trust me – this will have to do with my usual subject matter of media, technology, creativity, etc.), particularly the gun-realted tragedies of the past few years, but also related subjects such as an obsession with militias, tri-cornered hats, “don’t-tread-on-me,” Tea Parties and no taxation, and the accompanying romancing of small government. But to all this I want to add other social obsessions: video games,the Internet in general, the postmodern spectacles of pop music and big-time sports. What do all these have in common? Let’s take a look. – – (NOTE: this is a long post, so if you want to get down to business, scroll to the end of the post.)


  • Gun crimes until recent years have been largely (and sadly) black on black, in inner cities neighborhoods that are predominantly black, Hispanic, and Asian. So why do whites in predominantly white neighborhoods feel threatened? Why do some feel the need for assault rifles, pistols, even more dangerous weapons? Sure, racism and its correlate, fear of what you don’t understand, figures prominently into this. But to my mind, the culprit is largely TV. With the proliferation of of TV networks and channels, each one has to shout louder than the rest to gain your attention to their versions of the news – and to their sponsorships. Certainly FOX is the biggest miscreant in this, but they aren’t alone by any means. There seems to be an element of attention to perceived danger that governs over the reality of relative peacefulness in our nationwide society. I have a cousin who watches FOX all day long, and when I talk to her, the conversation quickly grows toxic a la “the world’s going to hell in a hand basket.” She – and many others, I fear – are blind to optimism, to the idea that whatever problems are out there have solutions – and that some may involve her/their participation. I could give many more examples, but the idea here is that we tend these days to surrender the perceivable reality out there to the virtual, “reality-based” one TV dishes.


  • The grandest and most erroneous political phenomenon of recent years is the Tea Party, and I won’t dwell on people who advocate against their own real interests. But before the TPs formed, we were pummeled by Ronald Reagan with “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” Newt Gingrich espoused a hue and cry for no new taxes during his time as House Speaker, an idea that still resonates with much of the public despite a Federal budget broken by adventurous spending on several large-ticket unfunded mandates. Any household checkbook keeper will tell you that spending more without more income is dangerous. Of course, this doesn’t translate purely at the macro-economic level. Keynesian economics will tell any high school student that in bleak economic times, when the public isn’t buying and business isn’t hiring or producing, government just might have to deficit-spend to pull us out of our financial doldrums. And lest I be accused of pounding only on Republicans, let me vent my spleen briefly on the current “god”of the Democrats, Bill Clinton. In order not to be a do-nothing president with a Congress hard-set against him, he compromised his ideas to death in order to have his “grand bargains.” On Education? Clinton bowed to the large corporations who continue to donate massive amounts of money to the large and growing universities for research that benefitted largely those corporations. Universities should be job factories, Clinton proclaimed, and the idea of teaching young minds to think lucidly (until recently the primary purpose of higher education) was pushed to the back bench in order to serve corporate needs. And Obama is taking the same posture. But what does this have to do with virtuality? Politics has become a virtual world; whether it’s the TPs or Joe Lunch Bucket who is out of a job, or the emerging proliferation of minority perspectives that are finally getting their day in the sun, politics preaches a zero-sum game, rarely trafficking in solutions to problems or a calming of social angst. Like the TV moguls, politicians pummel us with sound bites and speeches void of fact-based rationales. That they appeal mostly to our emotions – and not our reason – is a trait of this emerging virtual word as it spills into the real one we live and breathe in.


  • Anyone who reads even a portion of this post will see it in various “places” on the Internet. The Internet has become a social and political phenomenon that is with us for the long haul, and that’s probably a good thing in the overall sense. Still, it does have its problems. Journalistic in-depth reportage, the fifth estate, served us well for years as a tool for informing us  of issues foreign and domestic, but it’s now quickly being replaced with blogger posts (like mine here, I suppose), and the tendency there is not to separate oneself from the fray in order to construct a relatively unbiased, rational perspective on our changing world. E-mail, even games, can be ways to communicate regularly with those we hold dear, with those we wish to get to know better, but the nuances of those media (I’ll return to nuance a bit later) forestall the human intimacy we need, emotional, even biological. And these games, and the growing number of virtual worlds – – my wife played a game called Glitch for a couple of years. In Glitch, you have an avatar (a virtual person) living in a neighborhood of your choosing within the world of Ur. During those two years, she experienced, virtually the issues of the real world: making money, buying clothes, furniture, a home, etc., going to parties and general socializing. But there was also robbery, animal abuse, and a number of other community problems the players had to contend with on a regular basis. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it?  But the game ended some months ago (The developers “Devs” weren’t able to keep this inventive game going financially). The night the game ended I accompanied my wife at the computer, reading posts by the players, as the game was slowly shut down. For weeks she was morose over the loss of something that had only a tenuous grasp of living, breathing reality, and I can’t blame here, really; the game had mimicked real life to such a degree that the shut-down seemed barely short of an apocalypse.  And then there are the kid games: action games, war games, all sorts of games out there, and kids play them constantly. Many games are sanctioned by the military (this isn’t my paranoia -it’s real) in order to de facto train kids to military service in a country that remains void of a military draft. Some games are extremely violent, others not so much. But if my wife cried over the loss of Glitch, is it too great a leap to think that kids might allow virtuality to confuse their corporeal reality?
  • Any educator, even in the lower levels of K-12 will tell you it’s hard to gain kid’s interest on mundane subjects such as history, geography, math, English, without appealing to any sensationalistic aspect that might be wallowing about on the surface of those subjects. Take this poll: Kids, do you want to be a physicist? An engineer? A schoolteacher? A plumber? A carpenter? Or would you like to be a CIA agent? A professional athlete? A rock star? I’d be surprised if those first five occupations win out over the latter ones. Why? Media has glamorized pop music, rock stars, athletes and governmental intrigues to the point of virtuality. Would it be possible to do the same for the more mundane occupations? I would hope so, but I doubt it.


So what’s point here? It’s that there’s no ethical basis inherent in our technologically generated virtual worlds, whether it be digital communities like Glitch (which did espouse an unregulated  sense of ethics)  or Call of Duty. The Daily Beast published an article on such virtuality recently, and in a latter paragraph, the author had this to say:

“No matter how you beef it up with little icons or fancy colors, [virtual worlds] don’t have the nuance of face-to-face interaction,” says Oxford University’s Susan Greenfield, who heads the U.K.’s Institute for the Future of the Mind.”

And nuance is the key to the problems of viruality: Social interaction in real life are deceptively complex, allowing persons to express, but also allowing for doubt, consolation, accommodation, and understanding that still seems only a dream in virtual worlds.

TV seeks only to draw our attention to their sponsorships, and it doesn’t particularly care about the short- and long-term effects of the manner in which it draws viewers in. Politicians, who we hope will solve the problems they’re elected to treat, make virtual games of competing ideologies – not in order to serve, but the keep their jobs. Athletes, singers, actors – and much of popular an literary writing – seek to entertain without the Aristotlean adjunct of art to also educate.

As a result, we’re drawing ourselves into a new form of tribalism, much of the impetuses for them based in unreality – – virtuality –  – a  series of worlds as imperfect and flawed as the new technologies that create them – – and we’re coalescing within thse new groups with weaponry. Can we retreat from these unreal worlds – or at least keep them in peaceful perspective? Let’s hope so, for the good of us all.


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