Thursday, October 24, 2013

This Virtual Life: When the Real World Isn't Enough

Obnoxious? Yeah. But maybe they have a point.
I'm no luddite, but all this technology is starting to worry me. 

      Well, maybe it's not so much the technology that's worrisome, but rather the ways in which we are allowing the digital and virtual worlds to shape almost every aspect of our non-virtual lives. 

       This weekend, I was at the aquarium with my husband and step-daughter. During our visit we saw a half-hour dolphin show during which the several young children seated around us - no more than four or five years old - used their parents' phones to video and photograph the entire program. The entire program. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that these kids didn't put their devices down for any part of the show. Even hours after leaving the aquarium, the more I thought about it, the more unsettled I felt. 

       I get it; the endless capabilities of our mobile devices are often a very welcome distraction. They pass the time when we're riding buses or standing in lines. When we're in a pinch and just need our idle kids to be still for a few minutes, a game-loaded mobile device can be a saving grace. But at the dolphin show, we were being barraged with entertainment, and not just any entertainment - real, live, jumping, swimming, flipper-waving entertainment. I mean, we were in an aquarium; we were literally surrounded by thousands of exotic sea creatures, and not only that! We were in a water arena watching trained sea animals do tricks! Tricks! With lights and sound! Even as an adult, I found the show pretty darn entertaining. As a child on a field trip, I remember finding a similar show downright magical. I don't think I could have been more rapt unless one of the seals in the show were to waddle up to me and strike up a conversation about his personal friendship with Flipper.

       But it seems that seeing trained sea animals do tricks in a building filled with the most exotic creatures of the deep only garners a "meh" on the entertainment scale for today's five-year-olds. Somehow, the experience was not sufficiently amusing without the added novelty of digital documentation. It was impossible for the kids in our vicinity to just sit and have the (already thoroughly entertaining) experience. At five, they couldn't help but translate the actual experience into a virtual experience, even as the actual experience was taking place right in front of them. I fear that this behavior is becoming the norm for children because it has already become the norm for us adults.

       My anxiety about this new cultural standard is nothing new. It seems like every futuristic movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey has posed similar concerns, featuring some disaster where computers have become too smart, too powerful, and end up usurping all of humanity. On a smaller scale, I find myself wondering why virtual life has taken on the degree of importance it has particularly in the minutia of our daily lives. Acclaimed comedian Louis CK expounds beautifully and hilariously on the toxicity of hyper-connectivity and how it keeps children from developing empathy. Meanwhile, kids use PS3s to wage virtual wars while parents plant virtual gardens. We post about our babies, about our food, about cats, about sunsets and plans and haircuts. In one way, virtual platforms give us the opportunity to "experience" what we otherwise might not experience, and to share what we want - from the mundane to the remarkable - with whom we want. But in another way, these platforms can create the illusion that our actual experiences aren't valid until they are digitized, documented, and uploaded - aren't meaningful until they are "liked." I'm all for the virtual world acting as a compliment to the actual one, but, in our minds and in our behavior, virtual is no longer simply augmenting actual; it's replacing it.

       This long decline into an increasingly binary life is distressing, and I find that it is also keeping me from experiencing wonder. Remember when you wanted to know something, but in order to find out, you had to go the library and find a book or an article about it? And if you couldn't do that, we just had to wonder about it until you could go ask your teacher. You had to turn it over in your mind, you had to mull and theorize, you had to imagine. Well, no need for any of that nonsense anymore. Just whip out your smartphone, fire up your Wikipedia app and boom: detailed descriptions, histories, timelines, and images. On one hand, great! With so much access to so much information, we as a species are more capable than ever of betterment, advancement, and efficiency. But when so much of these new capabilities are expended on Candy Crush, what is that efficiency worth when it robs us of the moments that connect us to our humanity - to people and events and the real, actual, tangible world? 

       Our obsession with the virtual world is robbing us of those moments. It's hard to have coffee with a friend without having her set her phone on the table next to her chai and pausing the conversation at every text alert. It's hard, apparently, for people to not fall into open manholes because they are texting while walking. And let's not even get started on the widespread and remarkably homicidal habit of texting while driving.

       I miss the days when the real world was enough - when there was nothing to do while riding the bus but ride the bus, or maybe read a book, or steal glances at an interesting-looking stranger, and wonder, based on their shoes, what kind of person they are. I miss the days when we noticed things that weren't backlit and search-engine-optimized. I miss the days when it was possible to wonder about things. And unless we protect them, those real experiences will continue to diminish until nothing real - not even a dolphin show in a building filled with exotic sea creatures - will be enough on its own.

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