Much has been said and written about the “Information Age” and how rapidly it is connecting everyone to one another, and to masses of recorded information, products, and services. It is a shallow and misleading characterization of what lies ahead.
When one is talking to another person on the telephone, it is not that person they are connected to, but a simulation of that persons voice. The simulated voice is not the person, but a facsimile of one aspect of them. When one is talking to someone via Skype, they are not connected to one another, but to a facsimile of both appearance and voice. When two people are “texting” one another via mobile phone, they are not connected to one another but to alphabetic symbols representing what they are trying to communicate.
Whether we are looking at the screen of a television, a computer, a tablet, or a cell phone, what we see and hear is not another person, but a symbolic representation of some part of them. When we make a purchase via the web, or look up information of one kind or another, what we are connected to is not the thing itself, but a symbolic representation of it. At no time are we connected to reality of person, place or thing, but only to facsimiles of them. The same is true of computer games, movies, television, radio, or other methods of symbolic transmission.
One’s time is finite and limited. To connect to anything via electronic technology and modern communications requires disconnecting from something else for precisely the same amount of time. An essential question emerges. What are we disconnecting from to provide time to connect to symbolic reality? Is the hour taken staring at a computer, television or mobile telephone screen an hour disconnected from the reality of a garden? Is it an hour disconnected from the reality of a conversation face to face with other people? Is it an hour disconnected from family around the dinner table? Is it an hour disconnected from a quiet walk in the sun or the rain? Is it an hour disconnected from participation in ones community? Even the finest electronic connection is a crude approximation of the complex, sensory, and direct connection to person, place or thing in the context of their surroundings.
An even deeper question then emerges. What is the value of the real things disconnected from, to the value of the facsimile of person or things connected to? Are we disconnecting from the richness of reality for connection to a clumsy facsimile of it? To what extent does it make our lives subject to manipulation by those who control the means by which we are symbolically connected? What will it mean to the evolution of the mind, of emotions, of health? What will it do to such intangibles as privacy, intimacy, trust, spontaneity, confidence?
From my perspective, every advance of technology is introduced with exaggerated claims of the benefits to be expected, which are generally accepted with enthusiasm. In the excitement and pride of every new advance we tend to forget that the expected consequences may or may not happen, but the unexpected consequences always do.
In truth, “virtual reality” is an oxymoron. There is no such thing. There is reality and there is symbolic facsimile of it. And so to the heart of the matter. Are we exchanging quality for quantity? Are we exchanging substance for novelty? Are we exchanging the richness of real life for the poverty of pseudo life? Are we exchanging gold for dross? And if so, who benefits from that? Does it matter?