Finding reality in a world of representations

We live in a world of images. It wasn’t always so.

I am 49 years old. I turn 50 in late January. When I was a kid, I had a fairly simple life, immersed in the “real”. While I was born in North York, a northern suburb of Toronto, I grew up in far-flung development in King City, a rural village in the horse country, mid-way between Toronto and Barrie.

I do not wax nostalgic about all aspects of my childhood, which was marked by tragedy and challenge. I am, however, nostalgic for the autonomy of self that I had, in a community that made sense to me. My early days revolved around the outdoors – playing games and sports with the other boys from the neighbourhood. Baseball, soccer, hockey, bocce, swimming, lawn darts, hide and seek… we played many different games.

When it was cold, or when the weather was rough, we played board games – Monopoly, Big Deal, Scrabble, Chess, Stratego, Checkers, Poleconomy (that Canadian social-democratic version of Monopoly). We also loved building toys, such as Meccano, Sonos, and Lego. We dabbled in Dungeons and Dragons, but quickly gave up on it, because its focus on the unreal felt off-putting compared to the fun of competing in sports or board games as ourselves, not as imaginary characters. We were happy to be who we were.

The advent of the personal computer marked a big moment for me. I found it empowering and endlessly fascinating. My parents bought me a Texas Instruments TI 99 4/A, on which we enjoyed programming in Basic, typing in and improving upon programs we found in Byte Magazine. The computer allowed an extension of Meccano into the digital world, which was exciting. However, using my first computer and later the Macintosh SE that my mother brought home from her work as a university professor of linguistics at York still felt contained. I was using a tool, a giant calculator.

Our friends group never took to computer games much. We found them boring and reductive, although we probably wouldn’t have used those words. It was much more fun to go hiking, mountain biking, or to play sports or board games. Those were activities that engaged us physically and mentally – we were together while doing them, but very much present in our bodies. We interacted with the physical world around us. Those interactions formed our sense of self. Imagination had little to do with it.

Computer games demanded that we yoke ourselves to someone else’s vision of action, agency and identity. I remember that we discussed this and shrugged them off. While solving a puzzle game like Civilization was fun, pretending to do something virtually was boring and felt useless. In fact, I remember being aware of the addictive feeling of computer games – I didn’t like the feeling of “otherworldliness” or “daze” that I felt when I immersed myself in them. I felt disconnected from nature, from my body and from God (I was, and continue to be spiritual and religious).

The only real “representational identity” that I remember was fashion brands. My Balkan grandmother sewed all my mother’s clothes and most of mine. An accomplished seamstress, she scoffed at fashion as superficial and a cash-grab for vanity. However, brands did find their way into our lives – fake Hugo Boss sweatshirts were popular and real Polo Ralph Lauren or Lacoste polo tops were admired as prestigious. I realize the folly of this admiration for mass-market junk now, but then, I was seduced by it. This continued until well into my 30s. Looking back now, I realize that this was unfortunate – a betrayal of life in reality, in practical adaption to the immediate environment. I avoid heavily branded or stylised clothes or accessories now and feel much better for it.

When social media struck, the vast majority of people who lived in reality were forced to adopt a virtual life. This foisted upon everyone the need to construct an active imaginary or fantasy life. We are in the midst of the ripples from the dropping of that stone in our cultural water now – identity trumps reality, and this is reflected in our politics.

A generation of youth, iGen, as identified by Dr. Jean Twenge, has been profoundly affected by being co-raised by parents and gleaming rectangles – smartphones, tablets, etc. They live in an imaginary world, which feels real to them. Many of them are “indoor kids”, never really experiencing their magnificent bodies in nature — rather they do sports in highly controlled environments, where variables are limited and chance is avoided. However, chance in nature, with the risk inherent to it, is what makes life a voyage of discovery. When faced with using your body and your mind to interact with plants, animals and the natural world, you quickly get a sense of what and who you really are. That sense transcends imagined identities, in fact, it renders them almost quaint.

I worry that we have internalized the unreal as real. This is not healthy. As a scholar of the effects of technology on communication, I fear that we are crossing a threshold where the unreal is valued more than the real. Borges illustrated this in several of his stories, with On Exactitude in Science springing to mind as an example.

The challenge with living in the unreal is that it creates uncertainty. Even the strongest among us feels uncomfortable in verbal debate. And the unreal is a realm of constant debate and the rhetoric that accompanies it. To live in that state leads to three positions: (i) relativism, where you throw up your hands and say “I just don’t know”; (ii) hardened ideology, where you commit to some set of representations and defend them as though they were real (they are not); or (iii) rejection of society, where you retreat away from the unreality of society and live as a hermit in plain sight.

None of these options are good. They all lead to a society where people are not connecting in real ways. To spend time together on a hike, in a kayak, gardening, building your own house, or any other practice in reality is irreplaceable, because it means being in your body and using mind at the same time; solving real problems by training your body to use tools and sense the world around you, in all of its splendour and danger.

I suspect that the prestige in the future will be the ability to say “I don’t participate” in the unreal world of digital life. The wealthy will retreat to cabins and play board games, kayak and garden, whilst everyone else debates identity and politics through the umbilical cord that connects them to the digital world of the unreal, their shared fantasy.

Maybe we could each make choices to avoid this future? I don’t know. People seem pretty happy to wallow in the unreality of identity politics (right wing and left wing), video games, social media and soon, virtual reality.

It makes me sad. I think I will go for a hike in the Dundas Valley to wash off these thoughts.

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