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Philip Slater Headshot

Living in a Virtual World

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In my city there have long been street people who talk loudly to an audience invisible to the rest of us. Today their number has been swelled by legions of well-dressed individuals who appear to be doing the same thing, but are categorized as normal by virtue of a small object held to their ear. One day I was in an outdoor cafe with friends when a young man sat down at a nearby table, the frayed sleeves of his sweat jacket pulled down over his fingers, and proceeded to have a convincing conversation with a friend over an imaginary cell phone "concealed" in his sleeve. It reminded me of a woman in a red suit and pillbox hat who used to march up to a pay phone during the eighties, and, without putting a coin in, pretend to call a government office to rant about various grievances.

We have a technological criterion for distinguishing between the sane and the insane: if the person standing on a street corner shouting at some one we can't see is holding what we believe to be a functioning phone, we deem that person sane. Of course we have no way of knowing whether there actually is someone on the other end or not, but the phone creates an illusion of sanity, as the young man with the long sleeves and the woman in the pillbox hat realized.

In one sense, though, the distinction is trivial. Both the "sane" and the "insane" are absent from their environment. If the secret of enlightenment is to "be here now," both are failing. The businessman standing on a street corner screaming obscenities at an invisible secretary, supplier, or subcontractor; the teenager rolling her eyes at an invisible parent; the lover smiling and gesturing seductively at a girlfriend who can't see him--all are oblivious to their surroundings. To the innocent eye, they all look crazy. None are attuned to the world around them and might as well be in a box. Only a tiny thread of words ties them to any kind of reality.

While cell phones increase our connectedness, they also tend to dilute it--substituting electronic connections for face-to-face ones, frustrating our need for real human contact. The Internet also provides us with a wealth of new verbal connections and fantasy relationships.

We seem to be interacting more and more, but on a more and more superficial level. So many of our bonds are impersonal and so much of our communication perfunctory that the word "bonding" itself has become ironic--used to describe relationships that are pathetic in their superficiality--men watching sports together, for example. This superficiality has led us to rely too heavily on our sexual relationships to meet all our deeper emotional and intimacy needs--a burden that tends to overload and shatter those relationships and is one cause of our high divorce rate.

Technology, combined with this tendency toward relational superficiality, has led us to relate in ways not only dilute intensity, but also heighten the element of unreality. If you cannot see, hear, and touch the other person, what you're relating to is more and more a projection of your own fantasies. An online relationship can be pretty close to having an imaginary playmate.

When relationships are mediated by electronics it's easier to control the image you present to others. You're playing to someone's fantasy and they're playing to yours--something that often happens at the beginning of relationships but is normally corrected through experience. And it's easier to find a clone of yourself--someone who will never challenge your relational assumptions, your destructive patterns, or your demented self-concept.

We're living increasingly in fantasy worlds of our own creation. No wonder so many Americans feel comfortable with having a President who lives in a wishful bubble--a President who could imagine the Iraqis would react joyfully to being bombed and invaded. Could even imagine that destroying Itaq's entire infrastructure would immediately create a free-market utopia filled with McDonald's and Wal-marts. After all, it worked that way in the virtual reality of the neo-con blueprints.