Reality is Moving Online
By Wil Forbis
March 1st 2019
Not long ago I stumbled across a facebook video of a small jazz group fronted by a fantastic female clarinet player. The band was filmed playing in the middle of a street in what I presumed to be an African neighborhood in a European city, or maybe Jamaica. I marveled at the performance and then didn't give it further thought.
About a month after I saw the video I was in New Orleans on a short vacation with my girlfriend. We were wandering through the Big Easy's famous French Quarter and we stumbled upon the very same band I had recently seen online. Suddenly, the images and sounds I first saw in a tiny facebook video box were surrounding me and I marveled for a second time at the show, this time enjoying the increased verisimilitude.
A few days later, a friend of mine serendipitously brought up the clarinetist and filled in her name: Doreen Ketchens. She's frequent performer in the French Quarter and you can see some video of her here.
A bit after I saw Doreen in person, it struck me that there was something intriguing about the whole experience. For the first time in my life, I had discovered something while wandering around the online world and then rediscovered it in "reality." In a curious way, my online and real worlds had become connected.
I realize that's a confusing statement. I'm talking as if the online Doreen Ketchens is somehow different from the "real" one. Of course they are one and the same. But, in some sense, in my mind, the online world is a different world - a place with its own inhabitants, its own rules, its own cultures. I can see someone on youtube and intellectually understand that they exist out there in reality, but it feels like they are from another dimension, maybe even another time.
Another way to think about it is this. The real world - the world out there made up of places we read about (or live in), and the people who live in those places, and the ideas and concepts those people talk about - is moving online. As a result, if I want to go to, say, Paris, I have two options. One is to fly to Paris and walk around. The other is to visit Paris online: to view video footage taken from the Parisian streets, to read blogs written by Parisians, and to communicate with friends in Paris via social media and email. It's not the same as really being there, I get that, but it's not a complete waste either. And as my New Orleans experience made clear, exploring a space virtually can make new experiences seem familiar.
I said reality is moving online but let me make a bolder assertion. The Internet has fundamentally changed reality. That might at first sound shocking: after all reality is what it is, how can it be anything other than what it is? (e.g. how can it change?) Perhaps I should clarify what I mean by reality.
We tend to think of reality as basically being stuff that exists somewhere in three dimensions of space and one of time. That's a perfect usable definition. But I think we also think of reality in terms of our perception of things. So, for instance, I see a dog walking down the street and that brings to mind a jumble of thoughts related to that breed of dog, of dogs in general, of my various emotions related to dogs and the like. The dog itself does exist out there in the four dimensions, but my perception of that dog is in my head. That perception may be faulty- I may perceive this dog to be friendly and find out he's not - but the jumble of sensory data I get while observing the dog mixed with these larger contextual thoughts about dogs in general make up their own kind of reality.
As many philosophers have noted, we don't experience reality directly, we experience perceptions of it. I don't actually see a dog directly, rather light waves bouncing off the dog hit my retina and activate neural connections going to my brain, resulting in the creation of a visual perception of a dog. Most of the time those visual perceptions do correlate to something "out there" in the physical world, but sometimes they do not (hallucinations, dreams, holograms*).
* Well, holograms do correlate with something out there in reality but they are not what they seem to be. A hologram of a dog is not actually a dog.
Direct sensory perception is the only tool primitive creatures have to experience/create reality. They see, smell, bump into and otherwise interact with the outside world and thus know it is there. But more advanced creatures can use the power of communication. Monkeys can scream when they see a snake, thus alerting others to the predator. Crows can call out to their brethren to spread the good news about a pile of food.
In those cases, animals are using communication to inform others about the nature of reality. But no creature does communication like humans do. We can not only inform our fellows about dangers and pleasures, we can read rich descriptions of environments we have never seen, we can hear about interesting people we have never met, we can discuss obtuse ideas that cause us to question our own sensory perceptions (like quantum physics). For humans, most of reality as we perceive it comes not from direct experience but from what is communicated to us. I, for instance have never seen or met Barack Obama or Donald Tromp, I've never been to Argentina or Saturn's moons, I've never seen a great white shark or unicorn but I know they all exist (...waitasec!)
If communication creates our reality then communication tools must shape it. In our early days, communication required speech which could only be done in close proximity. Then we developed written language and could pass notes and letters. Then we created recording and broadcast technology and could pass sound over vast distances. That was soon followed by visuals in film and television.
Each of these tools augments our ability to communicate and enriches the information we can collect about the world. With communication tools we can create constructs in our head to represent people, places and objects we have never seen. Thus we develop very detailed understandings of the world. We even construct the various false realities that make up stories.
So how has the internet changed this? Mainly in the speed with which we get the contextual information we use to construct our realities. It used to be we got a portioned-out dose of daily news in the form of the the newspaper or 6 o'clock broadcast news. Now we get news and news analysis pumped into our phones and computers constantly. It used to be we got updates from our friends and relatives via the occasional phone call or letter, now we can keep track of the minutia of their lives via facebook and other social media. (For example, I just learned that an ex-girlfriend of mine I haven't talked to in years did yoga with a goat last week.) The information we use to construct our realities is coming fast and furious.
With so much information available at a moment's notice, it's easy to see how people can pick and choose their information sources and start to construct their own personal realities. Reality becomes less an objective concept we are all bound to and rather something that can be personally designed for our individual purposes.
There are numerous articles out there on the web observing this general trend and commenting on whether it's good or bad (usually saying it's bad.) I'm not going to make a judgement here, I merely want to point out how life-changing this is. Our very sense of what is and what can be is ever more tied to technology. And this process is only going to get faster.
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - email@example.com
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.