The Dissociative Society
Virtual Reality Takes Over
by Robert Winter
SYNOPSIS: This essay presents a kind of "unified field theory," in which contemporary developments as diverse as the Enron collapse and the rise of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism can be seen as related elements.
It involves the triumph of the virtual over the literal--reflected tellingly in the contemporary tendency to validate our own direct experiences and observations against something that appears on a screen, rather than vice-versa.
Sometimes we comprehend the least about things happening closest to us.
My Great Uncle Frank gave me a memorable demonstration of this principle when I was just a teenager. A colorful character, Uncle Frank was a farm boy who had run away from home to join the circus, and ended up riding with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. After he had regaled me with a seemingly endless stock of tales of circus life, I asked this magnificent piece of living history what he thought had been responsible for the circus’ decline.
“Macaroni and cheese,” he replied.
Uncle Frank went on to describe how one of the original attractions of working for the circus was that you always ate well. But eventually, he said, the cheapskate circus owners started serving things like macaroni and cheese, and it got harder to attract people to be circus performers.
The rise of movies, recorded music, radio, and television as competing sources of entertainment apparently didn’t factor at all into Uncle Frank’s perceptions of what had happened to his world; nor did urbanization and the increasing sophistication of audiences. As for teasing out the possibility of a link between shrinking revenues and economizing on employee meals, he just plain wasn’t interested. For Uncle Frank, what killed the circus was what was on his plate: macaroni and cheese. Period.
Difficulties experienced by individuals like Uncle Frank in discerning the larger trends around them can also be felt by larger groups of people—even whole societies. For example, people who lived through the Italian Renaissance couldn’t have told you that’s what they were going through. The term itself hadn’t yet been invented.
Likewise, although these days we’re awash in data and mass-media punditry about all manner of fads and trends and megatrends and even the nature of change itself, we’ve managed to collectively overlook one rather fundamental change in the nature of our world:
We're losing touch with literal reality.
Encouraged by the ascendant mega-media and mega-corporations of our age, we’re becoming more engrossed in a pseudo-world of manufactured images, and less engaged with the world that's really out there. The net effect is a form of sickness.
|We're suffering from a kind of cognitive sickness.
|Our basic way of apprehending the world around us has
shifted in the media age.
|Advertising techniques have transformed a wide variety of
|We've changed from a machine-based work and business
environment to a perception-based one.
|We now buy perceptions rather than things.
|A perception-based economic system spawns an image-based
|The more image-based business becomes, the more images are
spun to convince us otherwise.
|Our sense of identity has become as image-based as
|We need to restore reality-grounding, human scale, and self-reliance.|
(c) COPYRIGHT 2001 ROBERT WINTER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.