Monday, May 19, 2008

Reality check

What is real?

It's a deep philosophical question, and while for Plato or Descartes the question was whether they could trust their senses or not, for us the issue is further complicated by all things virtual.

If I'm having a conversation with someone about politics in an online forum, is s/he real? Are her opinions real, is the conversation real? How about the conclusions? Have we really agreed? Or has my nickname agreed with someone else's avatar? Have we communicated, if communication is psychologically defined as aligning each other's cognitive states?

It's well known that especially in anonymous forums (fora?) people take more extreme views and often play very exaggerated roles. Partly this is due to the low signal-to-noise -ratio in these boards, which means that everyone has to shout louder to be noticed, which in turn worsens the ratio etc. It's also common that people vent their frustrations and demonstrate their immaturity, or just deliberately sabotage conversations so that any conversation worth having falls apart relatively quickly. Bullying is very common, that of other board members, public figures, and more often whoever has online presence. Fat, thin, ugly, nerdy, odd, weird clothed, spotty, ethnic, poor, different... any of these apply to you, and you have posted your pic online to any social networking site, chances are someone has linked it somewhere with insulting comments, for other idiots to laugh at.

As if you're not a real person.

Would they do this to a person they know? Are they just cruel idiots or can they not tell the difference between reality and their virtual world? I'm not sure which answer is the more pessimistic, given the ubiquitousness of virtual presence and social interaction.

TV and papers are very good at blurring the borders of reality. The so-called reality shows are a big hit, but here reality means something different. Media tends to make virtual caricatures out of real people (sports personalities, politicians etc.) and real people out of fictional characters (soap stars: some papers write news stories about tragedies that happened in the show to the characters, as they would write about what happened to the actor) and the semi-fictional people in semi-reality shows are just a big mess anyway.

When people bring flowers to the cross-roads where a soap character had an accident with a tram and died in the show, why is that? Are we so fed up with reality that we need to pretend that the stories into which we like to escape for a while are actually true? Or, if our feelings for the character are real, why not express them as we would in real life? Nothing wrong with that?

Is that the reason why these reality shows are so popular? Because they claim they are true, their virtual world is closer to the real one and easier to sink into? Is that why the events and outcomes of these shows are so eagerly discussed in papers, speculation gets to epic proportions and everyone is supposed to have an opinion of these people?

Fundamentally, there's nothing new in any of this, of course. Storytelling, legends, songs, epics, and fantasies have always been an important part of being human. Our very ability for imagination is what sets us apart. We turn to fantasy for guidance, seek solace in stories, purpose in prose, emulate social interaction in songs, and all in all, need all this to keep our sanity. We can't turn the imagination-engine off, and so we need to constantly feed it.

Also, sports isn't real anymore, neither is music. Both arguably used to be, but we have chosen to pay for the pleasure of observing them and not do them ourselves. Sports heroes and pop stars (and the Royal families) live constantly in the Big Brother house, for us to criticise, vote, identify with and have feelings for. Newspapers write about them as if they were real, often forgetting that they are.

Our opinion of our colleague or neighbour is not necessarily any more real than our opinion of the runner-up in Amazing Race. Most people work with ideas and fantasies rather than bricks, mortar and other concrete things. And I don't necessarily have problems with more fantasy, it's the less reality -part of the equation that bugs me. If we only see each other as avatars or virtual characters, and if more and more people behave in public like they are in a first-person perspective video game, what will happen to the way we treat each other? If people talk about politics and look at politicians as if they are useless celebrities and tv-show characters from that soap opera they call the 20.30 news, what will happen to democracy?

And don't get me started on what's true and what isn't, or what's important and what isn't. :-)

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