Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Reality Losing Ground


Humans have always lived in two worlds: the real and the unreal. In the beginning, for both the species and the individual, the unreal was largely confined to dreams. Learning to distinguish the real world from the dream world was, and is, a first step in becoming human.

That’s how it was for millions of years. Then came storytelling, which become myth, legend, and history. Some of it was about reality, some was symbolic (representing reality)—and some was fiction. Much of it was a mixture of all three.

Humans have always had the option to prefer the unreal to the real, even to impose their unreality on other’s reality. What’s different today is that the unreal is everywhere and everyday more people prefer it to the real.

And more people will do so tomorrow, because the unreal is rapidly gaining ground on the real. If you doubt the advance of the unreal, just look at the hype surrounding 3D. The unreal has become so much closer to the real, it has a new name distinct from the word “real.” Today the word is virtual.

While it may be gaining, virtual is still a long way from reality. Its similitude is almost exclusively visual. It succeeds because of the amazing human ability to suspend belief in reality. Dreams, to take the opening example, also feel real as we experience them.

To many movies may appear realistic, but there are no odors. War on screen may look real, but there is no stench. There are no breezes in outdoor scenes; no heat or cold; and gravity is just clues from the director. Even the sounds are divorced from reality: stomachs don’t rumble and bowels don’t break wind—unless a particular sound is exaggerated to “heighten reality.”

Yet, it’s no wonder more and more people prefer the virtual. There they have far more control and it’s entertainment—so they happily ignore the difference. But the fact remains we have to live in the real world, and immersion in the virtual may undermine that ability. How long can they ignore the difference and preserve their humanity?

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