Philosophy

“Get real!” – Living in a virtual world

I pulled out a whole barbecue set from my favourite swimming spot at the lake lately. And in the big heap of trash that was at that site, I found the brand new package of that set. People bought this for 15 bucks at a gas station, used it once and then dumped it into the lake. How can this be, I asked myself, that people do not care for this place. What is the thought – waste now, clean up later (or let someone else clean it up)?
So I wondered what that relationship is, that creates such behaviour and I could not help to think that if people really are tied in to the place, they would care more. If their lives are connected to that place, they would not destroy it. How come they are not connected to that place then? It seems clear to me that the modern cherished freedom of mobility and easy transportation in this case took a part in that. People can just jump in their cars (or trains, or bicycles, or motorbikes, or busses, or airplanes, or public transportation) and drive away after leaving that mess. And the next weekend they simply drive the other way, to another place. And in 5 years they move to a new city. They do not have to come back to that one place ever and still have the possibility to have a barbecue, swim in a lake and trash that new place again. They can literally run away from the consequences of their actions because they can go anywhere within a hundred miles in just an hour drive – there is no real perceived NEED to care for one special place.

This concept has implications not only for this instance. Consider all the supermarket food and water from the tap and electricity from the plug – there is a fundamental (and wanted) disconnection of consumerist products and the origins of them, between what one gets and what had to die or be exploited/destroyed to make it. We may even know intellectually where that food comes from, but we do not experience it. We externalize the consequences, we are removed from that or move away from it ourselves with the possibilities modern society gives us – not only in the physical sense I mentioned before, but also in a mental sense.

What if we would have to go to the same spot for swimming and find our trash heap growing each time? What if the only choice we have is to build that new cellphone tower, computer factory, wastewater treatment plant in our own backyard? What if we directly experienced the impact of everything we do? What if we would experience all the mines, the pollution, see all the labor people have to put into this by our physical presence? What if the sweatshop that makes your clothes is actually your neighbor and not in Pakistan or in the favelas of Rio? What if your electricity comes from a coal plant next to your house – or nuclear plant or wind turbine?

The amazing and encouraging thing is that people resist this locally. They say “not in my back yard”. People do not want to have mines, deforestation, clearcuts, land development or trash next to their house. They do not even want windmills or roads. Many feel guilt and remorse when they experience others directly working hard for them for a bad wage and under bad conditions to produce cheap clothes or tools or other products. There is human compassion. Some ignore this and choose to embrace privilege and an acclaimed personal superiority, the foundation for racism and social stratification, but I think for most people, there would be a feeling of uneasiness, a desire to rather give those persons a decent payment and decent conditions and to actually give something back to them that has a fair value.

So if people directly experience the impact they have and have to live with that knowledge or even with the impact itself, I think they would be vastly less likely to behave like they do. They would actually try to reduce that impact to have less of the things they do not want in their back yard. The prevalence of mediated experience, the lack of direct experience and the freedom to ignore, to move away forever, are features of this modern culture that sees itself as detached from the natural world and from other cultures. The mediation is creating a distance between reality and a virtual reality in our heads, an imaginary reality which can be molded and shaped if we dislike parts of it. In that imaginary reality there are no real sweatshops, no real people dying for e-waste recycling if we chose them not to be there – or if others implant the denial in our heads by what is called “PR” or marketing. Instead that virtual imaginary mental reality looks like factories that produce things without human labour or environmental impacts and livestock animals living on nice pastures with red barns next to them. To detach from reality in such a way is literally insane by definition.

How can this be changed, how can people be made not just intellectually aware of their impact, but by experience. I can read 100 times that the steak I buy at the supermarket results in animals kept and slaughtered in horrible conditions and that the manure is toxic. And I still have the possibility to push it away, to conjure up in my mind the images of that red barn and that green pastures that the visal imagery on the plastic wrapping implants in my head. If I see a movie about it, that possibility is reduced, as I now have not only words but images – images that overcome those created by the food company. If however I walk into such a “farm” and witness this with all my senses, I could never ever eat food from there again. Of course I do have the possibility to decide with less experience to act that way, but I think this requires a certain mindset and an intellectual act of reason that has to be repeated every time one stands in front of the product one could just buy. And this is not only so with meat, it also includes all other products from grain products and corn which create monoculture landscapes laden with pesticides to electronic gadgets that cause toxic pollution in the chain of production. Contrary to this act of reason that has to be invoked at every crucial moment and that can be overridden by impulsive action, direct sensorial experiences differ in that they touch the deep seated emotional part of our mind. They work in a way brutal and direct and in a way subtle in that they remain present deep within us, ready to act upon the thoughts we are not thinking yet, influence actions we were not even consciously considering yet. There is no escaping them. Imagine if everyone who buys a steak at the supermarket once in his life has to visit the “farm” this comes from. If everyone who gets a new cellphone and throws it 2 years later would have to walk in the toxic mines in China, talk to the underpaid workers in the production facilities and eat dinner with the poor people who burn the cancer causing e-waste to retrive some valuable minerals. And every salesman, stock trader and manager directly experiences the pain his decisions cause instead of just looking at the most reductionist mediated experience of all – numbers. What would we be doing, what would we be willing to accept as limits. The world would be very different.

From this thought comes the idea that it is crucial to re-attach direct experience to what we do if we as a culture want to regain sanity. What I think is that the more real, realistic – or better even completely unmediated – this experience is, the more impact it can have. Numbers are the worst, written words a bit better, talking, showing pictures or making a movie are even better, but I think to really truely allow for a persistent change, all senses and physical presence is the only way to truely ensure that the experience will last. Anything else can and will be questioned and can always be put off as untrue. Numbers can be faked, words can misrepresent facts or misinterpreted and visual impressions are never able to give a complete picture. These principal drawbacks of mediated experience leave open holes and permit the possibility for the mind to dismiss what does not fit into the own actions or desires and thus are weakening the effect the experience has. As a consequence I would suggest that it is vital to increase direct perceptional and physical experiences, this does not just include audible and visible perceptions, it demands for perceptions of touch, smell, taste as well. And I would go so far as to say that the knowledge to actually be in that place, the undoubted overall perception of physical placement at the scene is what in the end makes the most impact of all. No mediated experience will have that same impact, if it is known to be a simulation, a virtual world once more, out of which one can step easily back into regular life instead of entering a relationship with that place of impact and accepting the feelings that place conveys through all senses and to ones physical presence there.

I know that this is impossible, that there is no way that everyone will experience this in a globalized world. Thus I think two things can work together to still gain from this. One is to literally realize the places that are behind them, to reach out and feel them, make them real in the mind, to reconnect to them, even though that direct experience is impossible, to not rely on mediation by others but on the personal emotions attached to that. To be aware of the mediation takes away part of its power to estrange us. Maybe one can also visit these places if one can do so. The other option is an increased relocalization. With the decline of cheap oil and other resources this will probably come to pass anyways, but I think instead of feeing threatened, we should embrace the possibility to “get real” again, to loose some of the mediation and to actually live in and with the place that supports us, that nourishes us, that gives us what we need and be in contact to the people that we trade with.