Manufactured Reality

by | February 21, 2023 | General

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Whatever happened to direct experience?

Increasingly in our society, it seems people choose to watch rather than participate. When everything is happening on your screen, why bother to look elsewhere? Why incur the expense and effort of traveling, for instance, when you can explore the world via video, online maps, even virtual tours? These days, experts curate information about every topic and disseminate it via the Internet in convenient, bite-sized chunks, supposedly to save you time, effort and trouble. But if you can see all the top sights and cover all the highlights online, why bother to do anything else? Life is short and you have lots more TikTok and YouTube clips to watch.

E-Sports is a prime example of this trend. Instead of actually playing games themselves, e-sports enthusiasts watch other people – celebrity gamers – compete. Computer games are already a step away from the physical realities of life. Players deliberately lose themselves in the virtual universe of their games. E-sports is virtualization squared, a manufactured reality almost completely disconnected from “real life” – except for the fact that e-sports is a lucrative, rapidly growing industry that is making some people quite wealthy.

I mention this because the trend toward the virtual and away from what I’d consider real is not spontaneous or inevitable. It did not arise organically when the Internet became ubiquitous and everyone started to carry it in their pockets. Businesses have encouraged and facilitated the shift from direct to mediated experience, for one simple reason: it’s much easier to sell products when you have a captive customer, glued to his or her screen.

As you can probably guess from my tone, this social phenomenon concerns me, for a variety of reasons. First of all, it contributes to polarization and conflict. Too many people live their lives in an echo chamber that reinforces their prejudices and encourages them to take simplistic views of complex issues. If you don’t actually know any LGBTQ people, for instance, it’s easier to be convinced that they’re all pedophiles working to corrupt innocent kids. If you don’t have personal experience with members of the police, the premise that every policeman is a brutal racist, one breath away from murdering innocent Black and Brown people, can seem chillingly plausible.

The real world is far more complicated and nuanced that the scenarios playing out on your screen. You’ll only discover this, however, if you look away from the realities manufactured by the companies who profit from your watching.

This is not pure conspiracy theory. There’s plenty of research documenting both the polarizing effect of social media and the deliberate efforts of corporate content providers to foster divisive stereotypes in order to improve their bottom lines.

My other concern is more subjective. Based on personal observation, I’d say that the increasing reliance on and consumption of predigested, precisely targeted digital content has negatively impacted people’s happiness and satisfaction.

Consider travel as an example. I’ve done a lot of traveling in my life, though I still have a long bucket list of places I haven’t been. Although the “must-see” attractions like Machu Pichu, Sainte-Chapelle and Angkor Wat are justifiably renowned, my most cherished memories tend not to center on these sites. The stone-paved streets of Cusco at dawn; the little sidewalk café around the corner from Nôtre-Dame where I had the most delicious croissant I’ve ever tasted; the stories about the Khmer Rouge years shared by our Cambodian guide; experiences like these are what makes traveling so life-transforming. You cannot fully appreciate a foreign locale unless you go there in the flesh, soak up the atmosphere, talk to the people, eat the food, even experience the inevitable discomforts. No virtual exploration can capture this richness.

Or we might consider sex. (You knew I’d get to that eventually, right?) In my seventh decade, I look back upon a life in which sex and love have been central. Sex has been responsible for incredible joy, amazing fun and important insights – not to mention the inspiration for my career as a writer.

Sex used to be a marvelous mystery. Desire was an inexplicable but irresistible force. Today, sex has become just another product marketed on the Internet. The amount of porn available online has exploded, and more people are consuming it. The convenience of our personal, private screens obviously facilitates this. It requires nearly zero effort to locate amateur porn videos covering every possible kink.

Yet even though society is drowning in sexual entertainment, study after study has shown that across a wide age range and around the world, people report less frequent and less enjoyable sex.

I have nothing against porn; my partner and I used to watch it occasionally to give some extra spice to our live play. But honestly, can anyone claim that porn is as satisfying as the real thing?

Alas, I fear the situation will only get worse. One of the authors in my erotica critique group has been posting chapters from a story about sex and augmented reality (AR). The technology she describes, which can dynamically replace the image of a porn performer with another person of one’s choosing, is both plausible and feasible. It’s a minor extension of the capabilities for generating so called “deep fakes” that are already causing consternation (and making money). I’d be surprised if there were not companies already working on commercial sex AR. Very soon you’ll be able to watch your wife being spanked by a stern Dom, right on your phone.

But wouldn’t it be more enjoyable and satisfying to spank her yourself?

Interacting with our world is how we learn and grow. I may be mistaken, but I seriously doubt any virtual world or Metaverse will ever come close to capturing the sensual or conceptual complexity that surrounds you – if you’ll only put aside your screen and step into a reality not created by corporations who want your cash.

I’m generally an optimist, but I worry about the generation growing up now, rich in information but impoverished in direct experience. I’m concerned they’ll end up having less empathy and more prejudice, less joy and more frustration, than their parents or grandparents. I hope that I’m wrong.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


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