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.
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.