If you are reading this, you are spending at least some time on the internet, living in the virtual world. Almost by definition, the virtual world is much broader than our physical world, or at least there is much more of it accessible at one time. That is one of the things that makes it so seductive. There are more available people, more available things, more available information, more available everything within easy reach on the Web than there is in our normal 3D lives.
Although we have access to that specific kind of “more” on the internet, you lose as much in richness of experience as you gain in variety. You can “see” the Mona Lisa, or The Scream, on the Web, thousands of times. But none of those times include the experience of breathing the air, or drinking in the sights of the museum, of experiencing the entirety of the feeling of the place and activity surrounding the painting.
If you are researching something, you get words and photographs that are several steps removed from the experience surrounding your subject. You can “see” the mountain, but you cannot smell or feel the air. You can “see” the surface of the planet, but you cannot have the experience of traveling there, or feeling your weight change in a different gravity. You can “watch” a video of a play, but not feel the intimacy intended by the author, seeing and hearing the actors as they move and speak in three dimensions in space you share with them.
For better or for worse, the same differences in the parameters of the virtual and physical worlds hold true for those people with whom we interact only on line. There is some reality, just as we can see the basic shapes and some of the detail in the Mona Lisa as you view it in 2D on your monitor. And, as with the Mona Lisa, you miss the three dimensional details of how the paint was applied, and how the actual light of the physical space plays over the colors used by the master.
Similarly, we miss most of the fine structure of the people with whom we interact only in two dimensions. We miss the body language. We miss the cast of their eyes. We miss the pheromones which should be floating between us as we speak, We miss all of the little nuances that mean the difference between the truth and lies. We miss all of the little things that make the experience personal and real.
And that works two ways. We know that we are not going to have to actually physically touch a person in order to send them a virtual hug. We give many more hugs on line than in person. When the relative of an on-line friend dies and we express our sorrow, we know that we are not going to have to cook a casserole and take it over to the house. We will never have to make good on our sympathetic offers of help, because there is rarely anything that we can do at our far remove. This basic unreality applies in both directions, and colors everything we do in our on-line-only relationships. This situation is not alleviated greatly by hearing a voice, or seeing a photo or videos.
As with research, we get a lot of the bare facts but none of the experience. People are generally less inhibited on line, and will tell you more (and more intimate) things about themselves. At the same time, you learn less about them because they do not have to look you in the eye as they speak or, for that matter, avoid doing so. Nor are you ever likely to tell their mother, or their co-workers. Of course, that does not really matter because you are not really there, either. The experiences are on a par with looking at a picture of a puppy on line and that of playing with a puppy in the park. They are nowhere near the same, on any level, emotional or logical.
None of that should detract from the pleasure derived from online experiences with people, as long as we understand the differnces. Those experience can be interesting. At the same time, whether or not they are “real” lies in the minds of the beholders. And that “reality” is changing with every sub-generation, as people become more and more used to interacting on line. They are losing, slowly but surely, what it means to interact with actual people, substituting virtual people for reality.
All of us do this to some extent, getting lost in virtual space, pretending that all those online experiences are somehow real, as if they were occurring among physical people on our living rooms. They are not, of course. That does not mean that they are bad. That simply means that we must keep the differences in mind, every time we interact on line. When we pretend that someone on line is as well known to us as our friends in 3D life, we are doing both groups a disservice.
As I said first in 1976, “Reality is that set of circumstances that we find most concrete at the moment.” On line reality has it’s own set of parameters, different than those of reality in the non-virtual world. Not better, not worse, just different. As we move between our different realities, we would do well to remember that some are more real than others, and to govern ourselves (and our minds) accordingly.
What do you think?