The October Thing #18 – The Virtual World – November 16, 2011

The Virtual World

Many people in the developed world now spend almost all their waking hours in the virtual world: 8 hours on the computer at work, hours of television at home, the rest of the time texting, iPod-ing, facebooking. About their only contact with reality is eating and defecating. Why? Well, we have spent millennia getting away from the land and into cities, then factories, then offices. Perhaps, as T.S. Eliot said, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” And perhaps that is why the greatest poem of the 20th century is called “The Waste Land.”As we absent ourselves from the land, we ignore its needs at our peril; we fiddle with the mouse as the world burns.

At minimum, however, we need the real world to produce food and absorb our many waste products. Typically, we would also like shelter and transportation, also provided by real objects. About all that the virtual world can bring us is information and entertainment—and it does because we have begun to forget how to dance and sing and read and play jigsaw puzzles and crossword puzzles and sports. You can watch people fish on TV. You can watch them cook and shop. I don’t.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I too get information and entertainment via radio, television, and the internet, but I get most of it from books and magazines because those are the only places where it is a) digested, b) evaluated, c) apt to be both new and significant, and d) produced by the brightest, etc. I know, you will say that some things are only on the internet, and I agree and I get them there, but the percentage is low.

The area with the highest virtuality, the U.S. and Europe, are failing to produce real goods; thus the wealth is shifting to the Eastern Tigers. Engineering know-how passed from the U.S. to Germany to Japan to South Korea and now to China. President Obama’s science advisor is named Stephen Chu.

Along with the “great” futurist novels, 1984, Brave New World, R.U.R., etc. is a seldom-read 1930s classic by Hermann Hesse, author of juvenalia such as Steppenwolf and Damien. Das Glassperlenspiel (Magister Ludi in English—the master of games). is about a world where people play electronic games, become fat, lazy, and unhealthy. Mentally and morally, they resemble the Eloi of an earlier classic, H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. More modern versions are the people who never get out of their entertainment-cars in Wall-E and Ecotopia Emerging.

Let’s see: food, shelter, electricity. If you don’t move around much, then fewer than 2000 calories a day should suffice. Estimates vary from about 1100 to 1700. There is plenty of housing for everyone in the U.S. but it would take a revolution to make it available to everyone. Occupy Main Street? The solar/wind revolution is well underway and will eventually reach the U.S. William Hjorstberg’s Grey Matters is the book that cover all this and then some.

What about the rest of us? H.G. Wells thought that the opposite of the Eloi would be the dirt-grubbing Morlochs. Another version is the Refusers, neo-luddites who never touch electronics. Another sort-of-luddite future involves Bookers—people rather like me who think that books and magazines are the most important—but the Bookers are most concerned about erasure. Hard copy is hard to erase. Remember O’Brien’s dictum: “He who controls the present controls the past; he who controls the past controls the future.” Notice how desperately Herman Cain is presently trying to re-invent his past in order to control his present and thus his future. Pick up a copy of the December Harper’s for a list of Chinese erasures (pg. 24), and then look at “History Deletes Itself,” (pg. 27) then note that the U.S. media ignored the historic Chinese space-docking. Since we can now graph many complex things, e.g. America’s economic success (we peaked in 1967), I wonder if we can quantify the history of event deletion, event ignoring, and event reimagining. I have a feeling that it’s on the rise, but I can’t prove it. (For those of you who have read Ishmael, this may remind you of Fritz and Hans.)