Where do we draw the line between enjoying the limitless buffet of media constantly streaming into our lives; and losing one’s self in a digital overload? Where does binge watching TV or surfing the web move from pleasure to the genuine escape from one’s own reality?
I have allowed myself to be swept into the immersive world of Pokemon Go, and it does raise some very important questions. The effect is so powerful that we see our children, husbands and co-workers dissolve their attention into the global hunt to find fictional digital creatures. And this is only the beginning. Virtual and mixed reality worlds are becoming a significant part of our culture.
So where should we draw the line? When does the pursuit of Pokemon characters trump lunch with our friends? When does the Virtual Reality experience of porn replace real sex? Is reality going to take a dreary second place to the hyper-real of the virtual? And as this media involvement eats ever larger chunks of real-world, human interaction time; what does it mean?
The negative is very obvious, with dozens of studies on the subject (you can read articles on the mental health effects of social media and its effect on self-esteem). But there are also the more visceral problems. I would challenge anyone who has spent hours of play in virtual or game worlds to admit that they don’t feel very disoriented and disconnected on returning to reality (in our home we have a “come down” time for our brains to calm for at least 45 minutes post long-time gaming).
It seems the obvious danger is for us choosing to vacate our “real” experience completely.
As someone who attempts to practice mindfulness and meditation, is the immersive experience the antithesis of being “present”? Can you be fully present when your attention is focused on stimulus from outside sources? In more concrete terms, how “present” are you watching a sunset vs. watching a Game of Thrones episode? Are you then less present if you are listening to your favourite song while enjoying nature? And as we climb the scales of media immersion, we get to wonder: just what does “being present” even mean if you are fully immersed in a virtual reality world?
I am an atheist and sceptic, so it’s quite surprising that the answer to this conundrum is for me a spiritual one.
Rather than decrying what will be lost, we have an opportunity to see that all realities, both actual and virtual, are in fact just thoughts and stories projected onto the world. Let me explain.
Personally I try to practice the concept of no-self. The core concept here is that there is no fixed “I”. Basically you practice searching for a core and static “you” to discover there is nothing you can pin down. At best, you can only become aware of being aware. What flows from this is the realisation that our reality is made of the thoughts or stories we believe to represent reality. If it was a scientific equation we could represent it as: our reality = our thought stories. In fact most religious or spiritual teaching has at their core a concept that the reality we experience is not an “ultimate reality” at all. The theme also abounds in pop culture with films like “The Matrix”, and even Elon Musk thinks we might be living in a computer simulation. (You can also read about the intersection of science and Buddhist philosophy around this, but it’s not a specifically Buddhist approach). So why is this relevant to the virtual revolution?
There is something profound when you realise that it makes no difference whether the canvas is a digital or an objective reality. Both are just a point of view, a perspective. The power of the realisation is that by inverting the problem, rather than seeing us losing out on reality, we are given a shortcut to the mindfulness of the guru or yogi to clearly see that all forms of reality are just a story. Did you get that?
I am saying that Pokemon Go might be just as capable of revealing the same fundamental truths about the nature of reality as spending decades in a cave on a mountain. As Yoda would have said (if he blogged), “expecting that, you were not…”
Brett Lotriet Best is the Founder & Creative Director of EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Storytelling work at www.edenrage.tv. Image courtesy of Unsplash.