Living in a world of virtual reality

Whatever happened to “be here now”?

It’s a lamentable sign of the times when Google issues a Miss Manners guide for the users of that latest cybernautical accessory: Google Glass.

Google Glass or a theme park? Why choose? Do both! (Image from glassalmanac.com)

Possibly stung by the Bay Area epithet — “Glassholes” — levied at socially inept early adopters, Google advises Glass wearers to avoid secretly filming their friends and to explain politely that their oddly upturned eye is focused on a teeny screen that allows them to be connected to everything everywhere. All the time. Even while in the company of live human beings.

Glass, being both on one’s face as well as in the face of others, literally comes between people. But it’s only the latest of the myriad electronic devices that have affected, for better or for worse, the way we communicate with one another.

To wit, a baby boomer friend of mine, dismayed by the constant texting and emailing of his millennial offspring, asked them when they last had a serious face-to-face conversation with a buddy. “You know," he said, “the kind where you look in each other’s eyes and read each other’s body language,” His kids laughed. “We don’t do that,” they said. “It’s easier to text.”

Fearing the worst, my friend pressed onward. “Okay, so you’re always plugged into your MP3 players. How often do you listen to a piece of music all the way through?” “Never,” they declared. “We like to switch things up.” (For more on the relationship between 20somethings and their phones, click here.)

So whatever happened to “be here now,” the quintessential slogan of our baby-booming youth? Have subsequent generations replaced it with “be everywhere else — for a nanosecond”?

What a rush!

Of course this increasing disconnection from fully experiencing the physical here and now is not confined to social interactions. We have become accustomed to simulated versions of reality and meticulously structured environments that provide controlled thrills free of actual discomfort and risk. We can get an adrenaline rush from the virtual worlds of video games and movies replete with fictional danger, destruction, and death. We can enjoy fake adventures in theme parks, cruising through lush, plastic greenery on jungle rivers populated by animatronic crocodiles. We can scare ourselves silly with bungee jumps and zip lines that make us feel as if we’re plunging to disaster — while safely harnessed and tethered.

If reality is what hurts when you bump into it, as one of my spiritual teachers admonished a blissed-out devotee, we may be losing touch with it due to the ubiquity of vicarious adventures. The litigation-preventing security features that save us from every conceivable form of hazard in all public venues from urban walkways to national parks further insulate us from the physical world in which we live.

No wonder people get themselves in trouble when traveling in countries where the absence of cautionary signage, guard rails, and delineated pathways require them to pay attention and use common sense. When I lived in an untamed part of New Zealand back in the seventies, the locals liked to joke about the American visitors who fell into blowholes, slipped off glaciers, and stepped in cow patties because they weren’t accustomed to watching where they put their feet. And no wonder people inevitably ignore evacuation warnings in the face of natural catastrophes, assuming that somehow either God or government will protect them.

I’m not anti-technology. I love my iPhone and my iPad and my eBooks and my Facebook friends. I’m a Google addict and draw upon its vast store of information many times a day. Nor am I anti-fantasy. I’m an unabashed fan of Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen and, as a young mother I made — and enjoyed — the obligatory trips to Disneyland with my children.

Consider the consequences

However, to all things there is a season. I believe that firsthand encounters with the kind of reality that hurts when you bump into it are an essential part of being incarnate. I took those same children on walks in the woods and taught them to watch for snakes and poison ivy and to pick out landmarks so they could find their way back to the car. I ride my horse alone in the mountains, but I always carry a cellphone and wear a helmet. A degree of physical risk with the possibility of painful mistakes teaches us to be attentive and to consider the consequences of our actions.

The same goes for interpersonal relations. Texts and emails may be more convenient and emotionally comfortable than real-time, face-to-face encounters, but they are attenuated forms of communication, lacking the rich information conveyed through tone of voice, facial expression, and posture. If I’ve got something important to say to someone and I want honest feedback, I prefer to meet in person rather than send an electronic message, no matter how nuanced the wording.

As for emoticons, don’t even get me started. . . .

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