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We Are Living in a Screenworld -- Reality Isn't in the Real World Anymore

Has our new definition of "life experience" rendered tangible interactions irrelevant?

Not so long ago, I taught a graduate writing seminar in which I got caught in an argument about virtual vs. "real" experience. Two students—among the brightest in the class—insisted that they could go to Rome via a computer program through which they could view every street, turn this corner and that as they pleased, look at every ruin and work of art, and their experience would be as real, as engaged, as if they'd actually been there. n "But," said I, "a pigeon couldn't shit on your head."

Granting that any experience can be called "real," in that it is an experience, I argued that there are differences in the nature of virtual and actual reality. For one thing, on your walk through a virtual Rome, you aren't even walking: you're sitting. And what's Rome without the wonderful smells of food? Even if your virtual Rome is accompanied by recorded sounds of Rome, that's nothing like the sounds of racket, traffic, music, and language, the melodious cacophony of Italian, spoken all around you. A flat screen gives you no sense of Rome behind you, and to the side of you. The rain won't rain on you, and you won't have to dodge crazy drivers.

You're having a one-dimensional experience, literally and figuratively. And no matter what's inputted into the program, there's no chance of running into the girl who sat next to you in high school chemistry—or anyone else. What R. D. Laing once called "the freshness and forgivingness of creation" couldn't reach out to you, nor you to it.
Your computer program ­couldn't include the unprogrammed, yet the unprogrammed is generally what happens during the engagement of human beings with each other, and with the world. James Baldwin's truth that "any human touch can change you" isn't available on your computer.

I said what I thought obvious: the computerized Rome couldn't give you what a Laing or a Baldwin would most value about Rome: the city as a medium for engaging life beyond personal, private acts and perceptions.

They didn't get it. My argument left them utterly unconvinced, and they looked at me bemusedly, as though I was mildly to be pitied because I didn't get it.

What separated us? Between my sense of the real and theirs gaped a chasm that I didn't understand.

What would a psychotherapist make of it? If, in your consulting room, one of these students told you that the Rome on his computer is more real than the real Rome, is that a symptom? if so, of what? Would it be a syndrome to be addressed in therapy? or just a piece of data, a reference-point for this particular client?

At around the same time, I saw related behavior that no one would connect to psychological difficulty, at least in any conventional sense.

I was driving the Southwest with a companion who'd never been there. In Arizona, on the edge of the Painted Desert, we stopped at the Petrified Forest, a vast, barren expanse of chaparral and mesas, on which lie the trunks of ancient trees turned to stone. On these trees, every detail of bark is present and vivid, yet somehow a forest has become rock. We parked at the first viewing point. My companion, without saying a word, made her way down a slope and sat. I figured she'd be there a while, absorbing this place out of sight of the road and of me, watching the Petrified Forest's stones, birds, critters, and clouds, and maybe getting bit by a bug or two—a contemplative engagement with a present terrain.