On our way to see the latest installment of The Hobbit, I asked my 10-year-old Philip and his two friends, “Don’t you wish that the real world were 3-D just like the movies?”
“Yeah!” they said with relish. “That would be so awesome!”
The joke was on me, it seemed. A minute later I tried to explain: “Guys, you realize that reality already is 3-D, don’t you? I was making a joke.”
“But it isn’t like the movies,” said the 11-year-old sitting next to me, “where stuff comes right at you.”
“Yes it is,” I said, pretending to swat him in the face.
The conversation soon turned toward other topics, and I was left with an abiding sadness over that boy’s words. Essentially, he was saying that reality is boring compared to its simulation on screen. I can see why: film, television, and video games pack in as much fast-paced, loud, intense action in a minute as real life does in a week. The nervous system, conditioned to such intense stimuli, becomes uncomfortable in the presence of the slow, the quiet, and the natural. As Lao-tau said, “Colors blind the eyes, sounds deafen the ears, flavors spoil the palate.”
All the more enticing the simulated world is when the real world is increasingly barren and controlled, a realm of fences, safety, and rules. Absent the freedom to roam, what alternative is there to the on-line adventure? Over-protected from the opportunities to make painful mistakes, what choice do children have but to press the “replay” button again and again, losing their virtual “lives,” sustaining painless “damage,” and recording inconsequential accomplishments?
And yet there I was, taking them to the movies. I have tried to limit my children’s exposure to electronic media to little avail. It was possible when they were young, but now my teenagers spend most of their free time on screens. I’m not even sure if I was right to limit them. Perhaps their brains are making evolutionary adaptations to electronics that lead somewhere beautiful. After all, my eldest uses computers to compose music and make films.
Yet I am disturbed by the decline of the outdoor world of imaginative child’s play. Nothing will convince me that hours in front of the screen are an appropriate substitute for that. But sometimes I grow tired of resisting it. Maybe something is happening that I do not understand. It might be significant that 3-D is also a synonym in certain New Age discourses for the Newtonian world of linear force-based causality. Perhaps virtual 3-D is conditioning us to see material 3-D reality as a kind of illusion as well, whose laws are constructs springing from a deeper intentionality and intelligence. I am reluctant to glorify technology like this or to cast it into the role of savior that it has occupied in the imperial imaginations for three centuries now. Yet, on the other hand, I will not exclude any expression of our unique human gifts, including technology, from its role in the metamorphosis of our planet.
If 3-D simulations are meant to be some kind of conditioning to the idea that reality too is a construct atop something deeper, at least let us not infer that what happens in the world is like what happens on a screen, its consequences limited to the confines of the theater or game console, and that, therefore, humanity’s destiny is to transcend the “third dimension” and enter, as that New Age discourse puts it, the fifth. If we are in a dimensional transition (and I believe the metaphor is fruitful) then it won’t be an escape from materiality, but a plunge deeper into it. The fifth dimension is not outside the third; it is within it.
Significantly, 3-D films simulate only certain aspects of reality – vision and sound – but not the kinesthetic, not the kinetic. They leave out the impact of a force upon a mass, the visceral and the embodied. In parallel fashion, our civilization neglects its impacts, hiding the damage to the body of Gaia behind wall after wall of ideological and physical insulation. Even when we are shown images of bleached coral and strip-mined mountains, they are after all but images, confined just as films are within the boundaries of a screen. But for the stories we tell about them, they do not hurt – not any more than we allow them, in our climate controlled environments where a less disturbing scene is a mouse-click away. Such is the illusion of control that we have assumed in the phantasmagoria we mistake for reality.
Of course, such an illusion cannot persist forever. We are embodied beings bound to the Gaian body, and when we accelerate to crash velocity no amount of virtual obfuscation can prevent a collision.
Where the conditioning of virtual reality might be useful, though, is if it encourages us to doubt the artificial reality that we live in, to question what is given to us as “normal,” and to see the constructs that bind us – the rituals of money, law, medicine, dominance, and so on – as mere agreements, mere stories that bear no more permanence, no more solidity, than the pixels on a screen – however three-dimensional they may seem. Much of what we take as real can, like a video game, be reset. Much of what we take for the rules of life can be reprogrammed. A deeper reality is revealed in its two aspects: the kinetic world of the physical, the living, and the sensuous, and the immanent intelligence of that physicality that orients events toward an emergent purpose. The first is revealed through impact: the bumping up against reality. The second is revealed as synchronicity: the meaningful coincidences that beckon to us when the veil of normal routines and beliefs is torn aside.
Such is the nature of the transition before us: not only a transcendence to the fifth dimension, but a homecoming back to the third.