Preferring Digital Reality Over the Real Thing

Technology creeps. When sociologists worry about how the digital age is changing us, it’s not so much that terminator robots are going to rise up against us. It’s that technologies are habit forming, and habits – especially the bad kind-are addictive. Like the frog that boils to death in a pot of water that is slowly heated, growing so acclimated to his environment that he never realizes it’s time to jump out of the water, we humans give over more and more of our lives to the technological domain until we no longer even realize just how far we’ve wandered away from our natural state.

This is why I was struck by a comment made by Timur Bekmambetov, producer of the recent horror movie Unfriended, which is basically a film built entirely within the context of social media. In speaking with USA Today on why he created the movie, he stated: “I want to see movies about my virtual life. And I’m sure I’m not alone. Why should I be making movies about some physical world where I’m not really spending so much time?”

I’m sure Timur is at least somewhat right in his assessment, and that’s the scary part. To hear him talk so dismissively of reality as just “some physical world” that isn’t all that important to him is chilling. Because of our gift for abstract thinking, human beings are unique in the ability to live wholly within our own psychological constructs. We can envision things that don’t exist, turn pleasure into pain or pain into pleasure through our abstract beliefs, and carry on relationships through screens without actually interacting with anything real.

Our ability for abstract thought can be a great gift, and technology can be a useful tool. I have not overlooked the irony that as I write this article, I’m using a digital platform to deliver it to you, and hope that you will spend some of your time reading it on a digital device. But when people perceive their digital reality as more worthy than the real world, it seems to me like we’re already three-quarters of the way to the nightmare in The Matrix movies: a detached utopia where people sit enslaved in a giant machine having digital illusions of reality uploaded into their brain.

I’m just saying: Maybe it’s best we jump out of the water from time to time. If it were boiling you right now, would you even realize it?