Seeking Reality

I have had an idea for a novel in my head for at least 10 years, though I will most likely never write it. I have no aspirations to be a novelist. But I have been thinking about it recently. The basic idea is to have an old-school type guy survive some sort of disaster because he knows all the old outdoor survival skills that don’t involve a GPS or a smartphone—like how to read a topographic map and use a compass.

I was reminded of this idea when I saw a post on Twisted Sifter speculating about a world where virtual reality is integrated into daily experience. It looks like a nightmare to me. The VR church was mildly amusing, but still terrifying.

So I had the thought, well, even if this nonsense catches on, you don’t have to adopt it, right? Then I reflected for a moment on how our culture adopts to technology. What if I had the same stance on cell phones? Initially, I could get by just fine without one, but over time two things happened. First, socially, everyone who had one, assumed you had one. If you lacked that connectivity, you were out of the loop. Second, infrastructure adopted to the change. Now, at least in the US, if you try to get by without a cell phone, in those situations where you would have used a payphone 30 years ago, like letting someone know you’ve arrived at an airport, you are out of luck. They are all but vanished.

What’s the impact for virtual reality? If you look at some of the pictures from the article, you see that several things are no longer needed if this takes hold. Street signs, lane markings, even store signs or package labels could be replaced by whatever technology cues the interface for the item. That could make it pretty hard to get by without the “goggles.”

Even trying to get by without a GPS can be a challenge these days. Have you asked someone for directions lately? They will give you an address. That’s not very helpful unless you have a GPS. As helpful as a GPS can be, blindly relying on them can turn out poorly.

Consider other technologies. From the telephone to Facebook, the airplane to the automobile, they have all been transformative to 0ur daily lives. Yet it seems the pace of these disruptive innovations keeps accelerating. Or does it? My grandparents went from cars being fairly new in the 1920s to the proverbial man on the moon in 1969. From radio to cable TV, 78s to CDs.

What have I seen in my four decades? We’ve gone from rotary-dialed phones to smartphones. Video games went from “pong” to immersive massively-multiplayer online games. I remember the first microwaves and VCRs. Now we have Netflix. It’s more than fodder for “I’m so old, I remember when…” jokes. It is a marker of how fast technological change is moving.

Maybe it’s just a function of getting older, but where I once was entranced by new gadgets, I find myself increasingly ambivalent.At times, I find myself dreaming of a Walden-esque escape.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”¹

I don’t share Henry’s disdain for religion. In fact, I like to think myself motivated more like St. Anthony who took to the desert to seek God with the same ruthless determination Thoreau set for sucking the marrow out of life.

If my story is ever written, I doubt I will be the one who survives by map and compass. I probably won’t be an existentialist writer like Thoreau or  a saint like Anthony. But I hope I can navigate this life without augmented reality.

¹ From chapter 2 of Walden: Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau.


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