Does the Real World matter?

virtual-reality

Silk’s Post #134 — Joe’s last post, which warned that writers cannot hide in a room, made me laugh. Then it made me think. Then it sent me off into a hot-July-day, philosophical universe where all things can be possible and impossible at the same time, and no question is absurd.

So I ask: Does the Real World matter?

And what implications does the answer have for writers?

Here’s one super easy example of how increasingly blurred the edges of the Real World (the one we literally, physically experience), and the World of the Mind (the one we experience through imagination) have become: the news.

Here on our totally networked planet, we are constantly exposed to the Real World of wars, natural disasters, mass shootings, starvation, etc. (and happy things, too, of course, although those are usually afterthoughts when it comes to the news). But most of us experience these things purely in our imaginations, while sitting peacefully on the couch, popping cheese puffs, through the eyes of the adventurous reporters who are actually out there in the Real World. Yet we have the impression that we’ve “been there”, that we understand the experience. Hey, we’ve seen it with our own eyes! We’ve heard the bombs, observed the misery on the faces of victims, watched the cars get washed out to sea.

Thank you, TV, for making our world more – and less – real at the same time.

More and more today, the Internet is our source of Real World exposure. Cyberspace is much more real than carefully-produced TV, because here you can directly experience unfiltered, uncurated reality. It’s raw! It’s happening right now! It’s like having a real conversation with millions of real people living in the Real World!

Or not. I vote for “not”.

If TV is a gigantic reality show (and by “reality”, I of course mean fiction), then the Internet is an even more gigantic reality show on steroids. It’s the perfect tool for creating imaginary realms that pretend to be the Real World in an extremely compelling way. What it adds is the ultimate seduction of interactivity, producing virtual worlds that eclipse what we used to understand as the Real World, where stuff actually happens and is physically experienced – not just imagined while sitting in front of a computer or poking at a smart phone while walking down the street tripping over fire hydrants.

The dark side: we all know that online you can experience virtual death through games. How many more steps of imagination are required to lure people, hungry for self-esteem, to experience Real World death by recruiting them into the ultimate reality shows concocted by ideologues? Are these reality show “contestants” surprised when they actually find themselves bleeding real blood on their way to that great reality in the sky?

Well. This is getting a bit more dark than I intended.

The light side, then: online you can be whoever you want to be. It’s not the Real World, after all, so who’s to stop you? Make up your own reality show, starring you. Post your own movies of your cat doing tai chi. Join a chat room where fantasy historical characters talk to each other in Middle English. Start a blog on UFOs and alien abductions. Publish your own book (woohoo!). Entertain yourself for hours, days, weeks – while the sun rises and sets, rises and sets, and seasons change outside your window.

Oh, right. That would be hiding in a room, which Joe has already told us writers can’t do.

Perhaps I haven’t made my point about the increasingly blurry relationship between the Real World and the World of the Mind very directly here. It’s a challenging concept to get your head around. But I think it matters a lot, and it especially matters a lot to writers.

Before the very short slice of modernity we now inhabit, human beings had no choice but to experience the Real World directly. There were few filters and lenses used to “interpret” reality, the chief World of the Mind perspectives being whatever spiritual beliefs prevailed in a particular time and place to help explain the inexplicable. Oral storytelling was the only transmission mechanism for ideas. Once language matured and became more abstract, then was written down, and eventually was able to be read by some growing proportion of the population, the World of the Mind began to really bloom.

And writers gained a big chunk of the franchise in this new, imagined world of ideas, taking over from the oral storytellers. Whether writing about religion, or science, or society, or fictional stories, writers had to contemplate the difference between the Real World and the World of the Mind in order to do their jobs. There was non-fiction. There was fiction. There once seemed to be an effort made to distinguish between the two (allowing for the fact that lots of things experienced in the Real World were entirely misunderstood until science started explaining them).

Where do we stand today? Well, everyone’s a writer (and most are their own editors). And everyone can go everywhere, and experience everything. Virtually, of course.

Our experiential landscape has become an admixture of the Real World and the World of the Mind, without bright lines or sharp edges separating them. We’ve even outgrown the binary categories of non-fiction and fiction. Now there’s creative non-fiction, a kind of literary mule with a kick.

The discourse of public life has become a game of propagandists versus fact-checkers, where the “truth” is whatever you can get away with saying. World-changing events and trends engineered by humans are often constructed on foundations of fantasy masquerading as reality (the former often more appealing than the latter).

Today’s “reality” is an easy place to get lost.

So back to the question: does the Real World matter? Perhaps I should add “anymore”. And if it does – or doesn’t – what does that mean for writers?

Call me an idealist, but I say that writers – whose work still has a huge influence on the World of the Mind – have a responsibility to the Real World. A sacred responsibility, perhaps.

I hope we are, at least sometimes, more than entertainers. I hope we can do better things with our words than just sell them like a cheap fix to give readers a thrill. Or, worse, lead them into some dark place where the Real World no longer matters.

If slippery, tricky, malleable virtual reality is challenging the immutable truths of the Real World for supremacy, who better to keep those truths alive in the World of the Mind than writers? Isn’t that part of our job? To illuminate? To enlighten? To encourage thought?

Better writers than I have explored this theme in more beautiful words:

“What is the purpose of writing? For me personally, it is really to explain the mystery of life, and the mystery of life includes, of course, the personal, the political, the forces that make us what we are while there’s another force from inside battling to make us something else.” — Nadine Gordimer (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1991)

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”  — George Orwell (author of 1984 and Animal Farm)

“[My idealism is] still alive and well because without it the business of the writer would be meaningless … If we have any role at all, I think it’s the role of optimism, not blind or stupid optimism, but the kind which is meaningful, one that is rather close to that notion of the world which is not perfect, but which can be improved. In other words, we don’t just sit and hope that things will work out; we have a role to play to make that come about. That seems to me to be the reason for the existence of the writer.” — Chinua Achebe (author of Things Fall Apart)

“The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” — Anais Nin (author of Delta of Venus)

“[In the end, all writing is about] enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”  — Stephen King (legendary, prolific, multiple-award-winning writer)

“A writer should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” — E.B. White (Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, 1978)