I’ve always been fascinated by existence. It’s crazy to think about what it actually means to exist, or why. Lately, I’ve been reading The Origins and History of Consciousness by Erich Neumann and trying my hand at meditation, which has really forced me to face my own consciousness and grapple with the experience of what it means to simply be.
One of the practices I’ve learned in meditation is to look for yourself; to consciously ask questions like “is there a me?” and “what is it that’s doing the looking?” Is it me, is it consciousness? Are those things the same? Separate? Can one exist without the other?
I don’t have any simple answers to these questions, but I can admit to myself that I appear to be a thing which is conscious. The next question is always something like, “okay, so what’s the point?” I exist, sure. By why? People come to all sorts of conclusions in regards to this question: to serve God, there is no reason, to love, I have no idea I just need to get to my Pete’s Coffee and get to work on time, etc.
None of us can say for certain what the answer is, and maybe the answer is different for all of us, but I think it’s better to have a reason than to not. If we recognize we exist, we also understand we will continue to exist until we die. Or at least, we will be conscious until we die. So, during that time, we need something to do. We need to conjure up some purpose, some meaning, some sort of reason to keep existing.
As we become less religious and less communal in Western society, this may be the great crisis of our time. A lot of people seem to be gravitating towards nihilism like flies to a light; but their light has no bulb. In the search for something, their answer is that nothing is there. Some describe this trend as a crisis of purpose, and I tend to agree.
I’ve been doing some thinking about this crisis of purpose, though; and I think it might be tied to another crisis: A crisis of reality. (Wow, a semi-colon and a colon in the same sentence. I’ve really gone off the rails.) In the past, we only interacted with the real world. But now we are transitioning, juggling two worlds at once: the real world, and the digital world.
According to Nielson, “Americans adults spend more than 11 hours per day… interacting with media.” According to the CDC, Americans only average 6.8 hours of sleep per night.
If we average eleven hours and six minutes of media time and six hours and forty-eight minutes of sleep, this means we are only spending (on average) six hours and six minutes of our waking time interacting with the real world as opposed to eleven hours and six minutes interacting with the digital world. So, approximately 65% of our waking hours are spent interacting with the digital world and 35% with the real world. Phew, that’s enough math for me today.
Anyways, I find it very plausible this is changing our perception and understanding of reality itself. Things like television and movies sell themselves as reality, but they’re really just presenting us with a parallel reality. What’s on the screen looks like reality, but it doesn’t function the same way. It’s arbitrarily constructed, it can be started and stopped at any time, and it’s not three dimensional. It’s a world with entirely different rules.
Consciously, most of us are able to distinguish between the real world and the digital world. Unconsciously, however, I can’t help but feel as if this digital overdosing is having a major effect on us; and the closer we get to the digital world representing reality, the more confusing things become.
When we watch a movie, we know we’re watching a movie. We know the movie was created, and that it’s not “real,” but we suspend out disbelief to make it more interesting. The more “real” the movie appears to us, the more engaging it becomes. Often times something like “based on a true story” will roll across the screen. We enter the world of the movie for a couple of hours and then re-enter the real world upon its completion. We understand the movie wasn’t “real,” but it still affects us because we chose to believe it was.
Then there’s reality television, which is sold as being real. There are some restrictions to the construct of the show, but we’re told the participants are acting on their own accord. There’s no script, no lines, just people and a camera. People have their own opinions about “reality” TV shows actually being scripted to an extent, but the point is we’re being sold something that’s even more real than a movie. In a movie, we’re watching people perform, and in a reality TV show, we’re watching people interact. Consciously, we still understand this isn’t entirely “real,” but it’s getting closer to reality. When we interact with another person in the future, our brain might remind us of something somebody said on reality television in a similar situation. It’s hard to know how deeply we actually understand how different these worlds are.
Strap in, it only gets worse from here!
Social Media. It’s like reality TV’s smaller but bigger brother. Yes? No? Whatever. It’s confusing, just like that analogy. We can agree on that. In a reality TV show, people are interacting with each other, but we don’t know these people. On social media, people are “interacting” with each other, and we do know them. Sometimes very well. This makes it appear incredibly real. But the rules in the digital world of social media are different. Nobody is physically and primarily there; they are only there secondarily through the filter of the internet. There’s almost no time lag, and often times we have previously interacted with the person in the real world, again making it appear very real.
If you’ve ever been on social media, though, you know people don’t interact the same way they do in the real world. On social media, we are much more intolerant, wicked, and self-important. In regards to the last one, it’s probably because no matter what happens on social media, we’re at the center of it. We appear to be close to everything, but we’re not. We can “interact” with anyone, but we’re not actually interacting. We’re just plastering things from our me-verse onto somebody else’s. We become our own Gods, able to decide what we do and don’t see in this world. And for the most part, we get to decide who we interact with, becoming the designers of our own social circle. If somebody doesn’t fit, we don’t have to deal with them. We can just eliminate them.
Since we think we’re genuinely interacting with other people on the internet, most of us tend to believe it to be entirely real. We categorize real world interaction and digital world “interaction” both as interaction, even though they’re entirely unequal. We view real-world person and digital-world person both as person. We view both worlds as the world we live in, often assuming they’re the same. At least I think we do. I definitely have. And it’s no wonder. How can we be expected to separate these two complicated worlds, which seem so similar? It’s hard enough to juggle reality, alone.
I think it helps to consciously recognize the digital world as something distinct from the real world. If we conflate the two, it’s easy to be consumed by anxiety and depression (millenials revealed to be most anxious generation) as the nihilism and cynicism of the digital world overtakes us.
We live in the most peaceful, prosperous time in human history, where most of us reading this are able to walk outside our stable homes to a functioning automobile and into one of a gazillion grocery stores, which has every type of food one could possibly want at an affordable price, all so we can go home and have the internet tell us how terrible everything is.
It’s very weird. The digital world and our lived experience are often at odds. We now have access to everything bad that happens in the world all at once, in the palm of our hand. It’s not that more bad things are happening, it’s just that we know about all of these events all of the time. With so much information, we can make anything and anyone look terrible. If you go on Twitter, you’ll notice people constantly targeting whatever group they’re looking to make an example of, finding the worst thing someone did who is a member of that group, and then saying “look, look what these people are like! Aren’t they the worst!?” They’re taking a slice of reality, arbitrarily plastering it onto the pseudo-real digital multiverse, and presenting it as entirely real, often hiding behind some perverse motivation.
It’s confusing, it’s annoying, and it’s sad. But, it’s manageable. The digital world isn’t going away. If we can accept the digital world for the entity it is and start spending a little more time in reality, I think we’ll be able to figure it out.