by Alex Nakahara
My girlfriend recently had to write a paper on this question: “Can we be sure that our visual experience tells us how things really are?” Everyone struggles with this question at one time or another, usually after watching The Matrix. What can we be sure of in a world where ‘reality’ is constantly being redefined?
As an engineer, I have an overly pragmatic answer: Who cares? If I’m nothing but a computer chip that thinks it’s a brain inside a nutrient vat that believes it is actually a person walking around in some virtual reality, is it any different for me than if my flesh and blood is real? No, until Morpheus slips me a pill in my rum and coke. Since I don’t usually get that lucky at the bar, why fret about it?
In an example more related to the current season, discovering the secret of Santa Claus didn’t really perturb me. I didn’t let on that I knew, partly because I had younger siblings, partly because I still wanted to get presents (okay, maybe more than partly), but also because I really enjoyed (and still do) the magic of the season. Believing in, or at least, not denouncing, reindeer and elves is slightly naive but harmless. It’s hard to find innocence in today’s Christmas, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the season. Singing carols with gusto, decorating gingerbread houses, and opening presents is just much more fun if you take them as they appear.
It is an interesting dichotomy that a society can be on the one hand almost paranoid that reality isn’t what it seems, and on the other increasingly determined to ignore the reality that we do live in. The recent movie Surrogates, in which humans control robot surrogates that live their lives for them, is only a step beyond games like the Sims. There are several apps for the iPhone promoting “Augmented Reality“, where little bubbles of information dredged from the Internet hover over people, places and things as you move your camera around. An ad for the Motorola Cliq phone boasted that you could carry your entire social life in your pocket.
The manufacturers of all these advancing technologies try to convince you that your eyes are becoming obsolete. There is a whole reality that you will miss out on without this gizmo or that software. But if you take them at their word, you risk missing out on some of the more sublime joys in the world. Being able to read Facebook status updates as you sit in the park is awesome, yes, and being able to see Sally’s latest post above her head as she walks by would be even better. But what about the fox flashing through the woods in the distance or the frisbee sitting in your bag? Is discovering an amazing BYO as you wander through a new neighborhood as exciting as if you had seen the hundreds of positive reviews before you went in?
I sound a little naive and old-fashioned, yes, and I do think that these technologies are fascinating and full of opportunity. But as a Christmas present to yourself, try going out and exploring reality the old fashioned way for a day, and take some things as they appear.