What happens when images of reality become more real than reality itself?

Here we are, you and I, often engaging the world more through screens than face to face. Without planning to, and without especially wanting to, we’ve become citizens of Screenworld.

Here we are, you and I, often engaging the world more through screens than face to face. Without planning to, and without especially wanting to, we’ve become citizens of Screenworld.

photo illustraton by miles harley

About the author:
Michael Ventura writes the “Letters at 3AM” column for The Austin Chronicle. This article originally appeared in the journal Psychotherapy Networker.

Not so long ago, I taught a graduate writing seminar in which I got caught in an argument about virtual vs. “real” experience. Two students—among the brightest in the class—insisted that they could go to Rome via a computer program, a screen through which they could view every street, turn this corner and that as they pleased, look at every ruin and work of art, and their experience would be as real, as engaged, as if they’d actually been there.

“But,” said I, “a pigeon couldn’t shit on your head.”

Granting that any experience can be called “real,” in that it is an experience, I argued that there are differences in the nature of virtual and actual reality. For one thing, on your walk through a virtual Rome, you aren’t even walking: you’re sitting.

And what’s Rome without the wonderful smells of food? Even if your virtual Rome is accompanied by recorded sounds of Rome, that’s nothing like the sounds of racket, traffic, music and language, the melodious cacophony of Italian, spoken all around you. A flat screen gives you no sense of Rome behind you and to the side of you. The rain won’t rain on you, and you won’t have to dodge crazy drivers.

You’re having a two-dimensional experience, literally and figuratively. And no matter what’s inputted into the program, there’s no chance of running into the girl who sat next to you in high-school chemistry—or anyone else. What R.D. Laing once called “the freshness and forgivingness of creation” couldn’t reach out to you, nor you to it. Your computer program couldn’t include the unprogrammed, yet the unprogrammed is generally what happens during the engagement of human beings with each other, and with the world. James Baldwin’s truth that “any human touch can change you” isn’t available on your computer.

I said what I thought obvious: The computerized Rome you’d view on a screen couldn’t give you what a Laing or a Baldwin would most value about Rome: the city as a medium for engaging life beyond personal, private acts and perceptions.

My students didn’t get it.

My argument left them utterly unconvinced, and they looked at me bemusedly, as though I was mildly to be pitied because I didn’t get it.

What separated us? Between my sense of the real and theirs gaped a chasm that I didn’t understand.

What would a psychotherapist make of it? If, in your consulting room, one of these students told you that the Rome on his computer screen is more real than the real Rome, is that a symptom? If so, of what? Would it be a syndrome to be addressed in therapy? Or just a piece of data, a reference point for this particular client?

At around the same time, I saw what I’ve come to believe is related behavior.

I was driving the Southwest with a companion who’d never been there. In Arizona, on the edge of the Painted Desert, we stopped at the Petrified Forest, a vast, barren expanse of chaparral and mesas, on which lie the trunks of ancient trees turned to stone. On these trees, every detail of bark is present and vivid, yet somehow a forest has become rock.

We parked at the first viewing point. My companion, without saying a word, made her way down a slope and sat. I figured she’d be there a while, absorbing this place out of sight of the road and of me, watching the Petrified Forest’s stones, birds, critters and clouds, and maybe getting bit by a bug or two—a contemplative engagement with a present terrain.

Waiting for her, maybe an hour, I had a very different experience.

Cars and vans would pull up; couples and families and friends would get out and take pictures of the landscape, and of each other, with video and still cameras. As I stood there, leaning on my car, at least a couple of dozen vehicles came and went. After a few minutes of disbelief, I began timing them. With three exceptions, they stayed no longer than five minutes. Many stayed barely two or three.

They piled out of their vehicles, took their pictures, piled back in and left, presumably headed for the next viewing point, presumably to do the same. Some came from as far as Europe and Asia. All had paid a bunch of money and expended great effort to get to the Petrified Forest, yet they couldn’t, in any way that I understood, be said to have been there.

When they returned home, would they spend more time watching the Petrified Forest on their screens than they’d spent actually at the Petrified Forest? Was I crazy to think that their compulsion (not too strong a word if you’d seen them) to squeeze the Petrified Forest into their little screens was a means not to engage this wondrous and disturbing place?

To me, they were locking these mysterious vistas into a controlled and unthreatening space. What was their connection to what I’d define as “reality”? They were treating the real, physical thing as if it were a TV show, and they were flipping channels.

All through that journey—at Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly, the Grand Canyon—I saw the same behavior. Not everyone engaged the landscape that way, but most did—families, couples, busloads of tourists. This behavior was their version of “normal.”

Again, is it a psychological symptom? If so, of what, especially when considered as a mode of behavior on a fairly massive scale?

One of Screenworld’s most dangerous illusions is the notion, especially in the young, that not to pay close attention to all these screens is to be less than fully engaged.

photo illustraton by miles harley

From tactile to virtual

All this began to happen just as Google was getting off the ground, four or five years before YouTube, and before cell phones could take pictures. Since then, what seemed to me aberrant behavior has become the world we live in.

I’m not a therapist: I’m a writer; but psychotherapy has always been key to how I make sense of the world, and I tend to look at behavior as symptomatic, in whatever sphere—intimate, political, commercial. Novelists and therapists share the fundamental assumption that behavior means more than itself, stems from deeper roots than what can be seen on the surface, and has wider implications than its supposed conscious purpose and assumptions. So it meant something when technologies that I view as disengaging became common in my own work. Something, but what?

I used to begin work with a tactile, blank page, making keystrokes on a typewriter whose mechanics I understood. Now I begin with a blank screen on a machine whose technology I can barely comprehend. I don’t believe that’s changed me as a writer, but I miss the typewriter’s clickety-clack, the ding of the margin bell, the movement of the carriage back and forth, the shudder of my desk under pounded keys.

The computer, which once seemed alien, is now embedded in the dailiness of my life; but after 12 years I’m no closer to understanding it. I believe more than ever that a virtual Rome on a screen isn’t Rome, and is, in fact, nothing like Rome, and I’d rather gaze at the Petrified Forest than photograph it—because, unless one is a photographer of the first rank, there’s no way to trap that grandeur in a box for use on a screen. Still, it must mean something that when I look about me, I see screens, screens, screens—everywhere, screens, including right here, in front of me, right now.

At arm’s reach are three: the trio of computers accessible from this chair (often I work on two computers at once). Another screen glares across the room—the television. My cell phone, also at arm’s reach, has a screen, even though I bought the simplest device possible: It cost 10 bucks, but it can take and transmit photos and movies, and features menus I don’t bother to understand.

Now you see screens at checkout counters and laundromats, in restaurants and waiting rooms, and on the dashboards of cars and in their back seats. Millions of regular folks preen for screens on YouTube and Facebook, marketing their image like politicians or starlets.

What with BlackBerrys, iPhones and a 10-buck cell, few Americans go anywhere anymore without a screen that connects to every other screen in some way or other, linking to any event or broadcast or data source anywhere, including satellite photos of every address you know, and most you don’t.

These screens disconnect us, too. I work where I live, so, theoretically, I need never leave my apartment: I can order shoes, pet food, people food, parts for my car and lingerie for my girlfriend right here on this screen, and anything purchasable can be delivered right to my door. Now that I think of it, it seems like half the people I know met their present significant others via the screen, and they aren’t kids: They’re middle-aged and aging.

The power of these interconnected screens has grown enough that a virtually unknown woman can step before the media on a Friday and by the following Wednesday be a superstar, nominated for the vice presidency of the United States. A man touted not so long ago as a promising candidate for president uses the obscure racial slur macaca, and it takes just one person with a cell phone to make an audiovisual recording of the event. Presto! Within hours, the whole world knows, and the viability of a presidential hopeful evaporates into cyberspace.

In 1949, George Orwell published 1984, a vision of the worst possible society, in which screens were everywhere, inescapable. History has turned out to be not nearly so gloomy but far more surreal. If in 1980, say, after directing Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Steven Spielberg had made a sci-fi adventure-comedy called Screenworld, well, he might have envisioned something very like our world, which, in 1980, would have seemed dizzying, funny, ridiculous, scary, technologically promiscuous, 24-seven exhausting and appallingly lacking in privacy (privacy as a fact and as a value).

Above all, in 1980, Screenworld would have seemed impossible, or, at the least, an uncertain, unmanageable future that lay thankfully in some alternate universe, far, far away.

Yet today here we are, you and I, often engaging the world more through screens than face to face. Without planning to, and without especially wanting to, willy-nilly, we’ve become citizens of Screenworld.

As Socrates said to Alcibiades, “For the soul, if it’s to know itself, it’s into a soul that it must look.”

photo illustration by david jayne

A collective delusion of reality

Something enormous has happened: The scale on which our society judges a human event has changed—which, in itself, is a human event of the first magnitude.

In Screenworld, images of reality supersede reality itself, editing it, transforming it, playing with it in any fashion, until the source of the image ceases to matter, while the image itself becomes all that matters. It began a century ago, with motion pictures, when one had to seek out the screen but couldn’t control it. Sixty years ago, television brought the screen into our homes. However great their influence, one left the TV and the movie theater to go out into the world.

Now, cyberpowered Screenworld is ever-present, making reality seem infinitely malleable, and all of us may add our own twists at a whim. In Screenworld, the world has become a place in which, as a band called Living Colour put it, “Everything is possible, but nothing is real.”

When a BlackBerry brings the workplace with you wherever you go, where you are becomes less itself, less important as itself: The sense of a place loses its specificity, its particularity, its own complete reality. When you shop online, your community becomes less real; you don’t need it as you once did: You don’t need the bookstore; you don’t need the music store. Losing their reality, such places disappear—literally.

You walk down the street talking on your cell, and the observable world becomes a mere backdrop—unless you see something to video on your phone, when the world becomes your movie set, gauged for its value as entertainment, not engagement. With an iPhone on your belt and an iPod in your ear, solitude is no longer solitary, while you hear not the sounds of the world, but your programmed soundtrack.

The very idea of privacy is close to becoming alien, especially to the young, for whom to be “out of touch” is unthinkable, while calling and texting are seemingly constant. A place inaccessible to Screenworld is called a “dead zone”—which kind of says it all about Screenworld.

Isn’t there something peculiarly disembodied about it? Human beings evolved to take in an enormous amount of information through our bodies. That’s what “body language” is all about, not only gestures and postures, but as well physical inflections so subtle we aren’t aware of making them.

Consider something as uncomfortably intimate as standing with strangers in an elevator: There are strict rules of elevator etiquette—never stare at anyone, keep your eyes front and slightly downward—precisely to protect ourselves from how forcefully bodies speak to one another, even unintentionally. Or consider the subtle signals that pass through a simple handshake. That entire realm of reality is absent from Screenworld, where one need never deal with the bodily strangeness of strangers—for even face to face on a webcam, one responds to the image of a body, not a body, and that image rarely conveys skin tone, not to mention scent.

Is this bad? Is it good? I’m not making those judgments. I’m simply pointing out that Screenworld is another order of reality, one that has overwhelmingly instituted itself amid what we used to call reality, changing the givens, the rules, the environment. As animals, we’re built to live in a physical world; in Screenworld, we’re living in something else.

In our overlay of cyberspace and physical space, bodily reality is devalued, while the adage that “The unexamined life is not worth living” gets distorted into “What the screen does not record or project is not really happening.”

Without anyone’s intending it, the cyber-reality of Screenworld tends to frame as inferior or minor that which is beyond its concern or reach, for that’s the fundamental and unstated assumption that it enforces, and it’s Screenworld’s most dangerous illusion—or, more accurately, its delusion, a delusion that what’s untranslatable through Screenworld, or of no interest to it, has no urgency, no vitality.

That very delusion bestows upon Screenworld its power—the notion, especially in the young, that not to pay close attention to all these screens is to be less than fully engaged.

The dilemma is: How does one find or grow a sense of centeredness amid this continually shifting screenscape?

To see and be seen

If I felt the need to consult what would be my fifth (or sixth?) therapist, I’d be stepping into a space that’s rarer and rarer: an American environment, an American institution, free of Screenworld. In fact, psychotherapy, by its nature and purpose, is Anti-Screenworld.

Consider the psychotherapist’s consulting room: quiet, intimate, a place to which Screenworld has no access. Oh, there may be a computer about, but it isn’t likely to be functioning during my 50-minute hour, because the purpose of my being there is to engage with my therapist in a face-to-face encounter. Rather than a devalued physical reality, in the consulting room physicality is magnified. Client and therapist register every sigh, every glance, every fidget—and either they’re looking at each other or they aren’t, and both are intensely aware of that, either way.

My therapist and I meet privately to do a job of work, the work of understanding—as opposed to, say, conducting business, negotiating a contract or any of the task-oriented reasons for which one may meet formally face to face. We meet in the consulting room to understand why I’m there. To do that, we try to understand who I am—because I don’t understand anymore, or I wouldn’t be there. I wouldn’t be there if I didn’t want to change something, to feel more alive, feel more myself, deal better with whatever I’ve been unable to deal with.

In a world that’s become Screenworld, incessantly inviting and/or goading me to pay attention to something other, only this Anti-Screenworld exists for the express purpose of making me face myself while facing another, and of inviting another to face the real me. Amid Screenworld’s constant interruptions, where focusing is harder and harder and multitasking subverts that ability, the therapist and I have met in order to focus.

Ours isn’t the autohypnosis of focusing on a screen that one can control: Ours is a vibrant exchange that neither party wholly controls. We meet in a formal intimacy, in that it has a form (50 minutes) that, like the poetic forms of sonnet and haiku, imposes its own intensity, an intensity that depends on nothing but us, because it can emerge only from the therapist and me. You can’t get more Anti-Screenworld than that—not with your clothes on, anyway.

Amid Screenworld’s special effects that seem to make reality malleable, the therapist asks, “What’s your real world? The one that’s yours?” In Screenworld, where, especially for the young, life looks like a performance, good therapy questions the construct of audience-performer, asking, in effect, “Who’s your audience? Your peers? Your daddy? The mirror?” —asking you to rethink what you’re playing to, questioning your own assumptions and Screenworld’s.

In Screenworld, you’re looking outward; that’s the nature of its existence. In the face to face of a consulting room, you’re looking inward, not safely alone, but in the always unpredictable presence of another human being. The core of the practice is the timeless truth that nothing has more potential to shift our experience of ourselves than a frank, face-to-face encounter.

Is it too much to say that if psychotherapy were a movement starting today, pitting its face-to-face ways and values against an omnipresent and ultimately impersonal Screenworld, the project of psychotherapy might be seen as heroic?

So I enter the Anti-Screenworld of the consulting room.

My therapist asks a question as my cell phone rings.

“Turn that off,” my therapist says gently.

There goes my connection (or what I feel is my connection) to the entire world, my lifeline to Screenworld. Now it’s just me and this damned therapist—the two of us, plus the reasons I’m there in the first place. (I’d bet a week’s pay that the first thing most clients do when leaving the consulting room is turn on their cells.)

Now there’s nothing left to do but face this human being, and there’s nothing this human being can do but face me—which is to say, there’s nothing more ancient than the situation we find ourselves in. As Socrates said to Alcibiades, “For the soul, if it’s to know itself, it’s into a soul that it must look.”

So we look. We talk. We endure mutual, unquantifiable silences. We talk some more. Eventually, something comes of that—each “something” being entirely different, shaped by my unique nature and this person I’m speaking to. The “something” we achieve is a result beyond the powers of Screenworld to display.

It is in such face-to-face human connections where one can achieve nuanced understanding—far away from the sound-bite Screenworld, where understanding is subsumed by spectacle. Screenworld is about information; Anti-Screenworld is about meaning—which, in the end, the human animal cannot live without.