Don’t look down!

Modern living affords us the separation from the cause and effect nature of our own actions, and in this way society is largely disconnected on multiple levels, although outwardly, with the aid of rapidly advancing technology, we see ourselves as highly connected, more so than ever before. It is my belief that this connection is mostly an illusion, that although we have the opportunity to engage in long distance, split second communication, we are actually growing increasingly disconnected from reality and the physical world.

Primitive man looked out across the landscape, surveyed and assessed what he saw in front of him and drew a link between his actions in the here and now, and the results he later saw in his immediate surroundings. Dead fish left on the ground result in bears, a sharp stick thrown in the right direction results in dinner, too many sticks thrown this year result in less dinner next year. Indigenous people who still live in similar circumstances know these things to be the case, because they have lived them, and their ancestors lived them too. Tradition means that such practices and customs have been preserved, not just because they are fun or interesting, but because they are valuable given the context. Such a way of life is necessarily intertwined with reality, because survival depends on it. Of course, there are certain things that we must understand in order to live in an industrialised culture, but they are rarely things which demand that we know the consequences except as they appear personally. We don’t need to know how sewage is treated, or where landfill goes, or even that landfill exists, we don’t need to be aware of greenhouse gases, deforestation, human and animal exploitation and slavery, the depletion of non-renewal resources, and the destruction of communities, and we don’t even need to know that smoking causes cancer or that a bad diet can have grave consequences, because we have the luxury of separation, whether indefinite or sufficiently delayed as in the last examples. And after having seen a glimpse of what human nature might be, I would say that as a whole, we will continue to live our separate lives, until the day when reality is forced upon us, in the form of things like peak oil, food shortages, and heart disease. We are so far removed from reality, it appears not to be reality at all. Similarly, most of us probably view our own death in such a light; as theoretical.

The landscape of modern man, is much flatter and more symbolic than that of his primitive ancestors, as his has become a map. Instead of looking out at our landscape, we look inwards towards the light of a screen, to a virtual reality composed entirely of maps, metaphors and abstraction upon abstraction. We crave connection with this new world, almost repelled by the reality of the old one, so much so, that people now spend significant portions of their waking lives connected to it. Virtual reality was once thought to be the final frontier of the human-computer interaction, but we simply hadn’t yet considered what might happen if we actually put ourselves into the computer. As people work to make this unreality a reality, the gaze of the human continues to curve ever inwards, as if he were trying to look inside himself for the some unknown, fleeting detail, until the day he finally merges and emerges on the other side of the looking glass for a tragic glimpse of what the outside world is like.

Compared to our ancestors we are intellectually closer to the truth, but physically further from it. Our lives are awash with more imagery and less and less substance, as we become more machine-like and less human.

In fuzzy, superstitious and irrational thought, there appear broken links and outright missing pieces in the chain of causality. How does walking under ladders bring bad luck? How would an active ingredient become more potent when diluted?   And how does reincarnation work? Likewise we might wonder, ‘where does plastic come from, and where does it go when discarded?’ ‘How is my food produced?’ And ‘how can clothes be sold at prices so low that they may as well be disposable?’ Perhaps some people have asked these questions, out loud and in public even, and to some perhaps it has never occurred that there was even a question to be asked, but the chances are that we have allowed these things to remain a mystery, and have contented ourselves with the end result, ignoring the how and the why. We are separated from consequence as if our culture itself is an infant who has yet to grasp some fundamental truths about the world we live in.

Once we begin to look around at the various examples, it seems that separation is necessary in order to live, but like many other survival mechanisms that came about due to evolution, our instinct for separation presents us with both benefits and negative effects, particularly in the context of the modern world.

Wealth can afford us the possibility to live a life separate from suffering, from hunger, and distress. At least significantly more so than those forced to live it personally.

As consumers we are separated from the numerous processes behind the things we consume, while at the same time being caught up in producing things for other people.

Drugs remove us from our inhibited and suppressed selves, and momentarily separate us from our routine realities and future consequences.

The president doesn’t get cold, wet or go hungry, because wealth allows separation and disconnection. Wealthy people don’t get their hands dirty (bloody), they just give orders to people one link down in the chain of command, they don’t volunteer, they donate. The media presents us with images of such “wealthy” people; models in new clothes with fresh haircuts, untouched yet re-touched and untouchable. They are not real people or characters even, they are symbols of wealth; the modern dream.

Glass allows us gaze upon the outside world, while remaining clearly separate from whatever may lie beyond. Whether war, famine, revolution, military occupation, unbearable heat, freezing temperatures, snow, wind, ice or rain. Our clothes, although hidden behind the layers of aesthetic noise, serve the primary function of separating our skin from the elements and the eyes of strangers. Along with books, photos, and moving images, all these inventions allow us to experience the world from a removed point of view, so much so that we often mistake living vicariously for the real thing.

We plug ourselves in, to our headphones and computers, to drown out the horrifying sound of real life, and to comfort ourselves in our highly isolated, internal realities.
There was a time when hermits lived in caves, up in the mountains away from the rest of society, but today they live among us, and are indistinguishable from you or I.

Maps, (and other symbolic systems) our hallowed creations that guide us through the uncertainties of the physical and intellectual realms, can, ironically, serve as barriers to understanding and experiencing that which they are supposed to reference. Maps constrain our expectations, but in simplified ways that are analogous to the simplifications present in the map. So that if we are reading a road map that only charts highways and national routes, as well as the occasional minor road, we will not be expecting footpaths and other features that are not present on the map. In effect, the map takes over, and takes precedence over the territory itself, thus turning and returning us back to our introverted world.
I’ve experienced a strange thing also happen with subtitles, and that is, that not only are they distracting, by super-imposing a written medium onto a primarily visual one, but their prolonged presence stops me from understanding what I hear, and creates a false dependency on them. While this may be obviously true if you have a foreign language in mind, it is surprising given that I am referring to subtitles in my mother tongue!

The truth is complicated, and it is necessary to approach it progressively, first by following basic maps, which must be later destroyed, and re-written over time. This is the natural course of scientific discovery as we develop more and more detailed symbols to refer to the new details of reality as we uncover them. We cannot gain understanding by being exposed to all currently discovered and understood layers of reality at once; that would be information overload. Thus, separation is once again inherent in human activity.

Biases such as generalisations, can be seen as a separation from truth, because the nature of bias is that it is an automatic response based on limited information. Generalisations skim over or hide the verity of cases that do not fit the rule, so not only are we protected from reality, but we are also saved the mental task of more accurately figuring out what the exact details of that reality may be each time.

Cognitive dissonance is often resolved by rationalising about the situation, and in effect putting distance between truth and the individual involved.

So as it is in the world of cartoons, if only we can maintain a forward gaze, we might be able to walk on air.