What counts as reality?
In digital suspension
⚠️ CW: depression, COVID-19
As a kid, I remember admiring the Holodeck in Star Trek. I loved that Captain Janeway could escape to her Victorian fantasy during stressful times and for a moment escape from the isolation and pressures of being a captain on a starship. (Voyager haters can kindly get a hobby.)
The characters she interacted were complete. They had real backstories and made her feel things. So, while they themselves were complex algorithms of binary code, she herself was affected by them; by their actions, by the emotions they elicited, and by their stories.
While as far as we know we have nothing close to the Holodeck, the global lockdown has got me thinking about what we validate as being real.
The digital world, my friends, is all that many of us are lucky enough to have right now. Sure. I miss hugs, which I don't even particularly like from most people. I miss resting my head on someone's shoulder. I miss holding hands. I miss physical intimacy. All those physical things are irreplaceable. There's dozens of studies about how humans isolated become very sad (which is why solitary confinement is a particularly heinous corporal punishment). The effect of lack of physical connection is very real, let alone the emotional distance we're feeling as a result.
"In the meantime" many of us are seeking to fill the voids left by not being able to go to the movies, birthday parties, and the gym by doing other equivalent things online. For those of us lucky enough, we're filling time by adapting and adjusting as we can.
I think a lot of people think of what we're all going through as a temporary lockdown; an extended snow day; a pause from reality. As a coping mechanism, we might remind ourselves of the light at the end of the tunnel—"when things go back to normal" or "when reality returns" we say.
What is, then, what we're experiencing now, connected by the tenuous threads of ones and zeros? Is it real?
Are the calls you're using to connect with loved ones considered real demonstrations of affection? Are the birthday and wedding celebrations held on video calls true milestones? Are the text messages and nudes your lover sent you still stimulating even if they weren't processed chemically in a dark room? Or will we redo everything we've experienced during this time when we're able to share the meatspace?
Is what we're experiencing just a dress rehearsal of our lives? Are we just living in a digital suspension of reality?
And on the dark side, is online bullying somehow less hurtful when it's read over a screen than on paper? Are the death threats I've received to be taken seriously because they were typed from a computer and not cut out of a magazine?
In the past, when something bad has happened to me on Twitter and I've shared it with a friend, they would say something like, "Don't worry about that. It's just Twitter. It's not real life."
The intent of that statement could be to lessen my worry, to remind me that Twitter does not not the entirety of existence, to remind me that it's not where my focus should be, and perhaps, less kindly, a way to brush off my story they don't care about.
The impact of the statement is that it invalidated my sense of what is considered real. It reminds me that we've historically not thought of our experiences on the digital and online world to be real. It could explain a lot of why trolls feel comfortable creating throwaway accounts, but fear standing up for such vitriol face to face.
All of these thoughts about whether what happens digitally is real especially strikes a chord with recently past me. I am an extremely online person who lives alone and primarily connects with friends digitally who (up until recently) worked primarily remotely from other timezones and continents on digital products. It strikes a chord with distant past me, who found solace and friendships through LiveJournal and MySpace that I did not find in the hallways and cafeterias of school, where classmates bullied me and didn't want to be my friend. With that single criterion of what constitutes as real, you could invalidate my entire existence.
It leaves me curious: What is it about the proximity of our physical beings that quantifies it at a higher value? For certain there is an instinctual, critical lizard-brain need to touch and to be touched. But Descartes would tell us that beyond this physical meatspace, we are special mammals who have reason and experience life at a higher abstraction. Do we consider what we experience through and in the digital world to be real? Does what we've experienced have an impact on the reality we once knew, and the new, unknown reality we will inevitably have to learn?
I'm not sure.
I, for one, am not going to act as though this is a pause upon my life. At best if I did, I would hold my breath for months to come, waiting to inhale the same air of months, possibly years ago. At worst, I would face a new world and not be brave enough for it, having spent the past few months denying that new world could ever come.
I refuse to believe that the life I'm leading right now is some facsimile of the real one that I could be leading in a parallel universe. If anything, because depression and other things don't always allow me to live that parallel life even when not in the centre of a crisis. Outside of this crisis, often, the digital world is the only one I have. I lastly refuse to believe that what I am living right now is some sort of digital suspension of reality—because the digital world is too real.
The things we say and fail to say to each other, the ways we hurt or the ways we love, the bridges we build and the walls we erect, the time that we do or don't set aside during this time is real—at least, to me.