Virtual Life; Real Life

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Virtual Life; Real Life

I am gazing out the window at a ten-foot high, five-feet wide metallic sculpture on the lawn in front of the Bellevue, WA public library.

The statue is the profile of a man’s head, in which a circle of glass insets signify what is contained there: images of a wolf, a bird, a shovel, a dolphin, a turtle, a violin, a key, a hammer, gardening spade, leaves, a magnet, a gear, a horn and more. How much stuff can be crammed into one head?

Back in the 1990’s I interviewed Swarthmore psychology professor Kenneth Gergen about his book titled, “The Saturated Self, Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life.” Over a decade ago he was predicting dire consequences for ordinary people, who when bombarded by electronic messages would be overwhelmed by both sensory and information overload.

When our head is filled with multiple inputs of virtual stories, how does the self nurture and develop its own story? Is it possible that we are spending more time absorbing virtual stories, than living a life that produces our own personal stories?

In an age where film, music, games, books and blogs each compete to draw us into their stories, how can you strike the balance between living your story and absorbing electronically transmitted stories?

This is fresh on my mind because I just watched twenty films at Sundance Film Festival. Through film I ventured voyeuristically into the worlds of: lottery winners (Lucky), children trying to make their way through a failing public school system (Waiting For Superman), a ten-year-old Iraqi searching for his missing father (Son of Babylon) and many others.

Last night I hosted our annual Kindlings Muse podcast in which film critics explored the “Theology of the Ten Academy Award nominees for best film. (Avatar, An Education, Up in the Air, Inglorious Basterds, A Serious Man, Hurt Locker, Up, District 9, Precious and The Blind Side.) Ten more stories are stored in my brain’s database.

After the show I talked with my friend Marty O’Donnell, one of the makers of the game Halo, about the power of games as a new storytelling, story-making vehicle. Oddly, the discussion veered off into my views of Protagonist, a documentary I saw at Sundance a few years ago, about the story-telling paradigm of the ancient philosopher Euripides. Now I’m referencing a film about story as a way of evaluating the power of game as a storytelling medium!

What happens when a disproportionate amount of time is invested in virtual stories instead of living our own story? Life 2.0 is a sobering documentary that explores the dangers of complete immersion in virtual reality in Second Life, the largest user-created, 3D virtual online world community. Life 2.0 follows one man and woman who leave their real life spouses for the idyllic matches made online. We get a glimpse into the mind of a thirty-year old man who masquerades as a teenage girl, creating a fictional story online that displaces his real life identity. Forced with the choice between his exasperated fiancé and the online teen he chooses virtual life over real life.

The great dreamer of dreams and advocate for perpetual childlikeness, James Matthew Barrie said, “the life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another.” Can we devote limitless time to absorbing other stories to the detriment of discovering and living our own story?

One of the reasons I moved to a small island was to separate myself from the clutter and clamor of modern virtual life. Seventy-year old Don Tompkins rode into town on his bike the other day to tell me his sheep had birthed some new lambs. My friend Dan Brown is dying of pancreatic cancer, so I drove out to see him. High winds blew large chunks of driftwood onto Crescent Beach the other day, so I stopped to watch the turbulent tide come in. Molly rode her horse yesterday and wife Kathy did her knitting while we chatted amiably.

In days gone by, mediated stories were told through the interface of the printed page; today they are transmitted via digital bits. These stories have the power to shape us and enrich our lives, to break us out of our comfort zones in our known world. Mediated stories have their place, but they should never displace human encounters with real people in daily life.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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    Posted in Staublog in February 20, 2010 by | No Comments »

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