The Abyss behind the Screen

April 4, 2015 at 11:55 am

In 1974 Robert Nozick proposed a thought experiment in which he presented the following question: If you could have a machine that could give you any kind of experience that you desire, would you then prefer the machine to real life? At that time a majority of the people who participated in the experiment answered “No”. If you were one of them what would you answer?


Image Courtesy: Rutger Tuller

Image Courtesy: Rutger Tuller

Many of us would have experienced being alone in a room or a house. We usually cope with this temporary loneliness by turning on the TV or the radio. My mother works with the TV running in the other room when she is alone at home. She claims it makes her feel safe and gives her the feeling of being with someone. Someone who is constantly talking in the other room but not interfering with her work. This is something people do in environments where the solitude is simulated as well. Like in gyms, where you are surrounded by people, but you are essentially by yourself working out. People instinctively turn on the TV or the radio. I find the radio in India very annoying because it mostly just plays advertisements that are punctuated by brutally amputated songs. But when someone turns the radio on, I dare not raise a fuss. Everyone wants that sound in the room. Something that tells them they aren’t alone. Even when the room is full of people, and the sound they are hearing is from a machine that is drowning out the voices of the people in the room.

Today we live more in the company of machines than we do with people. Many of us wake up and reach out to the phone before we see another physical human face. As soon as we step out of a building or car into the street, we pull our phones out and keep it in front of our faces until we sit in front of a computer. We have shifted so much of our worlds into the digital medium that we cant escape being glued to it. It takes enormous courage and a fair measure of uncanny rebellion to completely cut oneself off the digital universe. The ones who manage to do this are the exceptions. The rest of us will spend a majority of our lives meandering in the intricate labyrinths of the digital world that we have so invested ourselves in.

When we return home from a hard days work, the thought of relaxing in front of the television or the tablet is far too enticing to ignore. It does feel relaxing doesn’t it? In a study done on the impact of the television on the human mind over a decade ago the following was found:

  “The difference between internally generated and imposed imagery is at the heart of whether it is accurate to say that television relaxes the mind.Relaxation implies renewal. One runs hard, then rests. While resting the muscles first experience calm and then, as new oxygen enters them, renewal. When you are a watching, absorbing, your mind may be in alpha, but it is certainly not “empty mind.” Images are pouring into it. Your mind is not quiet or calm or empty. It may be nearer to dead, or zombie-ized. It is occupied. No renewal can come from this condition. For renewal, the mind would have to be at rest, or once rested, it would have to be seeking new kinds of stimulation, new exercise. Television offers neither rest nor stimulation.

Television inhibits your ability to think, but it does not lead to freedom of mind, relaxation or renewal. It leads to a more exhausted mind. You may have time out from prior obsessive thought patterns, but that’s as far as television goes. The mind is never empty, the mind is filled. What’s worse, it is filled with someone else’s obsessive thoughts and images.” – Jerry Mander

Many of us justify watching the television or being hooked on to the computer for the knowledge that it brings. Some people argue this is all but an illusion.

  “TV opens out onto an electronic global village. It would seem, rather, that it gives us only the illusion of being. It reinforces security by presenting danger, ignorance by presenting news, lethargy by presenting excitement, isolation by promising participation. The media confines reality to itself. And it limits knowledge by giving the illusion of knowledge. In the same way that the most effective way to deflect, diffuse and terminate a social movement is to announce that it has been achieved (the feminist movement must contend with this on an almost daily basis), the most effective way to deflect inquiry is to present it as fulfilled. TV acts in this guise as a thinking presentation device which offers non-experience as experience and not-knowingness as knowing.” –  Marshall McLuhan

While this was said years ago about the television, we can relate to what is said just as much even now. It is not just the television that is craving for our attention, we are surrounded by devises that are getting smarter by the release. Everything is able to distract us while we engage in them and in this distraction they weave around us an illusion of reality. Of a world that we are participating in, fully believing that we are making a difference in it. In the real world. The problem however is in the placement of reality in the simulated world. While we know this world represents the other one out there, many times we don’t let the realization sink in. Ranting about issues and spreading “awareness” online makes us feel so in-control and purposeful that we fail to realize it fulfills a feedback loop that is in turn depleting us from the very resources that we need to live a creative and purposeful life. We have disappeared inside these machines, completely believing in the illusion that they represent our lives.

We are so hooked to the machines that when we get lost, we don’t stop to look around, to find the familiar face of a friend in the crowd. Instead, we look back into the phone and try finding him there. To us it is the same. It is only when we switch the phone or the television off that we see it for the machine that is really is. When it is on and running, it ceases to be a machine. Like my mother believes, it is a person in the other room, or many people. In fact slowly to many of us, it is becoming our world. They are no longer machines because when we engage in them we have stopped noticing their technical details. We engage in the narrative the way we would if a real person were speaking in front of us. We talk about immersive experiences with machines and celebrate how “real” they feel. We explore our fantasies with them. Robert Nozick  wouldn’t have to conduct the experiment today because today we are living inside his experiment. We have all taken the test already and responded with a resounding “Yes“.

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