Where will all the poets go in an age of virtual realities?

Yesterday a friend of mine who manages a desktop publishing business that’s turned mostly to proofreading got a letter from a 95-year-old woman. It was neatly typed (yes, on a typewriter!) and well written: she was clearly alert and intelligent. She’d created a book, a memoir about her life, and wanted to publish it, mostly for her family and friends. The small publishers she’d looked at in North Carolina where she lived wanted a digital copy and scanned photos. She was, she thought, too old to learn about all that. Could my friend help her?

Oh, I did feel for her.

There was a time, not too many generations ago, when the world we entered at birth was still recognizable at death. But not any more. The landscape of our lives is changing at such a rate that many older people who grew up before computers became everyday and altered realities a popular topic of conversation, can only throw up their hands in despair. Something I’m going to try not to do for at least another 20 years.

But what will the world look like by then? I remember when I was a student, many decades ago now, reading a book by Ortega y Gasset. I don’t remember much about it anymore, but I never forgot one of his predictions for the future: someday, he said, instead of taking  trains, airplanes, or space ships, we will travel as some form of energy. We will be transmitted at the speed of light to any place we want to go. “That,” I thought, “is for me!”

Well, it hasn’t happened yet but, as the science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke, once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” So, any year now.

Cite des Sciences et de l'industrie, Parc de la Villette, Paris. Photo by Feuillu (Pierre Metivier). Flickr. Creative Commons.

It’s become commonplace to talk about “the social media” and to refer to the internet as a new reality, a different and remarkable place to meet and greet. Many of us have fancied ourselves Serena Williams or Roger Federer playing tennis on Wii. A recent “Nova” showed soldiers recovering from post traumatic stress from “virtual reality therapy.” We also watched soldiers training in interactive battle situations created by computers. The most frightening part of the show was a look at soldiers in Las Vegas piloting drones in Pakistan and Iraq. Blowing up the enemy long distance.

Another segment showed children who, after swimming with whales in virtual reality, believed they had done so in real life. Not far removed from the young woman who claimed “I’m closer to everyone on-line than in real life.” Said the narrator, “Distinctions between real and virtual space are disappearing.”

I had mixed feelings about most of this—the question of what is real has always been at the heart of the human experience. Plato and the shadows on the wall of the cave—even thousands of years ago, we knew it was a mystery. Alarm bells started going off though when I was assured by one futurist that words were going to be usurped by the experiences given to us by virtual reality. We’d be able to exchange experiences and not have to rely on the clumsiness of  language to do it for us. There will be no need for symbolism, and certainly not for metaphor. What you see, hear, touch and smell can be made available to me.

It reminded me of Clarke and fellows like him who were writing science fiction back when not everyone was doing it. There was something cold about it, I thought. Something flat and one-dimensional. Same thing here. Our reality is so complicated and so much of it is made by words, paint, musical instruments (even acoustical ones), bodies-in-motion, complex media with even more complex information. Something’s wrong here. I hope I can figure it out before I’m 95 and decide to leave it up to the young ones.

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