Kunstler on (Virtual) Reality

James Howard Kunstler, social critic and author of The Long Emergency, has got me thinking. Here are a few passages from Kunstler’s essay, Virtual is No Refuge for the Real.

One of the extremely painful lessons of our time, I’m convinced, will be that the virtual is not an adequate substitute for the real. It will be painful because the notion of virtuality has become a psychological crutch for a culture that is recklessly destructive of real places, real experiences, real relationships with real people, and real notions of purposeful, decent behavior….

One of the most popular beliefs of the computer era has been that virtual places are every bit as okay as real places….

For adults the result has been an amazing amount of pervasive situational loneliness. Despite the fact that so many Americans own a car there is no place to go, at least no places of casual socializing unrelated to chain store commerce. So the chat rooms and listservs of the Internet are supposed to take the place of actually being somewhere.

What do you think? Have you given these ideas much thought?

These are important problems and concepts that have weighed on me for the past several years as my time in virtual spaces certainly has increased. And I will be thinking of these issues as I explore Connectivism with many of you as CCK08 starts (officially) kicks off tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “Kunstler on (Virtual) Reality

  1. There is a pervasive and unfortunate misconception about “virtual spaces” — that they’re somehow “not real.” The problem is the semantic quirk surrounding the word “virtual.”

    In this case it has nothing to do with “almost” or “nearly” as in “virtual prison” or “virtual standstill.” It means “mediated by computer” — another way of saying, “the computer is handling the connection.”

    Here’s my litmus test. If your mother calls you on the phone? Is that real? Don’t you talk to her on the phone as if she were really your mother? If she talked to you in a chatroom? Pinging you on IM? Still Mom, right? The conversations are still real. You’re still going to have to mind your Ps & Qs at Thanksgiving.

    It doesn’t matter what channel you’re using to talk to your mom. She’s still your mom. Virtual, analog, digital, two tin cans on a string .. irrelevant.

    Now go into a bar and talk to people you don’t know. Real? Of course. Are they lying? Some of them. Are they dangerous? Possibly, but prudence has a collection of strategies for dealing with this situation.

    So, what makes going online so different? You meet people. You have a conversation. The avatars are pixels, but the people plying the keyboards are real. I don’t care if it’s Second Life, World of Warcraft, Skype, IM, IRC, or Google chat rooms. They’re all exactly the same — a way for people to communicate across distances. Just like the telephone.

    Except, instead of strange people calling you in the middle of the night, you go hang out in a “place” that’s designed to support communication in a variety of formats, and using a collection of messages.

    Second Life, as a key example of virtual space, is nothing more — conceptually — than a persistent conference call with active wallpaper. If you talk to mom there, why is that any different than a telephone call, other than the specific media carrying your message is a bit richer in SL than on the phone?

    Of *course* it’s not a *substitute* for real. “Real” or not is not a relevant construct, unless you want to try to explain to your mother that the phone call you had last week wasn’t really about whether or not you’re going to be home for Thanksgiving dinner.

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about these issues and I think this kind of question demonstrates a fundamental misconception.

  2. I think when we’re exploring the opportunities in virtual worlds, we have to take off our educator hats. Many of us take a tool and immediately look for the educational application. Often, educators attempt to simulate the activities and relationships of the physical world. I would prefer to see virtual worlds used to do things we can’t do in the physical world.
    There’s no doubt that we are physiologically affected by our activities in virtual worlds. What we feel is “real.” However, it isn’t necessarily the way we would feel if we translated the experience to the physical world. I have met many people online first and later in person, where our relationships ended up completely different than I would have predicted, based on the way we associated in virtual spaces.
    I think the danger is in comparing virtual worlds to physical worlds. Even if people are spending less time in public places and more time online, they aren’t replacing physical activity with virtual activity. Virtual world participation is a physical activity. I think it is difficult for people in our field, who’ve moved so far from behaviorism, to research and evaluate systems developed primarily to generate specific behavioral responses. If we are losing culture due to the fact that people are spending more time in virtual spaces, it isn’t because those spaces are a surrogate for reality. It is because they lack value-sensitive design, and that is where I feel we should be focusing our attention.

  3. I am finding that more and more often, I am having much fuller and deeper relationships with the “strangers” I interact with online than with my real friends. I find myself wishing that m real friends would spend more time online so we can interact more often. I am sure this is due to the fact that I live overseas and seldom see my close friends. It seems that when I meet with the real friends I have made here, there is little time for authentic interaction, we are often just making small talk, or griping about work, life, and everyday events. Ironically it is online with tools such as Facebook that I have the deeper conversations with most of my friends. Things like book recommendations or thoughts on politics are often shared on blogs and other web tools, because they are deemed too deep for real life.

    But how does this type of interaction affect the future of our culture? My two-year-old daughter for example only really knows her grandparents though Skype, and this is great, but no one would argue that this is a “real” interaction. Children need things like touch and smell and eye contact. Perhaps it is the absence of all the senses that make virtual worlds seem counterfeit.

    Like @Nathan said in his comment, as adults we may feel a sense of reality when we deal with other’s online, because we are, I am assuming most of us, from a generation that made real connections before we started making them online. My question is, how will the kids growing up today learn to value face-face- interactions? Because they are spending so much more time online and at such an early age, it is crucial that they understand that there is a difference.

    Take the example of war and video games. I am not one of those people who blame games for the ills of society. I understand fully that society through its own lack of semblance and culture often breeds violence, but can it not be argued that children who see war and conflict as an imaginary pixilated reality, will be less likely to understand the real implication of war and violence.

    Very interesting ideas to think about. As a father and a fan of technology and ecology, I will continue to ponder them. Perhaps more and more people are turning to online cultures because our real cultures are crumbling and offer little but a hurried consumerism. Maybe we just need to go back to basics and reconnect with our humanity, by doing what we do online, talking, sharing ideas, in real life!

  4. My knee-jerk reaction as a father of two kids under 10 is that real beats virtual: real (messy) paint, mud, blocks, clay, trees, secret hideouts… Recently on Twitter somebody asked for a “virtual coin-flip simulator.” Is it that coins are so hard to come by? Or is coin flipping dangerous? Too disruptive?

    One of the points that Louv makes in Last child in the woods is that nature play has been criminalized, and that the introduction of environmental studies in the public schools has resulted in this sort of attitude that saving the world means saving the distant Amazon rain forest; kids don’t see their immediate environment as anything to be saved because they have little to no experience in it. I think this says a lot about the disconnect younger people have with place.

    This post comes at an interesting time as my wife and I watched Bridge to Terabithia last night. If you haven’t seen it or read the book, it’s about a couple of kids who create their own magical world in a wood near their homes. One of the kids doesn’t own a TV. They talk about needing a place of their own, a place where they can escape the bullies from school. I kept thinking I wish my kids had a place like that they could call their own.

    My kids have played with “virtual pets” and we recently acquired a stray cat in the neighborhood. Guess which experience has been richer?

    Like anything, I suppose it’s not an either-or proposition. But in my house, I’m adopting a “preferential option for the real.”

  5. The essay, full of sweeping stereotypes and generalizations, makes a tacit assumption that virtual is a replacement for the real. That’s a bit simplistic, and the interesting parts happen where virtuality is augmentation.

    interesting in (a) dictionary:

    virtual: Middle English virtuall, effective, from Medieval Latin virtulis, from Latin virts, excellence; see virtue.

  6. @Nate: Thanks for taking time to post, and especially to look at the semantic misconceptions of virtual/virtuality. A shared or grounded understanding of the term and what it means in practice is an important starting point for critique and understanding.

    @Jen: Thanks, as always, for your insight. I’m interested in what you mean by value-sensitive design. Can you expand a bit more?

    @Jabiz: I liked your story about interacting with grandparents, my daughter is in much the same boat as yours. And I am wondering about “Perhaps more and more people are turning to online cultures because our real cultures are crumbling and offer little but a hurried consumerism.” Is this consumerism not just re/presented in the online world? I think it’s hard to escape in any case!

    @Todd: Being the father of two, I find myself in a similar way with how I am approaching indoor/outdoor/online activity. My 4yr could spend hours (if I let her) learning/playing on the Wii, or feeding her virtual ePets. But I know she’d much rather go outside and run around. There is a difference, certainly to her, and to many others. But I think, of course, we are hitting different aspects of this same argument, especially if we look at how all of the commenters reacted somewhat from a different place.

    @Alan: I like the idea of augmentation, and I know that so many of us that met for the first time at TLT (you should have been there) felt a degree of this, how online connections can augment and foster real relationships.

    Thanks everyone for taking the time to comment. I am always grateful for your time and insight.

  7. The Internet is obviously a hyper-platform for consumerism. Who hasn’t been abused by pop up adds or spam? But the thing I love about social networks and for lack of a better label, web2.0 and the relationships I am building on my network, is that the members of my network are seldom, if ever, trying to sell me anything. It is more of communal, free exchange of ideas, but no one is out to make a buck. I find this comforting.

    I agree with a lot of what @todd said as well. I often think if it is not just as important to integrate ecology into out educational systems as well as technology. I just don’t understand why people on both sides make the choice either/or.

    It is important to use the real to enhance the virtual and vice versa. Whenever I talk with people who are “not into” technology, they always say they prefer to spend time outside, as if I am always glued to my computer. They can’t seem to understand that I can go for a hike then come home and try to express those feelings through technology.

    We want students to have as many authentic learning experiences as possible. The only way to do this is to teach them to be comfortable out in the woods and in front of their computers. In short there needs to be a balance.

  8. I stumbled across this site due to being a sort of novice with the internet, which betrays my age. Yes I am from that generation who had no choice but to make friends/enemies with real in-the-flesh people.

    When teaching prompted a big move out of the country in 1988–I kept in touch with a few friends/family with real hold-in-your-hand and recognize-the-handwriting letters. Their rarity increased their value. In 1998 snail-mail abruptly gave way to e-mail and that entire culture changed.

    Now it is possible to have regular, daily contact with old true friends. ‘Possible’, but really impossible due to time constraints. Correspondence, instead of being a rare joy, becomes a continual duty. Others face the same dilemma as I do, and resort to forwarding sappy cute stuff around to let people know they are thinking of them. But no matter what is sent, I find the email format trivializes the content.

    I found this site just now through doggedly searching for some written account of an interview I heard last month on BBC World Service. From: ‘Eric Sigmund'(?)but I must have misheard the name as I can’t find a trace of him anywhere. He was discussing ‘real’ vs. virtual relationships, how lab studies prove that when we actually see the face of someone we love, the body releases certain feel-good hormones, but seeing the same face virtually does not produce the same effect. Please–if anyone sees this note who knows how to find the elusive Mr. Sigmund’s source material, I would appreciate it.

    I enjoyed all of the comments logged above responding to KUNSTLER, but would particularly like to respond to Mr. Jabiz R. who laments how he is able to get into deeper communication with friends online, than actually in person.

    To have a deep and satisfying conversation with someone in person these days is a challenge–the rhythm is usually broken at an irreparable moment by the ring of the mobile phone.

    Oh, there goes mine just now…

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