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  • The Virtual Kingdom Is Within You

    Autumn Leaves, the Simpson Trial, and the Internet

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    The autumn foliage in New England is at its most brilliant. I needn't go far to enjoy the conflagration. A daily four-mile walk from my front door at the western edge of the Berkshires takes me through more flaming beauty than I can ever hope to honor. Pausing to look at some of the richly draped trees, I consider my good fortune, and give thanks.

    But another part of me wonders: might the view on the other side of these hills be still more spectacular? Shouldn't I climb in my car and find out?

    The urge, however, seems just slightly too frantic, too unsettling, too selfish. I recognize in it a kind of greed -- greed that would drive me from sight to sight, seeking an ever greater jolt of ever more transient amazement. Such an insatiable hunger, I have found, naturally coexists with a pitifully inadequate curiosity about whatever now stands in front of me.

    When my senses thrill to their own stimulation in this manner, can they remain instruments of truth? I do not think so. The eye that experiences itself -- whether due to injury or self-indulgence -- is an eye incapable of seeing the world truly.

    Moreover, if I would drink more deeply of nature, the opportunity is everywhere at hand. It requires no venture to the far side of the hills. I can, for example, extend my journey by seeking out the less striking -- but no less instructive -- revelations of the duller rusts and browns, the dirty yellows, alongside their more showy brethren.

    I was reminded of all this when I heard about the crowds gathered around television screens to hear the O. J. Simpson verdict. A colleague at the office to which I telecommute posted a message for all employees: Forget whatever you're doing; it's not as historic as what's going to occur on the tube.

    But I missed it. As it happens, I also have yet to witness the great, televised Bronco chase. And it was only during the week of final arguments that I first saw the beautifully sculpted visage of O. J. Simpson on a video screen, when I chanced to visit relatives. But throughout the trial I did sporadically follow the coverage in the Sunday papers.

    I do not boast of this "cultural isolation." But it does at least have the advantage of providing a relatively detached perspective on certain things. And the first question this perspective prompts me to ask is, Did I really miss out on history by not watching the verdict's live announcement? In hearing it on the evening news, or in next week's paper -- or in next month's magazine -- must I lose something essential?

    I cannot accept that the effort to stand apart from society's compulsions implies indifference to history.

    If I judge things aright, the main substance of the drama -- at least for those who, like me, neither knew the principals personally nor were prepared to help them amid their difficulties -- lay in a morbid and prurient fascination. Mere spectators, gazing upon human tragedy through the keyhole of a privatizing screen, can scarcely avoid indulging voyeuristic impulses to one degree or another. The spectacle of the spectators in this particular case suggests that the degree was extreme.

    Don't mistake me, however. The case was an opportunity for those who followed it closely to deepen their understanding. While capitalizing on that opportunity required a powerful effort to overcome all the unhealthy invitations, the successful effort could have led, for example, to a valuable education about modern legal practice.

    But what immediately strikes one is how much of that legal practice became something different by virtue of the television eye cast upon it. And, mediated by that single eye, all of our eyes. The circus provoked by our compulsive sightseeing inevitably compromised the proceedings.

    So here, too, the truth holds: an eye seeking its own furtive pleasures cannot see truly. It experiences itself more than the world. Further, it eventually transforms the world into its own distorted image.

    This alteration of the thing looked at by the "sense organ" doing the looking is now a prominent feature of the news media. Increasingly, as many are noting, the media create the news -- based, of course, on the tastes of those who consume the news. So long as our primary hunger is for self-experience amid new sensations, we will quite understandably discover only ourselves reflected in the camera eye.

    The Internet with its associated technology now allows us to carry these tendencies as far as we wish. We are able, radically and without overlap, to substitute the productions of an inwardly turned camera eye for the truth of the world. We call these productions "virtual reality."

    My own experience of the Simpson trial -- like the false urgency of autumn sightseeing -- reminds me how strong will be my temptation to cultivate the more self-indulgent potentials of virtual reality, thereby sacrificing what remains of my honest engagement with the world.

    Might such a lost capability for respectful and revelatory contact with the other help to explain society's racial divisions, not to mention the general dissolution of community and the despoiling of nature? I am inclined to think so. Our recent season of obsession may well point to coming conflagrations far less enjoyable than the one now inviting me to step outside my front door.

    Permission is granted for noncommercial redistribution of this article.

    Steve Talbott :: The Virtual Kingdom Is Within You :: http://netfuture.org/meditations/senses.html

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