The Digital Dream

The Virtual City
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Remember Inception? Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film explores the labyrinthine, perception-altering nature of dreams. In Inception, dreams can be architectured to your own design without the restrictions of the real world, yet feel real as you experience them. You can even share dream worlds with other people. Over the course of the film, both the characters and the audience become disoriented. Such seemingly real dreaming inhibits the ability to properly function in the real world. In the universe of Inception, some people even prefer to dream all day. For them, dreaming is more enjoyable than reality. 

At first blush, Inception is merely a far-fetched, entertaining story. But the film, it turns out, is a rather good allegory for our increasingly digital, nonfiction world. Replace dreams with cyberspace, and the whole mix of imagination, hopes, relationships, perceptions, and preferences readily applies to us. Cyberspace is not a full-blown reality shift like a lifelike dream or all-encompassing virtual reality. But the digital universe of cyberspace in which many of us interact, and the so-called Internet of Things, are significantly more immersive than anything we’ve experience as human beings before. The digital immaterial bleeds into the tangible material, and in many ways is beginning to supplant it.

It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to start to understand why. There’s a dopamine seeking-satisfaction loop that shifts into overdrive when sending and receiving Snaps, Tweets, photos, texts, and the like. The digital commons, like dreams, is not subject to the rules of space and time in the way our bodies are. We can connect and engage with a seemingly infinite number of things in the expanse of cyberspace. There’s a huge rush in the feeling of transcending physical and geographical limitations.

What’s more, the digital commons seems to give us all the pleasurable and positive elements of interaction without any of the awkward and negative ones. You can keep up with the latest happenings of family, friends, old classmates, and former romantic flings without ever needing to talk to them or see them in person. You can distance yourself from painful or uncomfortable conversations by simply texting or emailing. Send it and walk away. Or if you are the recipient and you don’t want to respond just tap to exit and ignore. No fabricated schedule conflicts, small talk, or conversational exit strategies required.

A recent Pacific Standard article noted that online support groups seem to be more honest, reduce loneliness, transcend stigmas, and increase solidarity and validation compared to their in-person counterparts. For people who suffer from things like depression and bi-polar disorder, “Being able to just articulate something society tells you not to is very powerful…they’re looking for a social space where they can be heard.”

If such things occur they should be celebrated. If you live in Rural, Anywhere, or feel isolated in a metropolis, your only catharsis may be a couple of friends chatting with you online from thousands of miles away. Thank God that’s possible.

But we need to be conscious and cautious about giving preference to the digital commons over the real world. The digital is, in fact, incomplete. The reason you can text or email and back away is precisely because you are interacting in an ethereal space rather than the concreteness of being face-to-face. Like a dream, others are merely shallow imaginings or facades. When confronted by a dream-state projection of his wife, Inception’s main character Dom Cobb remarks, “I can’t imagine you with all of your complexity and all your perfection and imperfection…you’re just a shade of my real wife.”

It’s a thin, sensory- and intricacy-deficient version of the real world. Actual eye contact and touch are impossible (Skype and Apple Watch vibrations hardly come close to the real thing). In cyberspace, you can click to disconnect at any time and you’re instantly uncoupled and unburdened from any engagement. The people on the other side could be entirely different than how they present online, or even be some sort of bot. There’s no density or tangibility to the relationship.

In the same piece on online support groups, author Alana Massey recalls a time when she worried someone on the other end of an email correspondence had died since she had not responded for a few days.

My friend Maryam is someone whose voice I have never heard and whose smile I have never seen. She exists as a pretty but serious avatar in my email inbox and on social media accounts. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, I received an email from her regarding an essay I wrote about depression and language…It was a message of gratitude and familiarity that arrived at a time when I felt particularly isolated. Connecting to someone whose experiences reflected my own was especially welcome at that particular moment. We began an email correspondence that consists mostly of long updates that are characterized by the kind of humor and honesty it might take years to develop with an offline friend.

During a commute home in April, I realized that it had been a while since we had written and my talent for assuming a worst-case scenario made me suddenly panic that she was dead. It was not too far-fetched a thought about a young woman who has frequent suicidal thoughts. We share no mutual friends, we live in different cities, and we don’t even have each other’s phone numbers, so I’d have no way of knowing…I breathed a sigh of relief after arriving home and finding her Tumblr recently updated.

Online support seems great, until someone might need all-out support. It takes an actual shoulder to lean on to hold someone up. You can see the struggle in someone’s gaze. And it’s blatantly obvious when they’re not present—they’re physically not there. Maybe you need to go knock on their door, take them out to lunch, or chaperone them to a counselor or the ER. In the digital commons, these things are hidden behind the superficiality of the medium. Someone can forget or choose not reply and others are left lost and poring over terrible hypotheticals. We shouldn’t find out that they’re OK only through a random social media post.

If we’re not careful, we begin to turn into versions of ourselves as incomplete as the digital space we’re participating in. By preferring actions like:

Texting over conversing face-to-face

Streaming entertainment inside over going outside

Online groups over groups showing up to meet together

Photo-toggling dating apps over the possibility of chance romantic sparks at unexpected times and places…

We are forgoing needed relational depth for comfortable superficiality.

In a scene in Inception that’s easy to overlook, Cobb is talking to his kids over the phone an ocean apart. He hasn’t been home with them for years, and he can’t tell which child is which as they speak. He can’t even picture their faces in his mind. The scene suggests that subsisting entirely on phone-to-phone conversations is as ethereal and incomplete as dreams are to reality. The ultimate resolution for Cobb is to be home. Not memories and daydreams in the mind or fanciful dream worlds—actually home, wrapping his arms around his children. When they finally do meet eye-to-eye and smile-to-smile, you feel Cobb’s rich pleasure of real contact in contrast to all the preceding exciting, but ultimately tenuous, world of dreams.

Snapchatting, Tweeting, texting, emailing, and the rest, all work well when in their right place. They’re not inherently evil, and I’m not a technophobe. I use them daily too, and I’ve burned plenty of hours drifting through cyberspace. But they are inherently incomplete. If the medium is the message, the message is that we don’t need the engagement and complexity of the real world to have meaningful relationships. Short snippets of text or video, sometimes in tandem with emojis, GIFs, or other simple visual and audio cues, are sufficient for social bonds.

But there’s no long-term substitute for real faces and voices. No substitute for the complexity of other people: their posture and demeanor, their touch, all the things they’re saying without speaking. Not to mention all the subtleties of the surrounding environment. A seemingly mundane hug in a backyard is exceedingly more complex and satisfying than even the most innovative digital, dreamlike engagement.

In a burgeoning era of digital immersion, we have to choose to give primacy to the real world. It’s where we’ll actually find healthy cycles of seeking and satisfaction. Complex, concrete reality has the potential for more serendipity than the digital dream ever will. Yes, some experiences can be awkward or undesirable. But in persevering through it you might break relational ground or do new things you never had before—deepening your personal enjoyment and satisfaction. It’s a fulfilling, stable dopamine loop.

No matter how pleasurable and exciting it may be to transcend the limits of space and time in dreams or the digital universe, you can’t function without a sense of place—of home. A dense self-identity, feet firmly planted somewhere, relating well to the people and things around you. Too much of the incompleteness of the ethereal leaves us longing for a completeness we can only find at home in the real world. Hopefully, like Inception, we can find our way back.

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