Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.
Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see…
I walk the pavement at the bottom of my driveway, and suddenly, unexpectedly, things come into focus. The individual stones, textured in a slathering of asphalt the color of elephant hide. I slide my phone into my pocket, and wait out a brief dizzy spell as I make the jarring transition from my head space to the real world.
My eyes take in the gravel road shoulder, the dead leaves, the growing green foliage, the wildflowers, the lush trees. I an smell the chlorophyll. Almost taste it. I stand here, on the road in front of my house, and take it all in, my senses sharpen. Awakening now are my smell, hearing, and touch. My eyes, so used to being my only interface with the world, reel with additional, overwhelming input. It occurs to me that I exist, and I am physically present in both space and time. I can feel the muscles in my thighs contract and relax as I walk slowly up the hill. There are insect sounds in the trees. Birds. The noise of children playing in the back yard, faint but discernible.
And then I’m slipping again, back into that other universe. I pull my phone out of my pocket and take a video. I enjoy this, I think. Other people will too. I have to share it. I begin to realize what I’m doing. A little voice in my head reminds me of something. It may be a rationalization, I’m not sure. I am a content producer it says. I am producing content.
After a quick spin in place with the camera, I force myself to put it away again. I came down here to simply bring out the trash, but instead I have remembered that I am a human being and am alive. This is an obvious thing, but not an insignificant one. So how can I so often forget it?
I spend my life in front of electronic screens. Big screens, small screens, multiple screens, single screens. I have a smart phone, a laptop, a home desktop, a work PC with two monitors, an LCD HDTV, a conference room projector. I receive information from all of these screens in a steady, constant stream. Each day, I write in the ballpark of ten thousand words and read multiple tens of thousands. I view hundreds if not thousands of images. Scores of Facebook posts. Thousands of tweets. Dozens of Instagram photos. Between my work and personal accounts, I easily receive 200 emails per day. I respond to about a third of them, but I read almost all. In my car, I listen to audiobooks. This year, I’ve already consumed no fewer than 8 novels, in whole or in part. Sometimes at night, I watch television. Movies. I occasionally play a video game.
I am awash in an information stream so rich that I can barely keep my head above its tides. What they say about drinking from a fire hose is apt, except that it seemingly fails to describe the scope of the experience. It’s like drinking from the ocean. From under the water.
When I was a kid, I’d read about the coming age of virtual reality, and I’d imagine goggles, haptic gloves, maybe even a holodeck. I foresaw a virtual world that engulfed the senses through prophylactic obfuscation, the real world blocked out so it could be replaced by simulacrum. It’s turned out to be so much simpler than that, if no less immersive.
We create our own virtual reality. We submerge ourselves in the torrent, dipping in, taking what we can, saving or sharing what we want to keep, forgetting more than we will ever know. It’s a fragmentary existence, and it is all-consuming. My wife speaks to me as I stare at the stream, and though I hear her voice, I have no recollection of the words or their meaning. I glance at my phone in the car for just a second, and somehow people are honking at me because the light has already turned green. I thumb through news while I walk, stopping awkwardly on the sidewalk. I tap out texts on route to the bathroom. I check my phone for updates as though I have phantom limb, an itch that I perceive even when there is nothing to scratch. I sometimes wonder if I will go blind, and if I do, how I will continue to receive these many stimuli.
I have watched the evolution of the graphics processor, each iteration of microchip rendering the pseudo-world in more crystal-perfect clarity than the one before. They grow bigger, louder. They bristle with transistors, first thousands, then millions, then billions. They sprout enormous fans, grow tendrils that suck power from multiple sources, breathe vast quantities of expended heat. The world we strive to recreate inches and creeps closer to the world we already inhabit.
Outside, the resolution is already breathtaking. The pansies stun in yellow so bold and crimsons so deep, so vibrant, its as if someone has turned the contrast filter all the way up. There is rust on the gray-painted steel I-beams, flaking, crumbling off. There are cracks in the brick and the cement ceiling of the garage. The faded, water-damaged wooden steps have iron spikes driven deep within them, and green algae grows faintly on the corners where few feet ever tread.
The world is alive. It is beautiful. You can touch it, and taste it. You can smell it, and hear it. And your eyes, if you will let them, can observe things you have forgotten to notice.
It’s all there. All the sensory data you could ever want. You could never capture it all.
It’s like drinking from a fire hose. Only it’s a lot more pleasant than that.