On the real and the virtual

It’s coming from the feel
that this ain’t exactly real,
or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there.

Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”

A few weeks ago, we came home to a sad discovery: the corpse of a male goldcrest on our kitchen windowsill. They are tiny, beautifully-feathered birds, and we hadn’t even realised we had them living nearby. It was the mating season for goldcrests, and he had clearly been trying to fight his own reflection in the window, and kept trying until he died of exhaustion. We made a point of keeping the kitchen window open for the next few weeks.

There is an immense amount of tosh written about the supposed importance of being able to recognise one’s own reflection in a mirror as oneself and the alleged significance of this for categorising some species as self-aware and therefore more intelligent than others. Goldcrests know a good deal that I don’t, because that knowledge is useful if you happen to be a goldcrest, which I happen not to be. If you do happen to be a goldcrest, there’s not much value in being able to solve quadratic equations if you can’t maintain a breeding territory.

Everyone thinks they know about mirrors, and most people would probably experience feelings of smug superiority as well as some sadness if they found a dead goldcrest on their kitchen windowsill. But of course reflective surfaces like windows are largely an artificial phenomenon. The only mirror to be found in nature is the surface of a still body of water in bright sunlight, and one of the things goldcrests know, if I make so bold a claim, is that goldcrests don’t live underwater.

I first came across the term “virtual” in its scientific usage in physics class at school, in connection with mirrors. It makes complete sense. The image you see when you look into a mirror is not “real” in the same way that your face is real. It won’t still be there when you leave the room. If someone else comes in after you’ve left and looks into the mirror, they will see a different image (or be very freaked out).

It is therefore an apt description of the online world. There isn’t really anything there, or not in the same sense that your face is there. The representation of a thing is not the thing. This is not exactly news, although it appears that some people need to be reminded of it occasionally. It is, for example, much discussed in the philosophy of Plato as well as of Buddhism, not to mention the art of Rene Magritte.

The Buddha told Ananda, “You still listen to the Dharma with the conditioned mind, and so the Dharma becomes conditioned as well, and you do not obtain the Dharma-nature. It is like when someone points his finger at the moon to show it to someone else. Guided by the finger, that person should see the moon. If he looks at the finger instead and mistakes it for the moon, he loses not only the moon but the finger also. Why? It is because he mistakes the pointing finger for the bright moon.”

Śūraṅgama Sūtra, 8th century A.D.

What you see on your computer (in which term I include smartphones) is a representation. It is not the reality. Behind the curtain, it’s just a bunch of voltages. A picture of the moon is not the actual Moon; Buzz Aldrin and co would have had a hard time landing on it. Similarly, what appears in your news feed is to be distinguished from the stuff that is actually going on in the world.

There’s another similarity between your news feed and a mirror: what you see in it is based on who you are, and what whoever your provider is thinks you ought to be looking at. They will tell you that this is purely based on your interests, of course. Right. I’m sure we can all trust Big Tech not to try an manipulate us. It’s not like they’re part of the advertising industry or something.

For some years now there has been a certain amount of cod-philosophy bandied about based on the idea that we are all living in a simulation. The film The Matrix is only partly to blame for this; Philip K. Dick was playing with these ideas fifty years ago, and he was by no means the first. The question people never seem to ask, though, what is this putative simulation a simulation of? At what moon is the finger pointing?

Philip K. Dick actually had a nice line about all this: “Reality,” he said, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” There is something there, even if we can only have a partial and imperfect notion of it. But just because we can’t aspire to God-like omniscience doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and assume everyone’s truth is equally valid. After all, that poor goldfinch’s truth included another male goldfinch behind the window, and look what good that did him.

Life in industrial civilisation, especially in the more metropolitan and well-to-do parts of it, is uniquely divorced from many aspects of reality. We surround ourselves with steel and glass and concrete, we bathe ourselves in artificial lighting and heating and cooling. We drown our ears in noise and our noses in air-freshener. We get very upset when inconvenient aspects of reality intrude on us – the weather, for instance. No human beings in history have ever lived like this, possibly because it’s a terrible idea.

In the end, reality always has the last laugh over illusion. Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt to pivot his tech empire to virtual reality is not going well. Indeed, the clue is in the phrase “virtual reality” itself, when you think about it.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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