Lancaster, SC. Digital technologies are increasingly colonizing reality as the promises of transhumanism draw tantalizingly near. Nueralink and the Metaverse, NoPixel and vTubers are only the beginning of the seamless blending of the human and the digital. As Wired author Eric Ravenscraft explains, what we are coming into is virtual reality “characterized by persistent virtual worlds that continue to exist even when you’re not [logged on]” and augmented reality integrating “aspects of the digital and physical worlds.”
Those expressing hesitation about this transhuman trajectory or defending physical reality are facing an interesting counter-argument that’s been gaining momentum. In 2015 Beau Cronin put it this way: “Consider the possibility that a visceral defense of the physical, and an accompanying dismissal of the virtual as inferior or escapist, is a result of superuser privileges.” More recently, Silicon Valley legend Marc Andreessen has expanded Cronin’s argument:
A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date.…Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege — their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world….Reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap. We should build – and we are building – online worlds that make life and work and love wonderful for everyone, no matter what level of reality deprivation they find themselves in.
In other words, for so many people today, reality bites. And if it doesn’t bite for you, you’re just blind to your own privilege. So, stop complaining about the dangers of digital living.
It’s as if defending reality itself now is akin to oppression. This argument warrants a response. Are those who question transhumanist progress or Metaverse predictions just knee-jerk Luddites whose visceral reactions are worthy of only a patronizing pat on the head for not seeing their own privilege? As might be expected of a Porcher, I don’t think so. Instead, those who are hesitant about digitality are remembering what it means to be embodied human beings and acknowledging the gravitas of reality’s bite – even when reality bites. Even with all of its bumps and bruises, banes and blessings, reality is better than virtuality – because it is real. Below I’ve sketched out some responses to the Reality Privilege argument that could be explored further.
1. It Doesn’t Align with History and Research
Andreessen claims that “reality has had 5,000 years to get good, and is clearly still woefully lacking for most people; I don’t think we should wait another 5,000 years to see if it eventually closes the gap.” Has Andreessen forgotten the historical advancements that have reduced poverty and increased life-expectancy in astounding fashion – in actual reality? Physical life has drastically improved by his own standards. Consider the arguments laid out by Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy in Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know, and the surprising data on just how rapidly real conditions around the world are improving. More to the point, what lies underneath Andreessen’s argument is a faulty consumerist lifestyle-standard that connects affluence with happiness. It seems that first-world-centric assumptions about what makes for a meaningful and happy life are hidden in the argument.
A growing body of research also counters the idea that digital technologies and online connectivity increase happiness. Take Jonathan Haidt’s work on the connections between digital media use and increasing anxiety, depression, and self-harm. Or Jean Twenge’s iGen, which documents a decline in happiness. While correlation does not equal causation, as Haidt explains, “the timing points to social media as a substantial contributor – the surge began just as the large majority of American teens became daily users of the major platforms. Correlational and experimental studies back up the connection to depression and anxiety, as do reports from young people themselves, and from Facebook’s own research, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.”
Defenders of virtuality might respond that these future virtual worlds will be so immersive that the potential negatives of social media will be eliminated. To that I say improvements to virtual reality are only a matter of degree, not of kind. Even social media itself is quite immersive, requiring the creation of an avatar, persona, or profile, and allowing endless interaction with others around the world via video, voice, chat, and pictures. Adding VR headsets, more game-like features, and additional sensory immersion does not categorically change it to being physically embodied. Philosopher Hubert Dreyfus presciently explored many of these issues in his book On the Internet, and he even experimented with teaching classes on the virtual reality platform called Second Life years ago. Though the technology has improved drastically since then, his point still remains:
I was frustrated by the fact that each of us had to be represented by an avatar. We couldn’t really see each other. I couldn’t see if the group around the table was gripped by the discussion or was bored and restless. I couldn’t look the student who was speaking in the eyes to estimate his or her involvement. Moreover there was no shared mood in the classroom that I could consciously and unconsciously shift and intensify. The whole situation struck me as Cartesian, in the sense that only the minds of those who were ‘present’ were involved.
Which brings us to the next point.
2. It Ignores Human Embodiment
Another problem with the Reality Privilege argument is that it does not reckon with the embodied nature of human beings. What happens to human beings if they don’t use their bodies frequently to engage directly with real people and the world around them? Classic studies of cats and recent studies of rats show that animals that actively engage with their surroundings exhibit better health and cognition than those that do not. This has at least some implications for human living. As pacified lab rats or zoo animals pale in comparison to their wild counterparts, so too humans need a real world, with real stuff to bump into and real people to encounter. When life is increasingly automated and digitized, and human interaction is further mediated by additional technological layers, we cross what L.M. Sacasas calls “a threshold of artificiality beyond which… our capacity to flourish as human beings is diminished.” Or, as Matthew Crawford puts it, what atrophies is our natural “animal genius for learning about the world by acting directly on it.” We are meant to touch and handle, smell and taste, see and hear with our actual bodies.
Again, Andreessen and others might respond that given enough time, virtual reality will be able to simulate all of the sensory experiences of reality, not just visual and auditory. But at what point do the attempts to create and improve these artificial realities fall prey to the law of diminishing returns? And furthermore, if all the technological development and resources being devoted to improving virtual reality were instead directed to actual reality, Andreessen’s whole point that reality had 5,000 years to get good crumbles on itself. But perhaps even more insidiously, trying to simulate full sensory reality in a virtual existence by its very nature diverts resources from the real world to simulate it in the virtual world, which relates to the next point.
3. Digital Reality Becomes a Parasite on the Real
In personal discussions about the metaverse with friend and colleague Rev. Michael McGinley recently, he noted, “at what point is it not just a simulation of the real, but also becomes parasitic of the real? A metaverse is lived virtually, but the components needed to run it are real. How many real-world resources are needed for people to live a virtual, non-existent reality? Along with that, how many people themselves are needed to live in such a fake reality for the fake reality itself to feel real? When does the parasite (the metaverse) need to start feeding off the host (users constantly connected)?” This is a profound question worth considering deeply. Not only does digital living incur massive physical costs (say, cryptocurrency’s giant-sized carbon footprint or the mind-boggling electricity consumption of the server farms that make the internet possible), Metaverse existence also preys on our time, energies, and relationships, sapping the resources needed to sustain meaningful relationships within the bounds of given family and community – not self-chosen online communities and “fams.”
Dreyfus again is helpful: “The relation of presence to telepresence is not a question of the advantages and disadvantages of each, and so of choosing one over the other. Rather, telepresence presupposes presence. Here, the asymmetry is one of dependence. Thus, I argued that telepresence, both of objects and people, is parasitical on a robust sense of the presence of the real correlative with the body’s set to cope with things and people.” He continued, we must “affirm our bodies, not in spite of their finitude and vulnerability, but because, without our bodies…we would literally be nothing.”
4. It Overlooks the Potential Power of Life’s Difficulties
Another latent assumption in Andreessen’s argument is that there are no potential benefits from difficulties, challenges, and suffering. This seems to neglect the fact that humans, as anti-fragile creatures, become stronger and more resilient by embracing difficulty and by taking additional responsibilities. This is not to say we should not work to alleviate suffering in the world, but it is to say that challenges serve a purpose. In a moving account of his experience of terminal cancer before he even reached forty years old, Paul Kalanithi wrote in When Breath Becomes Air of how he and his wife wondered if having children before he died from cancer would make death harder for both of them and their potential children. But they concluded in penetrating fashion: wouldn’t it be great if it did. This orientation towards life displays the proper sobriety necessary to navigate life’s challenges that are bound to come, no matter how much of life we attempt to move online.
It is within the context of difficulty, suffering, and confronting our human limitations that we can grow and more fully experience the love of another, despite – or perhaps even because of – our own weaknesses and failings. McGinley offers, “virtual reality sounds great when it means not having to face your deficits, limitations, and genetic downsides. But not experiencing those ‘negative’ things, actually, in a roundabout way, hurts us. Knowing our limitations gives us the context in which to grow: being loved by a family member, friend, or spouse, even despite your limits and flawed appearance shows what love actually is. Knowing your own deficits forces you to rely on and work with others who have different talents.”
The state of the human being is one of radical interdependence as we, with our less-than-Instagram-worthy bodies, experience life with one another. Dreyfus notes, “we may lament the risks endemic to an embodied world where we are embedded with objects and others in local situations, but the idea of living in boundless virtual worlds, where everyone is telepresent to everyone and everything, levels all significant differences and offers no support for being drawn into local meaningful events.” Despite being told that “the more we can give up our bodies and live in cyberspace, the better off we will be,” Dreyfus argues that “if we managed to life our lives in cyberbia, we would lose a lot more than face-to-face conversations, verbal promises, and memory power….We would lose our only reliable way of finding relevant information, the capacity for skill acquisition, a sense of reality, and the possibility of leading meaningful lives – the last three of which are constitutive of us as human beings.”
5. It Assumes Identity is Self-Constructed
In an insightful Substack piece on the rise of digital identities, Rex Woodbury explains: “Millions of people don’t like how they look, much less how they look magnified on a high-resolution screen. And millions more don’t like their ‘boring’ offline lives. These are the catalysts for digital personas: the opportunity to be someone else – maybe someone who better aligns with your sense of self….everyone will have a vibrant, three-dimensional digital persona to go alongside their offline identity.” But these digital personae change the way we understand ourselves. The digital ecosystem we are in today pushes us towards understanding identity as internally constructed and self-chosen, where identity can be tweaked and tailored, curated and performed in ways previously impossible.
The new book Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age calls these “fine-grained identities” which are “intricate individual mixes of attributes, the result of careful and ongoing discovery.” Even what would have been in prior generations understood as conflicting identities are now combined digitally through “molding and assembling various pieces of identity into a coherent whole that gives expression to the inner self.” Such carefully crafted identities can be “tried on” or remade at will – always becoming; never being. The experience of constructing digital avatars and online personas makes the cultural messaging surrounding self-constructed identity more palatable, plausible, and possible. Yet such identity is ultimately unstable, untethered from real things, transcendent truths, and the givenness of bodily human identity.
Validating the Real
To be sure, these responses to the Reality Privilege argument could be further developed and nuanced, and other lines of argument also could be explored and might be more persuasive than those sketched out here. In summary, though, these lines of inquiry suggest that constructing digital realities and identities in accord with our own will and desire will not make life categorically better. Such a fond belief is a rejection of the givenness of the real. All such attempts at self-construction tend towards a gnostic-like disembodiment, a rejection of the limitations of bodily existence, and a frenetic ongoing search for your true self – all of which work at cross-purposes to human flourishing.