Pull Back the Wizard's Curtain: Embracing Real Life Amid the Age of Artificiality
Approximate Read Time: 12 minutes
I walk into the high-school library. There are five-students on five lounge chairs, arranged in a circle to promote discussion. There is none. All lounge, bodies contorted, earphones in, eyes fixed on their screens as their thumbs swipe steadily. I leave and walk by a colleague’s class. It is study hall, but there is no studying. Just 25 plugged in silent scrollers. Disturbing as this is, it is no surprise. Having worked in schools for over seven years, I’m more than familiar with this new default state. Often we ascribe this lost, lobotomized smartphone immersed behavior to today’s youth, alone, but look around. The infection is everywhere.
The next day I take the morning off to watch my kids. We are going to Pump It Up—the wonderland of inflatable obstacle courses where Ace (and I) can run free, climb, jump, and fall in hilariously violent ways without a scrape or bruise to show for it. This place is pure magic and on Friday at 10 a.m. we are the only ones there. My daughter is with us too, but at five-months she is just happy for the new scenery.
Ace and I run around in a couple of the obstacles for a bit, when I look up to see another child has arrived. I get out to be nearer my sleeping daughter and my role shifts to observer. The newcomer is here with what I assume is her grandmother. Grandma immediately finds a bench and spends the next 45-minutes in a silent trance, scrolling through her phone. The inflatables are a $5 babysitter allowing her time for uninterrupted voyeurism.
That weekend I walk to the park with my son. There are a few other kids on the playground and, as you might expect, a handful of parents scattered across park benches, curled in upon themselves, scrolling. I can’t help but think of the zombie “walkers” of The Walking Dead. Labored breathing, drool slowly trying to escape that slightly open mouth, and a mind held captive to impulse.
Technological design hacks the brain’s neuroscience to create addictive patterns which pull on the masses like moths to a flame. If Generation Z (better known as iGen) displays the worst addiction, it is only because this screen-saturated world is all they’ve ever known and social media is an especially potent master when you are at the age range where you are supposed to redefine yourself based on peer culture. This is and has always been the essential developmental quirk of the teen years. They stop looking to Mom and Dad and start looking out into the world for influence so they can define who they want to be. We just now have a world that allows this experience to be especially toxic.
Can you imagine being 14, today? You are a freshman in high-school and all you really want is to be liked. Mom and dad talk about grades, character, sports and all that, but your whole world revolves around being significant to a bunch of other 14, 15, and 16 year-olds. You don’t care if they eat trash food, talk like idiots, obsess on gossip, worship material possessions, or display an unhealthy degree of narcissism. You want them to like you and to do that you need to be like them—to do what they do.
You have to have four social media accounts. You have to check them constantly so that you aren’t missing out. You have to constantly engage with the newest gifs, bitmojis, and funny apps. You have to be competing with friends all class on the latest, greatest phone game. Most importantly, you have to be curating awesome profiles that show everyone how witty, pretty, funny, careless, defiant, woke, or (enter your significance-driven identity here) you are.
Every real-world activity is enmeshed with the pressure for self-promotion. Nothings counts without documentation. Any mildly significant or interesting event prompts a gunslinger quick phone video and an anxiously crafted post. Life is never just experienced for its own sake. Our real world becomes a conveyor of pageantry created by and for their social-media driven lives. Conversation revolves around the activity within this online world. Man, can you believe Ashley would say that to Grayson on Twitter or, Did you see Jason’s Promposal on Snapchat.
But, the modern teen could never keep up with the endless posts and comments. There is always more to scan. Teens are always beckoned by the prod of snap-chat streaks or a few group messages calling attention to more profiles and posts they have missed. Time away from the phone is accompanied by a very real Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). Ironically, those times of freedom from their phones that allow re-immersion into real experience prompt them to fear all they are missing in their voyeuristic virtual realities. We should all be filled with the dread of FOMO, but not out of a fear of missing tweets, rather, a fear of missing life.
The Mass Reality Distortion Machine
Today, the smartphone induced false reality infecting our youth is affecting the rest of us in its own way. Unlike media of the past, algorithms and data analysis are constantly changing the messages to hand us exactly what will keep our eyes on the screen. We are fed confirmation bias, assured of our beliefs, while whipped into a frenzy about the extremists on the other side, who appear to be a sizable, threatening majority.
We’re all commenting and obsessing about that unrepresentative crazy person whose given an inordinately loud voice by social media, the entertainment oriented news media, and, consequently, us. Every public act is subject to lawsuits or a PC rant, and we are paranoid to let children explore the neighborhoods that, patrolled by helicopter parents, are safer than ever. We forget that the news is news because its insanely rare. It has to be even more so now to break through amid all the noise. You aren’t getting shot while out on a jog. There are over 400 billion Americans. That doesn’t happen, which is why it is news.
The random crazies have always existed. But now the delusionally self-important and the deranged few dictate public policy, public debate, public consciousness, and the bureaucratical norms of every institution. Yet this isn’t reality. Over 80% of Americans believe that “political correctness is a problem in America,” and those hardline conservatives PC America feels compelled to counter represent a shrinking 25% of the population. It turns out most of us share values and are capable of discourse. We just allow the fringe extreme to dictate the rules and dominate our mental energy.
Most of us are forgetting, nearly everything on our social media feed and nearly every headline is complete bullshit. It is conjecture and oversimplified spin. Great content is out there being created all the time, but this isn’t where mass attention is pulled.
If we’d only unplug and talk with each other, open to our own misconceptions, we’d find the truth. This entire world is not real. We have a fabricated sense of reality based on the prevailing narratives of a virtual world that loves sensationalism, outrage, superficiality, and all that keep you compulsively scrolling. But it isn’t reality. It hardly resembles reality and, unfortunately, the more time we spend in it, the more we don’t resemble ourselves.
“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.” –John Stuart Mill
Our biology never could have expected this world. Immense inertia keeps us seated, scrolling, and pulled towards incomprehensible convenience, comfort, and security. Yet these patterns are leaving us more depressed, anxious, drug-addicted, and suicidal than ever before. Like the declawed Tiger at the zoo, our existence is comfortable and assured, while an inferior shell of its natural orientation.
Uncomfortable as this is to confront, the most recent technology has not scaffolded us to greater capabilities, it has prompted a devolution towards a lesser form of human. Not that we have less genetic potential, but more of our faculties are going unused and unrefined. We are becoming less as a species. Less able to focus, to dialogue, to move confidently, to deal with life’s inevitable adversity, to perceive life accurately, or to think and engage ideas of any depth.
There are plenty of wonderful uses to this phenomenal technology that, if approached with boundaries that respected its negative potential, could work in concert with our development to greatly enhance our lives. Viewed as a controlled substance, new technologies support our quest to live fuller and grow more capable. Yet, like any drug, unbounded use promises only dependency, distortion, and self-fracturing.
A World of Smoke and Mirrors
Our façade is not only reserved to new technologies, however. From our earliest years we are enmeshed in an endless conveyor of banquets, trophies, and festivity surrounding our every movement. We enter schools where educators inflate grades and wither under the pressure to ensure everyone passes. Students don’t know more than past generations, but by some magic trick, they increasingly graduate with a year or more of college credit.
In the modern economy many occupations have grown by manipulating systems rather than adding value. People work on wall street and make money moving money. Investment “experts” are paid to help us save for the future even while routinely being outperformed by monkeys randomly throwing darts at the stock page. Lawyers have created a system so complicated as to require their fees for every basic public action. And the bureaucratic maze we all complain about needlessly employs so many people to create hurdles to actual work that the entire economy would certainly crumble if these positions were removed.
Macroeconomic policy is built on the impossible concept of infinite growth and even money, itself, is just a shared illusion. When we have 10,000 dollars in the bank, that money does not physically exist. It is just a digit in a computer database. It only has value because the masses decide that it does. When we lose confidence in the markets, it will be worth far less. While money is a necessary myth for maintaining our high standard of living, it is still a reality worth confronting, lest we lose our lives to bullshit.
And Then You Die
Here is the point. You. Yes, you, dear reader, are going to die. We all know this and yet can’t really comprehend it. Thus, we smile nervously and laugh it off. If death has never scared you, then you haven’t allowed yourself to accept the magnitude of this reality. It is terrifying. We are all falling off a cliff. Some will hit the ground sooner than others, but we all share the same fate. Just like the world made do without you for eons, it will soon do so again. This is important. It is reality.
You will not live forever, thus, the way you use your time matters. Time wasted is life wasted. We never get it back. Time past is, in fact, a form of death. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca explained, “Whatever time has passed is already owned by death.” Understanding your impermanence is possibly the most important thing you can do to bring life context and prompt living that honors your brief existence. We are so afraid to break norms, take risks, or explore how we really feel, but it is far riskier not to. This life requires we confront reality and pursue truth so that we don’t waste our time in the draw to mindless entertainment and self-limiting norms.
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” –Steve Jobs
The answer to mass artificiality is firm, uncompromising tech boundaries and a resolve to chase truth and reality. Run towards honesty and action, which brings the truth of raw experience, while fleeing excessive ceremony and all attempts to shape perception. The things we do should be worthwhile based on their own merit.
My next few articles will be devoted to self-discovery and living a more reality-driven life. To reconnect with reality, we need to do a few things, the first two being borrowed from the British philosopher, Alan Watts:
Go deep into the reality of death and your own impermanence. Face your fear, however uncomfortable. A greater life stands on the other side. Priorities become far more clear and are accompanied by an immediacy for how you are choosing to live each day. There is a lot of talk out there from people who say they’ve done this and no longer fear death. If so, I’m happy for them, but I’m not sure that’s totally possible for most. I’m fairly certain I’ll still have fear while sitting on death’s doorstep. Having said that, I have grown to appreciate the beauty and necessity of death. I’m grateful for the time I have and for the depth and perspective that death offers to my life.
Explore your shadow-side. I’ll explore this in far more detail next article. As much as we want to consider all our motives pure and to pretend we are frequently altruistic, there is no denying the dark side in us all. Denying or suppressing this nature tends to amplify its destructive power. Making friends with the shadow allows us greater flow, creativity, personality, and potential for positively channeling this feature of our personality.
Probably the most powerful method to embrace reality is to stop thinking and engulf yourself in action. We need to explore activities that pull us to the moment. Chase raw, transcendent experiences. Seek exposure, not insulation and sterilization. For greater connection to humanity we can explore the universals of human experience in order to build personal rites of passage and induce flow states. I’ll clarify and give more direction in a third article.
The idea is to embrace a path towards living the fullest life possible—to avoid the traps that waste our time so we can get the most possible life out of our life—to live in a manner we can be happy with upon our deathbed. In Aphorism 341, of philosopher Friedrich Nietzche’s, “The Gay Science,” he presents this thought experiment where he posits a powerful concept known as eternal recurrence:
"What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself….Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
Many would be devastated by such a fate, but we should wonder how we’d have to live or approach the world to make this wonderful news. Most likely the answer to that question illuminates how we should live. Nietzsche’s answer was based on the latin proverb, amor fati—meaning love of one’s fate. The idea is to love what happens just as it happens. It is the lesson we need to become the person we need to be. Only the delusional could be mad at hardships. They are inevitable, particularly in a life fully lived. These adversities prompt us towards greater capabilities and a richer capacity for experience. Thus, every moment, when approached well, is exactly what we need. Life is wonderful.
Question of the Week
The task is simple. Imagine yourself on your deathbed looking back on your life. What pursuits will have mattered? What people will have mattered? What will you wish you’d done more of? What risks would you wish you’d taken? What will you be truly grateful for? You have one shot. Life is too short to be normal.