Movies like The Matrix are based on the idea that the world we perceive as real is in fact a simulation, a fake. Increasingly it seems we’re all sort of buying into that idea and have lost sight of the fact that our actions have consequences which are real.
People who are otherwise normal and perfectly pleasant individuals face-to-face are prepared to spill bile and vitriol behind the relative anonymity of social media. And are surprised when their victims are actually hurt by what is said.
People walk up to strangers in the street and punch them. Because in the movies people get hit and kicked and shot and then just get up and walk away smiling.
People watch real violence, death and degradation on the news with the same, or less, empathy they feel when watching a movie. That’s how we find ourselves able to ignore the fact that our government is putting refugee children into concentration camps.
People reject the evidence of their own eyes and ears and vote a sexist liar into the most powerful office in the World. Or they vote for their country to leave one of the great stabilising forces of modern times for reasons that don’t stand up to more than cursory examination. And in both those cases many people seem to wake up the next day and think that it can be made to un-happen just by wishing.
And those votes were in many cases based on fake news poured out through social media. Fake news that made no sense and could have been debunked with a quick search, but which was lapped up because it’s entertaining.
The common current through all this is that we’re losing touch with reality. We’re losing touch with the idea that our actions have real-world consequences. We live in a selfie- coloured World with an iTunes sound-track where we’re starring in our own reality TV show.
But we’re not. That’s not real. When we threaten a woman for having the temerity to play a computer game. When we buy into the idea that Hillary Clinton is a child-abusing Satanist (yes, that was real fake news). When we mischievously cast a vote just to shake things up. When we cheat the self-checkout in the supermarket because that’s not really stealing. All these things have consequences and the consequences are real – because we don’t live in a computer simulation.
Those consequences can be immediate when someone dies after being hit, or suicides after being threatened. They can be less immediate when we start to put fantasists who think climate change is a Jewish-banker conspiracy into the Senate and are forced to give their ramblings serious attention. Or when our lack of empathy causes us to shrug our shoulders when watching millions displaced by civil war in Syria. The list is endless.
Unless we start treating our actions as real, and taking responsibility for the consequences of those actions, our world is not going to survive. I know; that seems like hyperbole. But in previous times of crisis we’ve got through them by working hard and level-headedly doing the things that needed to be done. Not by burying our heads in the sand and pretending it’s not happening. Climate change is real – we are actively destroying the viability of living on this planet and we’re pretending it isn’t happening. Our economies and cultures are undergoing mammoth changes brought about by technology but we think that things can be rolled back to some pretend 1950s utopia just by wishing it so. Our world is facing serious challenges which we are just not meeting.
It might be nice to think that we could just try out something like electing Donald Trump and then roll back to the last saved game if we don’t like it. But things simply don’t work like that. We have one world, one life and the things we do and believe have real consequences. We really need to get real.