It is still quite common for us to think about ‘real life’ and ‘virtual reality’ as two completely separate and immutable spheres, and for the sake of our sanity this is probably a very good thing. It is quite right to insist upon the separation of a realm which is entirely disembodied and displaced, which allows indulgence in ephemeral creations which exist nowhere outside of pixellated cartoon displays, from the vaster, truer and infinitely more meaningful realm of flesh, blood, time, space, trees, grass, fish, birds, planets and galaxies which encapsulates all that truly exists and is redeemable. Fantasia should never be confused with Creation. My good colleague Susannah Black once made the point that wherever such confusion arises, one is tempted to teach oneself in Gnosticism by repeatedly arguing that the virtual ‘world’, the ‘world’ of fantasia, is more real than ‘the world of dirt and bread and gravity and hot and cold and subway trains and swaddling clothes and grave-clothes and empty tombs’.
It is a grave temptation. And it is made all the graver by the fact that the fantasias of, say, World of Warcraft and EVE along with numerous others insists on blurring the distinction and being taken as ‘real’ in very dangerous ways. Phone sex becomes something quaint and even passé in a world where two avatars can ‘marry’ online – and quite quaint and even innocent when virtual relationships bleed over into reality, all too often to heartbreaking and tragic effect.
But even more serious is that, even though the digital fantasia is unreal, it has an exceptionally good real memory. All is archived. Nothing is forgotten, nothing missed, nothing overlooked. All failings, all blemishes, all foibles, all sins are a matter of record… somewhere out in cyberspace. What sees is as faceless and nondescript as the Guy Fawkes mask the netizen-vigilante group Anonymous has made its symbol. But what is worse: this panopticon (of which Anonymous is only, ironically, the most visible and iconic expression) is one of the least forgiving, most ruthless and unforgiving idols humanity has yet given sacrifice to. Even in the pursuit of just causes, what the Chinese call the human flesh search engine can be remarkably bloodthirsty – and that only in the hands of civilians. When government security agencies can get a hold of every bit of information that crosses or has ever crossed between your keyboard (or your smartphone touchscreen) and your internet service, then things can get truly scary. We have caught only a glimpse of that capability in the way the press, in collaboration with the government, lambasted Edward Snowden’s character based on his record of online behaviour. In the real world, we have the confessional, and sins are there made known to God and forgiven. In the digital panopticon, the confessional has been blown up, so to speak, with us still inside it – the panopticon has a hard time forgetting, and, unlike the all-holy Trinity, the panopticon never forgives.
Even if the Matrix isn’t ‘real’, what happens inside clearly has an effect on what happens outside. (For example, habits of speech and thought can be formed online just as they can in face-to-face interactions, though developing such habits healthily is made all the more difficult by the illusion of anonymity.) But more to the point: as the distinction continues to blur between the Matrix and reality, we have placed ourselves in the eternal debt of those who can access and track our every online move.
I say this not as a digital Luddite, by the way. I have an active (some might say too-active!) Facebook account, a smartphone, and do enjoy playing computer games. As someone who does all of the above, indeed, I have to emphasise that retaining the distinction between reality and ‘virtuality’ is very, very important. But we cannot be naïve as to the consequences of that distinction blurring itself in several highly dangerous ways.
Now then. Shares in Bitcoins, anyone?