Between & Beyond: Virtual Reality

The sun is shining its light on my computer screen right now as I type this. That means it has drifted far enough south to clear the lip of my awning and shine down into my room as it begins its evening decent into the west. That means that this massive planet is still spinning at speeds we can barely comprehend and that its yearly tilt is leaning us here in America away from this central star of our lives and into another winter. This makes me think of virtual reality. We know the term as a sci-fi dream of the ’90s: big helmets, polygon environments, a future where we can live our fantasies or train for dire situations from the comforts of some darkened room. Yet, virtual reality is around us everywhere all the time.

Certainly, my reflexes turn us immediately toward language as the ultimate interface of our virtual reality. We experience the world around us mostly through the mediation of language. The terms “sunrise” and “sunset” are great examples as they are leftovers from a pre-Copernican time in human history, and they still pull on our perception of what goes on above our heads. Sit in your yard or on a hill in the evening and realize that the horizon is actually rising to meet the sun. The whole Earth is falling backwards into the night. “Night” is what we call this phenomenon too, the opposite of “day,” but these are Earth-bound terms, nearly meaningless in the cosmic order. That wobble and spin of the physical planet, that which delivers us the exalted seasons and the very days we measure our lives by, are perceived here, terrestrially, as the slow unfolding of years, but cosmically, we whirl and reel at incomprehensible speeds.

So, even from the start of our Earth-bound perspective, we see that there are discrepancies in what we call reality. Can we find a unified order? Certainly, our culture does not seek this. Culture is the prime operating system of our virtual reality. It is the amalgamation of all our assumptions and perceptions anchored in a common language and let loose upon the world around us. Terence McKenna once pointed out that virtual reality is as old as Çatalhöyük and Ur, two Neolithic achievements of early civilization. The materials used were different than the computer chips and screens that we think of as virtual reality, but all temples and sites of worship have been oriented toward creating an alternate space, a virtual reality. The very concept of “home” vs. “the outdoors” is one rooted in the virtual reality of our houses. It has struck me, in my most untethered modes of thinking, that one does not find the hard sharp angles of architecture, the pitch of roofs or the sheer rise of a skyscraper, in nature. The nearest place one can find those angles is in the very letters of our language.

How literal can we get when we say the world is made of language? Certainly there is the conceptual world and by it we live and die. Concepts like justice and freedom play a huge part in what we believe is real and true. I often return to the point of our identities in this column. They are just as conceptual as anything else. The real power of language is to take that which is transient and fleeting and freeze it in time, make it more permanent. It is a system of record keeping. Our identities in some sense amount to not much more than consistent reaffirmations of likes and dislikes, a continuous adornment in terms that serve as analogs for our boundless inner world. My angle is not to diminish who we are, but to shine light on how we are.

All of these considerations come into focus if we take a deep look in any given place or situation. In order to make ends meet, I took a job at a wine store this summer. It is a perfect example of virtual reality as most retail settings are. First, commodities in and of themselves are downright magical. We interface with a bottle of wine and its label while its contents remain a far removed mystery: the grapes, which is to say the sun and the shade of days that we walked through elsewhere unaware, the water that fell from the sky, the passion of bees, the soil made of infinite fragments of the past, the cut hands of farmers and the tired that sits inside them. In the store, we interact with the picture on the label and the words and the price. All the while, the carefully climate controlled air rains down music. In this particular store, it was old time Sinatra and the like. The regular clientele were definitely of the senior strata, and the nostalgia of a bygone era lay heavy on everything like a lot of the ladies’ noxious perfume. It seemed to work its way into different facets: girls on the register, boys in the stockroom, customers tipping the boys for their carryout services. It was good old fashioned retail capitalism. The kind that uses virtual concepts like unskilled labor. As in, in spite of the fundamental function of the store being profoundly dependent on said stock boys, we were paid not much more than minimum wage.

The takeaway is this: It’s all virtual. All of it. All of our lives. Do I mean to incite some kind of existential epiphany of despair? No. I mean to incite some existential epiphany of empowerment. We are all little Neos in this Matrix. We all have the power to bend the rules and peek behind the curtains. If it’s all virtual, it means it can all be changed.

When I am my most depressed, I am thinking that this, my only life, is subject to parameters I abhor in a universe of infinite possibilities. It’s very hard to make sense out of the lives laid out before us, but even if our Earth-bound existence is at its core a perspective that is skewed, we must genuflect before what came before our conceptual existence. The tides, the migration of geese, the songs of frogs, the unfolding of plants beneath the months of long light, the subterranean transformation of cicadas, these are realities based on an older code, based on survival, perpetuation, balance and the rhythm of the dance between the sun and the earth. These are realities being trampled by our unchecked conceptual existence. Step back. Genuflect. Recode.