The Battle of Analog v. Virtual Reality

Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

I’m sitting in my backyard now, eating yellow rice with peanuts, and just heard a loud rustling just over my head. As I looked up, I found a fat, angry (to me) squirrel staring back at me. I tried to shoo it away, while gripping my bowl of rice closer to me, and then realized with innocent clarity that the squirrel was coming to steal my nuts!

That story sounds absolutely inane when written out, and what’s above is probably the best version of the few I penned in attempts to convey the bizarre atmosphere of the exchange. I had a similar problem a week back, when I saw a giant German Shepherd licking the face of a six-month-old baby as the baby laughed and clapped its hands (couldn’t identify gender, as was being slowly eaten by dog). How do you explain what really happened, not just the plot but the intrinsic details that truly provide the humor of a situation?

I was talking to a friend from work, who was giving me a few tips on Burning Man. When I joked that he should join our office-wide messaging system’s Burning Man channel so we could discuss it further (encouraging onboarding to the platform has been a humorously pathetic exercise), he responded that we could just talk about it in person the next time we see each other; you know, the analog way. I responded that we live in a virtual reality Truman Show, where we’re operating our bodies from a remote location, which we currently only understand as the physical organ, the brain. I was completely facetious, but he nodded deeply and told me there was more truth to the statement than I meant.

Bergen, Norway

Bergen, Norway

All of these instances have gotten me thinking – is this why I haven’t been posting more? Has the increase in quality of my default life fostered a decrease in investment in my virtual life? Is there an antagonist relationship between the two? Is it possible to engage in reality while simultaneously submerged in virtual reality; and moreover, doesn’t the use of the word “reality” in “virtual reality” truly indicate a shift in human evolution?

I write about travel because it’s an opportunity to pique people’s interests in a world outside their own, to encourage them to fill the world with life-changing stories and cross-cultural dialogue and amusing anecdotes. And yet, it’s impossible to really explain why I love the smell of India, or how concerned I am for environmental and cultural degradation in tourist-dominated regions, or how randomly I can feel everything about everything all at once when presented with the smallest sign of human dignity. It might sound dramatic, and as a writer, I can’t deny that I have a flair for embellishment – but to be quite honest with my limitations, I’m not that great of a writer to make someone feel something they have never felt.

The only way to do that is to experience it. Seriously, there’s no other way. I read a lot as a child (hence the glasses) but only really understood what love was when I experienced it myself. Thousands of pages dedicated to love, and I had no idea. Same story about death, or about loss, or about existential confusion. I can’t stress this enough – the only way to be in the world is to be in the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean to travel, but more to be cognizant of your surroundings, to think deeply about your impact, to encourage positive interaction and relationships. All of that, along with the failures and embarrassments and disasters, will let you feel more of the world than simply passing through it at warp-speed, head sucked into a smart phone.

Bergen, Norway

Bergen, Norway

I’m not saying that I’m not victim to this too – I am. But one of the things I love about traveling, or festivals, or serendipitous gatherings of friends, is that you’re satisfied enough with the quality of your reality and the satisfaction of your senses that you put your phone down, you turn off your laptop, you focus on the things happening all around you and are more willing to see the positivity, the love, the humor, the bizarreness. But you have to be able to be open to it, to train yourself to strip away the biases and fear and instantaneous knee-jerk reactions, then you can soak everything up with a clear mind.

If you’re thinking about traveling (and you should!), I urge you to run through this exercise first. You can start whenever, but begin at least a week before you leave.

  • Spend a whole week without Facebook.
  • Leave your phone at home at least three days in a row.
  • Stash your laptop at work for two nights in a row.
  • Don’t use headphones for a week.
  • Block TV or streaming for a week.
  • Have at least three 10+ minute conversations with people per day.
  • Have one-on-one dinners with at least three friends you wish you saw more often – and keep your phone somewhere out of reach.
  • Go to sleep early, and wake up without an alarm.
  • Sit outside for at least twenty minutes a day.
Vang Vieng, Laos

Vang Vieng, Laos

Of course this isn’t an exhaustive list, nor will it make a night-and-day difference. But it might help you appreciate your surroundings more, feel a little less stressed, seek out the positive and calmly deal with the negative. Traveling can be an amazing, transformative experience, but only if you’re living as close to 100% in the analog world. So take a deep breath and step back from Instagramming yourself back into the virtual reality matrix (that my coworker suggests might be closer to the new “reality” than I hope is true).

The analog world might be hard to describe, so let me just summarize: it’s pretty awesome.

Plitvice National Park, Croatia

Plitvice National Park, Croatia

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