The Secret Life of … You and Me.
We are all alone. We spend much of our lives completely and absolutely alone. We’re lonely all the time. We go to work alone in our cars, work alone, and usually spend the evenings alone watching DVD’s. We communicate with others on Facebook and “Tweet” what we’re doing, desperately hoping others will “notice us”. We meet potential lovers via online dating, invariably rejecting them for faults real and imagined and waiting for a ”better” match to come along, even though most of us are realistic enough to know we’ll never find that “special someone.”
We even do our shopping online. We show off on Facebook, trying to pretend to the next person that despite our culture of supposed individuality, we’re all not exactly alike. We’re bitterly insecure about our achievements. We tell each other “how busy we are” — a boast that one astute writer for the New York times called “a hedge against emptiness”. We try to pretend we’re not depressed at the meaningless of it all. We certainly don’t care about anyone else except ourselves, because at the bottom of it all we’ve worked too hard getting where we are today to share any of the stuff we’ve accumulated, and we all understand a terrible truth: Life is meaningless – you either make it, or you don’t.
This isn’t a dystopian nightmare – this is the world that most people live in today. Life in the modern world is a prison that we’ve created for ourselves with technology.
Sometimes it all gets too much.
That’s where our solution to this horror comes in: it’s called Escape. Some of us develop sophisticated plans to escape from our own lives by moving to Barcelona or Buenos Aires, but most of us have to resort to more direct means – like fiction; books, video games and TV.
What we’re doing is to retreat from real life into a virtual world in which we can find meaning. THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is a popular story about a man who does exactly that on a regular basis. It was written in the 1950’s but its enduring popularity today is explained by the fact that we know that there’s some of him in all of us.
Economist Edward Castronova believes that humanity has begun a global exodus to a vast parallel universe of our creation; rich fictional experiences in television and online multi-player video games that fulfill what is missing in the pointless, empty life experienced by most people in the modern age. Fantasy universes like WORLD OF WARCRAFT, which can be more fulfilling than our drab, meaningless existences are becoming more and more sophisticated by the year; its only a matter of time before they’re indistinguishable from reality itself.
In a show I used to watch growing up, STAR TREK THE NEXT GENERATION travelers in isolated deep space used to fulfill their needs in the same way with an alternate reality called The Holodeck.
The desire to escape reality in fiction is common to all humanity. This week; the Chinese government has passed laws attempting to regulate the content of their indigenous entertainment, and today, Australian spending on TV drama just rose 27%. Rwandans will soon be able to watch the telenovelas BODY OF DESIRE and THE STORM. The retreat into fictional worlds is universal and increasing, apparently confirming Castovona’s hypothesis.
If Castonova is right – and there really IS an exodus going on, then it’s a grim prognosis for humanity.
However, this is a relentlessly conservative point of view – because your life is only lonely and miserable if you choose to make it that way. What this view fails to accept is a simple truth; if your life is unbearable – then you need to make some changes, and this is actually what the best fiction teaches us; because its also a sophisticated guide to REAL life, written in fantasy from across the ages of human experience. There’s a famous anecdote of how Ronald Reagan decided to seek nuclear disarmament alongside Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the Cold War after watching ABC’s The Day After one evening.
Both of these two leaders were heavy readers of fiction. Its also a little known scientific fact that people who are exposed to large amounts of fiction growing up are less likely to be depressed in later life.
In STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION, the heroes always had to come out of the Holodeck to solve the problems of the day. They knew it was a fantasy. Everyone really knows that the answer to their own unhappiness is to look in the mirror, and ask some tough questions — not to lose themselves in fantasy. Luckily for all of us, Michael Jackson is around to remind us to do it once in a while.