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The Great Escape to a Terrible Oblivion

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The Great Escape to a Terrible Oblivion
04/09/03 at 00:36:34
[i]something i found on the net...very interesting[/i]

The Great Escape to a Terrible Oblivion

The Terrible Oblivion

When human beings lose consciousness of the Divine Reality which is at once transcendent vis-a-vis the created world and yet immanently present ‘wherever ye turn’, then we will begin to view and experience the world, with its ever-changing contents and events, as reality as such. Once we forget about that Reality, which is essentially immutable, once we let go of that rudder by which we can navigate ourselves through this relentless flow of often confusing or conflicting realities, then we set ourselves, in fact, in harm’s way. While we have a tendency, and with the oppressive support of the ‘for sale’ mentality, to endlessly pretend that ‘this world is the real thing’ — whether it be of a corporeal, physical, psychological, or virtual nature — we never can really free ourselves totally from feelings, running from unease to bottomless despair. In a deep ecological sense we know that this cover-up, while not being ‘the perfect crime’, is most definitely the worst crime against the true nature of things. It would be the perfect crime if it were not for these irresistible, God given, human traits such as ‘knowing’, ‘willing’, and ‘feeling’. The most fortunate people are those who, prompted by their intelligence and sentiment, will themselves to struggle up and pierce the illusory veil, while simultaneously they are being lifted from above. The truly unfortunate ones are they who try to escape in all directions but up, whether it be into a world of drug or digital isolation, or the anesthesia of any trendy simulated hyper-reality. Their ‘great escape’ does not lead unto a hell which still has the possibility of ‘cleansing by fire’, but into the terrifying abyss of oblivion.

The Great Escape

By Richard DeGrandpre.

From Adbusters, Mar/Apr 2001 Issue - No 34.

New digital portals are leading us into an ever more virtual reality. Some of us think we’re in full control of our relationship with this reality. Some think we can stand outside it, untouched. Both sides are wrong.

There’s a spooky, apocalyptic way to talk about virtual culture, and let’s get it out in the open right now: We’re all just brains in a vat.

The reality, of course, isn’t so simple. Your mind doesn’t inhabit one world, either "real" or "virtual." Instead, it travels back and forth between these worlds, dragging traces of one into the other, traversing the traces left behind by billions of others. The threat you face isn’t a virtual matrix pulled over your eyes or plugged into the back of your head; the threat is a slow contamination from long-term exposure.

In a recent story in the American Journalism Review, Chip Brown described how even a few weeks of immersion in an electronic environment can cause that environment to utterly colonize your subconscious. He had been doing intensive research on the Internet, and "woke one night from a peculiar dream, disturbed not by the content but the way the scenes had changed; they had not unfolded in a horizontal flow, the movie-like montage of a typical dream presentation, but had scrolled past, rolling up vertically from bottom to top-And my focus had shifted, too, as if the inner observer were no longer located behind my eyes, but had been projected 24 inches forward, out of my body, a displacement roughly equal to the distance between my desk chair and the computer monitor. The conclusion was inescapable. I had become a mouse. Not even a mouse. A mouse indicator. A cursor."

Our relationship with the burgeoning virtual world is layered and nuanced. We are still human beings, each of us responding to an era of unprecedented change in our unique way. But nothing has quite prepared us for what comes next. Life in the digital world shapes the mind in its own image, such that the moods, rhythms, and pictures of the digital environment are rapidly becoming the dominant moods, rhythms, and pictures of the mental environment. This is the rub of the post-analog age: how we think and feel will go digital long before our brains and bodies do.

French social theorist Jean Baudrillard has called the theft of reality— the tendency of reality to disappear right before our eyes — "the perfect crime." If pulled off successfully, this crime would leave no evidence of itself behind. The reason why is entirely human: the modern, technologized mind does not just accept virtual reality, it comes to prefer it. Our minds are wired to embrace simulated worlds and so, as we build virtual realms ever more real than reality itself, holding on to material reality becomes a near-impossible task.

What elements of your thoughts, feelings, and desires are real? What elements are virtual? Can you draw lines around the Digital You? If the advancing digital revolution were brought to a halt today, we’d all be caught in an existential limbo, torn between the artificial dreams of simulated reality and the unplugged world in which we try to fulfill them. And if an all encompassing virtual world were to come into existence tomorrow, it’s unlikely we would ever remember the first moment we stepped into it.


Imagine you are given a pair of eyeglasses and asked to wear them continuously for several days. Slipping them on, you discover that the lenses distort what you see; all vertical lines, such as the edges of walls or buildings, look somewhat curved. Your world, naturally, seems bent out of shape — a distortion of reality. But what happens next? As the perception psychologist James Gibson discovered in ‘933 at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the mind adapts over lime. Eventually, the curved lines come to be seen as straight ones. Just as surprising was Gibson’s other finding, that when the glasses are removed, the mind compensates. The curved lines show up again, but arcing in the other direction.

At first glance, this study appears to suggest that the mind filters out distortions and finds its way back to the bedrock of reality: straight lines. What the experiment actually shows is the mind’s willingness to ignore immediate reality in favor of another, more important one. Given that our awareness of the world appears to derive from sensory cues, it might seem surprising that, with Gibson’s glasses on, your mind actually comes to override the experience of seeing what’s on the backs of your eyeballs: curved lines. And this is just the point. Your perception of reality, at any given moment, flows from much more than just direct sensory input; it derives from cumulative experience with the goal of adapting to whatever reality presently counts, whether earthly or synthetic, real or virtual, moral or amoral.

Recently I was watching the 1986 Michael Mann film Manhunter. In one unremarkable scene, a man who works as a criminal profiler for the FBI is talking on the phone in an empty room of a victim’s home. The sound quality seemed poor -- his voice sounded coarse and hollow -- and certainly not the quality found in big-budget films today. What I noticed next, though, was that the voice talking on the phone was in fact very close to what it should sound like in a barren room of a house. My own sense of what "real" should sound like had been conditioned, I realized, by the unreality of more recent films, where everything is — and must be — more real than reality itself.

The implication looms large in the digital age: good old-fashioned life doesn’t stand a chance against the hyper-realities perfected by technology. When the process of digital perfection spills over into everyday experience, we begin to see how it contaminates all earthly realms, creating sensory and emotional expectations that cannot easily be met, if at all, in what remains of the social and ecological world. Thus arises the question of where exactly do the great arbiters of the virtual the world’s media and culture corporations — plan to take reality.

We have our clues, among them the image industry’s "beauty myth." The digital world has invaded fashion and celebrity, too, of course. Not only can the slightest "imperfections" of the flesh be cleaned up, a whole object of desire can be constructed out of bits and pieces of wholesale humanity. The result is a synthetic supermodel that’s digitally perfected, declared the standard template, and then displayed through the gauntlet of the supermarket checkout.

In the abstract, the claim that virtual worlds reanimate the mind in their own image might seem hyperbolic and playful. In the case of the beauty myth, you see just how "real" it becomes. Young women have millions of exemplars from which to judge the sizes and shapes of the female body, yet this vast pool of reality is somehow overridden by a narrow band of hyper-reality. It’s a perfect match with the finding of Gibson’s classic study. Many young women, presented with their own image, fail to "see" what appears on their retinas. Instead, as researchers have now documented, they often perceive a distorted, "fatter" version of themselves. Again, their sense of reality derives from cumulative experience with the goal of adapting to whatever reality appears to be most pressing, or "valuable." Unfortunately, for many women, this "valued" reality happens to make them sick.

We’ve come to think of the real and virtual as separate worlds, or at best overlapping ones. In fact, they are deeply intermingled through feedback loops such as the one played out by the beauty myth. These loops create a dialectic of diminishing returns— a dialectic that’s gradually transforming us into virtual beings, propelling us with growing speed into the Great Escape.


There’s no reason why you should believe that what looks, feels, or sounds like the real thing is anything more than a synthetic construct that, through its ubiquity and privileged status in our flickering society, has forced its way on to the stage of reality. Despite centuries of philosophical effort to prove otherwise, the mind seems more intent on making sense of the world, whatever world that might be, than it does in holding on to some primordial reality that’s no longer visible. Unfolding in three steps, this process of re-animation begins as soon as your mind becomes conditioned by virtual worlds more urgently alluring or satisfying than your own.


The mind isn’t some kind of computer that remains unchanged as cultural software runs through its cerebral circuits. Conscious reality changes as the software of everyday life changes, and remains changed thereafter. Whether it’s watching the tube, surfing the web, or viewing the latest special-effects flick, chronic exposure to simulated ideas, moods, and images conditions your sensibilities, albeit to different degrees, for how the real world should look, how fast it should go, and how you should feel when living in it. When a thousand points of light shine upon you in a commercial war for your thoughts, feelings, and wants, your mind adapts, accepts, and then, to feel stimulated, needs more. Kids twenty-five years ago forfeited their quarters to a video game called Pong. Pong is to Sony Play-Station a what a firecracker is to the atomic bomb. Virtual reality wires us for a virtual world.


As you adapt to the latest digital experiences, straying farther and farther from your home world of the here and now, that home world becomes less satisfying each time you return to it. Simply, the virtual becomes the only reality that counts. While technology has always transformed consciousness by transforming experience, the digital age promises to go further in rewiring your mind, erasing every evidence of a boundary between reality and virtuality. This is not unlike the phenomenon of the "phantom limb," where a person loses an arm or leg but continues to feel its presence. As natural extensions of ourselves, our sense of an arm or leg is represented not in the limb itself but in the neural circuits of the brain. Adaptation to hyper-reality works in essentially the same way. The technologies that mediate and simulate everyday experience acquire a level of neural organization that makes them a natural extension of yourself. They alter your basic sense of reality, eventually causing you to feel incomplete without their continued presence. You become haunted not by a phantom limb but by a phantom reality. Once we’re wired for a virtual world, the present world goes dim.


Finally, as the world fades behind a digital curtain, the mind follows. The unmediated world no longer satisfies our digitized needs and wants, thus making virtual worlds even more desired destinations. It may be hard to believe people want to live a totally virtual existence today, but as more people fall out of touch with the old-fashioned world, virtual worlds will begin to appear — and be sold to us — as virtual heavens. Wired for virtual reality, everyday reality becomes less satisfying, propelling us with greater momentum toward life in virtual worlds.

It’s the Great Escape.


This is no academic theory. You can see people taking the Great Escape into hyper-reality within practically every realm of human activity. Here, the discontented husband who, to escape his unplugged relationship at home, goes online in search of new ones. There, the harried parent who, to keep the child suspended at a comfortable distance, plugs him in to the video console. A recent British TV ad tells all: the overworked father hails the virtues of Internet shopping for his wife, the television and the cordless phone for his adolescent daughter, and video games for his kids. With everyone wired, not a single social interaction need take place, and the father can finally get some rest.

The social alienation of the digital is already enough to convince some to resist — to log off, drop out, and live outside the virtual zone. Even such info-age "back-to-the-landers," though, will have trouble avoiding the digital wake. As more people come to spend more time inhabiting ever-more virtual worlds, their actions will feed back into the reality that we all share. In fact, we already know that civic groups and public spaces are disappearing en masse, with the digital dreamworld of tomorrow costing us the whole damn neighborhood today.

There is perhaps no dearer case of this than that of the alienated teen who slips away from reality through the cyberspace portal located in his or her bedroom. As in the oft-cited example of the Columbine High students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the individuals escaping from reality shift their time and energy to a digital reality that speaks to and cultivates their disaffection. As the Columbine example illustrates, the escapist lure of the virtual serves best when it reinforces the escapees’ sense of boredom, isolation, and alienation, thereby antagonizing rather than promoting a productive stance, however radical or revolutionary, in the world outside their bedroom doors. (Further evidence: the New York Times reports that the Internet offers access to more than 2,000 groups promoting white-supremacist or anti-Semitic views, and the number is growing.)

In place of strong social structures supporting a balance between social inclusiveness and selfish exclusiveness, we now have technological structures that support an accelerating feedback loop in favor of hyper-exclusiveness. This applies as well to childhood. Not surprisingly, studies show children to be rapidly abandoning the complex social and active world of outdoor play, choosing instead the more passive and isolated world of plugged-in play. Here the dialectic of diminishing returns takes center stage.

Consider Sony’s new PlayStation 2. While the first PlayStation handled per second about 360,000 polygons (the building blocks that produce real-time 3-D graphics), PlayStation 2 can run between 20 and 100 million a second. The chip that anchors the new PlayStation is said to move data at about 48 gigabytes a second, compared to the 1.6 or so gigabytes of data handled per second by the latest Pentium processor. Also, the graphic synthesizer necessary for the display of these graphics renders up to 60 frames and 75 million pixels a second — far more than other state-of-the-art, 128-bit game consoles (e.g., the Sega Dreamcast renders only about five million pixels a second). The PlayStation 2 thus offers a 50- to 100-fold increase in processing power in a single upgrade in video technology.

Given the power of this plugged-in alternative to the imagination and vigor of outdoor play, the question arises as to whether this latest game technology will, as Newsweek predicts, "supercharge interactive entertainment" and "catapult a thriving game. console industry into another galaxy." The law of diminishing returns suggests not. Once a brief honeymoon period is over, the "wow" power of each new generation of technology returns to essentially the same level as for the last generation. In other words, PlayStation 2 is next year’s Pong.

But if we naturally adapt to the drama, realism, and rhythm offered by the latest in media technology, how can it be that virtual worlds are becoming increasingly attractive havens in which to make the Great Escape? As the dialectic of diminishing returns makes dear, there is no contradiction. When the virtual domain becomes more interactive, realistic, dramatic, and accelerated, you accommodate those changes. They become the new standard of what’s needed to meet your newly-inflated sensory and emotional expectations. Meanwhile, the relative meaning of the unplugged world fades.

The point isn’t that the graphics are more lifelike than ever before, but that they have to be -- and they will always have to continue to be -- if they are to seem anything more than ordinary. Furthermore, it’s not that the latest in virtual reality is experienced as all that dramatic or spellbinding, but that the unplugged world is all the less dramatic and spellbinding as a result. Media technology do not bring great things to life, they simply shift the venue for where one has to go to feel alive.


With the mind moving back and forth between the virtual realm and the unplugged realm, the self is at home nowhere. The symptoms of this disjoint vary in form and intensity, and also across individual, gender, race, and other lines. They include everything from psychosomatic problems to personality disorders, from behavioral problems to debilitating anxiety and depression. But even if we are not all affected equally, there can be no doubt that for a long time now the ailing self has taken increasing refuge from an alienating world by using both drugs and media as technologies of support. Consider a twist on a familiar concern: the Prozac revolution.

Prozac has become iconic for our time, representing the overall explosion of psychotropic drug use in recent decades. From 1980 to 1989, the number of prescriptions filled for antidepressants more than doubled in the United States. In 1999, Prozac was the number three selling drug, with more than 76 million prescriptions filled, and today roughly one in ten Americans filter their life experiences through antidepressants.

The overall trend toward expanding psychiatric diagnostic categories, such that they now swallow up huge segments of the American population, is not by itself new. What makes the Prozac revolution an actual revolution is something else, namely the social philosophy that was shrink-wrapped alongside it. As dubbed in Peter Kramer’s best seller, Listening to Prozac, this is "cosmetic psychopharmacology." The idea here is that new "lifestyle drugs" are being synthesized not to make us well, but rather to make us, as Kramer puts it, "better than well."

This is a profoundly cybernetic ideology: the progressive abandonment of concern over real-world causes of despair and dysfunction in favor of symptom-specific individual "solutions." The better-than-well ideology marks not scientific progress -- several thousand compounds were tested by Eli Lilly before Prozac was stumbled upon -- but social regress. It urges you not to think about or pursue social change, but to seek out technological and consumer-based fixes to what are not individual problems.

Of course this cyborg ideology of "more human than human" couples perfectly with the postmodern ethos of the digital age. Both tap in to the same utopian technological spirit; both function as technologies of the self; and both help you accommodate your nervous system to a dying and dysfunctional social realm. As unplugged reality gets worse, the cyborg solution is to constantly upgrade and improve the self. By helping us cope in the middle years of today -- hiving neither as the socioborgs of times past nor as the true cyborgs of times future —- drugs like Prozac affirm our cultural direction. They are part and parcel of the Great Escape.


The Great Escape will take us to a time that has, literally, no place. Will we as a society choose to build this placeless place? No: it will simply evolve step by step -- as it already is -- with us adapting along the way. Will you embrace it? Will your children? No: you and they will simply inhabit it as the last in a series of steps in the evacuation of a dying social and ecological world.

Robert Nozick, in his 1974 treatise on moral philosophy, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, asked, "Should you plug into this machine for life?" In the first year of this new millennium, he returned to the question in Forbes ASAP, concluding that "In a virtual world, we’ll long for reality even more." Nozick, like the rest of us, has remained trapped all these years within a kind of naturalistic romanticism tacitly assuming that life in the corporeal world will prevail because it s inherently better — it’s real We want not only to experience things a certain way -- for instance our children being happy, our colleagues respecting us -- we also want the situation to actually be that way. We don’t want our whole life to be an illusion or a delusion, or to be merely virtual." Nozick acknowledges that some of us are now likely to choose to spend our days and nights embracing virtuality, but he argues in turn that "the rest of us are likely to find that choice deeply. disturbing." Most people will reject the "experience machine" because they know that the meaning of life cannot be reduced to a philosophy of electronic hedonism. "We refuse to see ourselves as merely buckets to be filled with happy experiences," he writes. It’s that familiar reaction again: we are human beings; we will never be brains in a vat.

But such doubts ignore the psychological, cultural, and economic forces that propel the Great Escape forward. If the emerging digital matrix can simulate reality better than reality itself, real and virtual become a meaningless, or at least impossible, distinction. What’s more, pleasure’s got nothing to do with it. The digital ethos of "log on, jack in, and drop out" does not thrive today because we’re seeking a hedonistic paradise. However positive or entertaining the virtual life, the ultimate reason we’re apt to be taking flight from material reality is to escape the expanding unpleasantness of our inner and outer lives -- a mélange of boredom, restlessness, malaise, anxiety, and depression. The virtual life isn’t the opium of the masses, it’s the anesthesia.

And where does that leave you and the Digital You, me and the Digital Me? Will advances in the cybernetic sciences simply continue to offer up more powerful prosthetics and synthetics, cyborg props to encourage and permit a further abandonment of the social and ecological world? Is there any escaping the Great Escape? Is it time to go Amish?

There may be no way out. Defense against the digital arts requires an understanding of how we have become both the perps and the victims of the perfect crime -- the pawns in a game of diminishing returns. But it also requires much more, having to do with the entrenched cultural logic that encourages this dangerous dialectic between the technological and the psychological. It has been a long journey into the digital age -- one passing through the oral, print, photographic, and analog mediums -- and the warnings given here are but echoes of warnings past. As this trajectory accelerates in the digital age (and there is no reason to think it won’t), we will continue hypergliding down the path into virtuality until we face the specter of total assimilation. The ultimate irony of our attempt to master all of nature, and save our own human nature, could be achieved in the digital near-future, where the only things left are a dead, depleted world, and one all-too-real virtual machine.

[i]Richard DeGrandpre is a psychologist and independent scholar of drugs and other "technologies of the self" He is the author of Ritalin Nation: Rapid-fire Culture and the Transformation of Human Consciousness (Norton, 1999) and Digitopia: The Look of the New Digital You (Random House, 2001). Parts of this essay were excerpted from the latter, which will appear in March. (back)[/i]

Re: The Great Escape to a Terrible Oblivion
04/09/03 at 02:19:30

Wow that was cool.. I think only the geeks could appreciate that...moving this to Hikmah Pond :)

ps i don't consider u a geek mohja ;)

[quote]the ultimate reason we're apt to be taking flight from material reality is to escape the expanding unpleasantness of our inner and outer lives -- a mélange of boredom, restlessness, malaise, anxiety, and depression. The virtual life isn't the opium of the masses, it's the anesthesia. [/quote]
04/09/03 at 02:23:12
Re: The Great Escape to a Terrible Oblivion
04/11/03 at 19:56:38
I think only the geeks could appreciate that

true but i also think there are many similar great escapes,mainly dunya tiself, that non-geeks can relate to :) what i found interesting was how we formulate our conception of reality and how dynamic it is subhan'Allah. sounds like a good discussion in al-taqwah masjid no ? ;)
04/11/03 at 20:04:28

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