The advancement of networking technology over the past couple of decades has created a sort of alternate reality. The world-wide web became a sort of world in itself as it became inhabited by increasing numbers of denizens of the real world who began to utilize it in a variety of new ways.
The number of hours that the rising generation spends plugged into the digital network has increased substantially in these past years. A PBS Frontline special reports that the average young person spends almost nine hours with this technology. This drastic increase from years previous has obviously drawn concern from various critics. The traditional and most obvious perception is that more time spent online means less time spent in the real world, which is thought to be the more ideal and healthy place for interaction and activity. But this attitude towards modern technology, and the digital world created by it, must change, primarily because the distinction between the digital and the real is becoming less clear and less necessary. This paradigm shift is can be advantageous. It does not necessarily remove humans from their connection to reality, or their ability to cope with it. In fact, just the opposite is true. Many have integrated the digital with the physical to augment their educational, creative, and social lives to their advantage. This alternate, digital dimension is technologically but not conceptually new, at least not entirely. There are some compelling historical and literary examples that demonstrate that the idea of being connected to another world can be an important part of human life.
The World of Dreams
In the act of dreaming, something common to all humanity, we conjure up images, events and places other than what we experience in waking hours. In marginal states of consciousness, it can be difficult to determine or recall what is or was real. Various cultures throughout history have created ways to make sense of this other reality created by dreams, and have made them a part of their beliefs and practices. The ancient Mayans are an example of a society to which dreams were an integral part of spiritual life.
The Mayans believed that dreams were sacred. Dreams could give personal direction and foreshadow future events. Dreams were a part of introspection and self-discovery. The Mayans believed they each had a sort of spiritual alter-ego, which they called they called a way. The word way also refers to the act of sleep. Dreaming was a way of connecting with the way.
Various anthropological studies, such as this one have shown that that these beliefs have persisted into contemporary times. Certain Mayan communities maintain very similar beliefs about spiritual identity and dreams. Each person has an adiosich, which leaves the body during dreams and travels. It can go to other communities or even other worlds. It can communicate with the adiosich of others or with deceased ancestors. This adiosich is further described as the thing that makes one human, the consciousness that makes decisions, and without which a person cannot live. It is the soul, or the essence of one's identity. A great deal of light can be shed on human understanding of the world by the Mayan idea that the soul can, though dreams, exist and act outside of the constraints of the physical world, and that its true identity can be found only when disconnected from reality. Actually, it has been said among the Maya that "dreams are real, dreams are reality.
These concepts are strongly analogous to the online life. Internet access, like dreams do for the Mayans, allows the user limitless exploration without physical travel, and allows communication with other actual people anywhere in the world in a way separate from the physical self. Also, as the Mayans have no difficulty perceiving the dream world as merely another aspect of reality, natives of the digital world can call it a real part of their lives. Perhaps having examples like this shows that the new media paradigm fulfills some desire inherent in human nature, just as numerous spiritual beliefs did in other cultures. But there is a very important difference: the digital world is actually connected to reality and has tangible uses. We can't verify that human souls can communicate in dreams, but the reality of electronic networking is unquestionable. It is based on actual physical connections that are a part of the our world and have become necessary for its operation. There are no metaphysical ideologies to cast doubt upon.
The Dream World and Borges' Reality
The fiction of Jorge Luis Borges offers some explorations of perceptions of reality that predate the digital age. Borges wrote a number of short stories, many of which deal with metaphysical elements and provoke some philosophical contemplations. A prime example is The Circular Ruins. This story appears to have some strong Mayan influence. It is apparent in the setting as well as the spiritual themes, which reflect the Mayan beliefs discussed previously. In this story, a man who appears to be a magician of sorts goes through the long and involved process of creating a man in his dreams, intending to bring him into reality. He undergoes this endeavor in a specific place: the circular ruins referenced in the title. He understands that these remains of a destroyed ancient temple are necessary for the process. The setting recalls the Mayan concept of wayib, which is the place of the way. Mayan kings would go to certain edifices designated as such, where they would go to sleep and connect with their way.
The character in the story spends a great deal of time in this spiritually significant place sleeping. In his dreams he gradually constructs a man, who ultimately resembles himself, and with the help of the fire deity of the temple, is able to bring his creation into the real world. The creation appears real in every sense, but the magician knows that he is not, and he fears that his creation will discover that he is not real, because of his unnatural immunity to fire. Ironically, the magician himself, when engulfed in flames and unharmed, realizes that he is the created from a dream in the same sense as his own creation, and this results in his own downfall.
The story raises a number of questions about reality. Is the reality of a thing only determined by our perception of it as real? The only thing that made the dream son unreal was his creator's knowledge that he was a product of dreams, although it was through dreams that he was brought into reality in the first place. The story also blurs the line between the dream world and the real world. If the magician himself was the product of dreams and magic, which can exist in this world, what's to say the world of his waking life was any more real than the dream world?
Although in our world we can more clearly distinguish(most of the time) between our physical world and that that exists digitally, we can still ask the question: what makes the digital world unreal besides our own designation of it as something less real? Technology is quickly bridging the gap between the digital and the physical (see augmented reality), making it harder to answer that question. This might sound disconcerting from the perspective of those who would decry the proliferation of new media, but it isn't something to be afraid of. As humans, we are more in control of our world than ever in the digital age. And just as much as in past societies, we are free to define or redefine it as it we deem appropriate.