Virtual Living

Published on Dissident Voice, by Linh Dinh, May 15, 2010.

… For many of us, our first impulse upon entering a new space, be it country, city or room, is to escape it. I must get online. Staring at a computer, a person can flit from NBA playoffs to Katherine Heigl, to a napping and slumping Ken Griffey Jr., to porn, to the boxscore of a game he doesn’t give a damn about, to Gisele Bundchen, to Elena Kagan. Gulf oil spill? What Gulf oil spill?

The problem with the media is not that there’s no meat in it, but by stuffing lard, blood, scrapple, gristle, chicken mess, acorn, corn syrup, sawdust, meat and whatever else into an unending sausage, nothing could be isolated long enough for anything to matter, not even the tortured death of a nation or a planet.

Everything has become a blip in a gush of tedious entertainment, even Abu Ghraib and Goldman Sachs outrages. Of course, in this diseased system, fluff weighs more, since it benefits the Washington and Wall Street criminals to have us fixated on Simon Cowell, Rihanna or some dancing parrot.

Our basic social needs, to mingle, see each other face to face and chatter, have been supplanted by the virtual, with chatrooms and forums replacing taverns and squares. In your typical bar nowadays, the patrons must shout in brief spurts, since the music is too loud for a sustained conversation. Eyes are most often glued to a bright TV. So much for the drinking hole as a social space, and music as occasional and celebratory.

Simply put, our culture is hostile to thinking and talking. About the only American environment where discussions are encouraged, or just made possible, is the university, but these are conducted mostly by people without dirt under their fingernails, hence the gross disconnect between the academy and the rest of us.

In Italy, there’s a quaint custom known as the passegiatta. For a couple hours before dinner, people actually hang out or walk around their local square. This bonding and soothing practice embraces even foreigners. This is not possible here because we don’t have the proper spaces. Our few squares are landscaped, with paths dictating traffic, unlike an open piazza that encourages congregating and loitering, that allows free movement and wide vistas. In most American localities, there are no squares at all, only shopping mall food courts.

Our typical mall is surrounded by an oil spill. Here and there, a half-assed berm. Once you’ve gone through the hassle of driving there, then looping back and forth to seize a parking space, you might as well spend a few hours inside the air conditioning and fork over a Ben Franklin or two. It’s designed for that. At a square, however, you can buy nada and not feel like you’ve wasted your time. With home shopping, even this degraded mingling inside mall can be dispensed with altogether.

Cocooned in a virtual universe, many of us can no longer see or care that our real world is being destroyed. In March of 2010, a Korean couple was charged with starving their 3-month-old baby to death, even as they spent twelve hours a day at an internet café, raising a virtual one, Anima. Like them, we’ve been seduced into nurturing a ghost while our souls die. (full text).

(Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories and five of poems, with a novel, Love Like Hate, scheduled for July. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union. Read other articles by Linh).

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