IRL in Utne Reader

I’m thrilled that Utne Reader asked to publish chapter 3 of In Real Life as an excerpt in their March 2015 issue. That’s the chapter called “Technology and Spirituality” in the book, and to stand on its own, they’ve retitled it — very well, in my opinion — “Using Communication Technologies Mindfully.”

It’s tempting to think of the Internet as a place. We’ve learned to relate to it as a world on the other side of a window. We open the window, see this virtual world on the other side, and we can just barely reach through using these strange controls we’ve learned to manipulate. We can’t enter with our whole bodies and walk around the place—not yet, anyway—but in order to access the Internet, we do have to go there. When we turn our attention back to the physical world, we leave the Internet. It makes sense that the Internet feels like a place. That’s how we’ve designed it.

Even though we can just barely reach into this apparent world with the surface of our fingertips or the sounds of our voices, software companies have built features on the Internet that give it one of the most important qualities of our frequently inhabited places: other people. Even if we were skeptical of the Internet’s placeness at first glance, it’s impossible not to be drawn in when we see other people moving around in there, talking, and taking pictures. This sensation makes it easy for us to imagine the Internet as some kind of game full of other players, with rules much simpler than those of everyday life. (And for millions of players of massive multiplayer games, it is exactly like that.)

But clearly the Internet placeness is a metaphor. It may feel like everyone in a comment thread—or even in a virtual dungeon full of goblins—is in the same place together, but it’s not true. The others probably left their message an hour ago and are back to work by now. Even if anyone else is present at the same time, it’s not as though they’re in a room with you. They’re looking at a different instance of the same data rendered somewhere else. You’re communicating through a long, byzantine contraption from two different places.

But that doesn’t make your shared experience any less real. You’re both having experiences as real as any other. But the experience isn’t taking place in the Internet. It’s taking place in your body as you interact with the information on the screen. A real place provides an embodied experience. Even if you were in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment projected into a helmet, you’d still be in the same place as you would be if the power went out and the helmet blinked off.

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