what is real?

i’ve been thinking a lot lately about what is real.

it’s not uncommon, after hearing one of my talks or stumbling across my blog, for people to communicate with me about how much they notice the youth among them choosing their cell phones/ipads/video games over their “real” lives. it’s easy to nod knowingly and riff on the presented theme. a few months back, however, a brilliant faculty member from a prestigious liberal arts college, challenged the members of a panel i was on about what the phrase “real life” really even means anymore. at the time, i stumbled around for an answer, eventually redirecting to the need for balance between digital life and embodied life. i really wish i could answer that question today because, from here, the answer i gave looks really lame.

a couple of weeks ago i sat in a crowded pub watching the u.s.a. vs. belgium world cup game. sitting, alone, amongst hundreds of strangers to watch a game on a large flat screen, i marveled at the palpable energy of the assembled mass. there was nothing not real about the experience we all shared in the space of the 3 hours for which we were gathered. we cheered as though our encouragement could literally affect play (why else would 300 people chant “u - s - a” over and over at an image projected onto a slide projector screen?). we hung our heads at missed opportunities and high fived every heroic save made by tim howard. sure, we weren’t sitting in the real stadium, in the real host country of brazil but we were having a real experience together.

there are so many ways that this kind of realization applies both to our relationships with technology tools and the people/places/experiences that they make available to us.

we have, as a people, developed very real responses and attachments to our devices. headlines almost two years ago reported that the brain responds to iphone message indicators in similar patterns as it does to love. we can go full days without many things, but leave our phones behind and we feel agitated and anxious, certain that we will miss out for the lack of them. and, actually, we likely will. without said phones how will we find our way, send a message, recall a phone number, know the time, or take notes or photos? we have come to rely upon these devices in very real ways and we have attached real feelings to them. we’re grateful for the specificity and accuracy of the directions they give, information they deliver, and content they provide access to. we’re giddy with how effective they make us and relieved when they can save us from loneliness or boredom. sometimes we imagine them as experiencing feelings for us. how could they not love us when they’ve learned us so well and deliver so amazingly consistently. i catch myself, at times, feeling guilty when i miss a turn that siri directs me to make. i actually feel bad for making her recalculate the route. the reality of this humbles me. 

not only do we feel real feelings toward our devices but we have real experiences in the digital spaces they deliver us into. the friends that a middle or high school aged boy makes online while playing mmorpg’s (that’s massive multi-player online role playing games for those of you new to the acronym) quickly become real friends to him. they may never meet in embodied space but they will, over the course of game play, spend immense amounts of time amassing shared experiences with strategy in environments made specifically to heighten emotion. the same can be said for anyone who meets others in an online game, chat space, or digital environment. the connections may not be happening between people in a shared physical space but the emotions and connections that are stirred and strengthened are every bit as real.

yesterday i stopped into a well known restaurant chain to order a customized sandwich. this is not an “i’ll take a number 2 with everything” place. you have a lot of preferences to communicate with the artist making your sandwich. it was lunch time and the place was packed. the person ahead of me had earbuds in both ears and was on an active call. her four year old daughter held a $20 bill but couldn’t see over the counter or talk loudly enough to be heard. i was shocked when the mother completed her entire order and payment without ever removing an earbud or interrupting her call. i wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. i kept waiting to hear, “what hospital?” or “i can’t believe you’ve called me mr. president!” or “is triple A on their way?” i wanted to believe that the call was so important that it absolutely couldn’t be interrupted to order her daughter’s lunch. instead, i overheard mentions of where they’d vacationed the week before, who was there, and what she made for dinner while pointing and gesturing about what to include or omit on the sandwich being made for her. clearly, the person with whom she was talking was much more real to her than any of us in her embodied context. she made that overwhelmingly clear.

we all have experiences like this. they leave us feeling stirred up and wanting to righteously  point out the rudeness that we have witnessed to the person who perpetuated it. we want to rant, and we do. and then, when we’re bored in line or awkward in public or just alone we turn to our own devices to entertain, comfort, and distract us from those in our embodied/real environments. they keep us even from real interaction with our selves. we are all, i suspect, guilty of choosing the digital real to the embodied real from time to time.

no longer can we say, “so and so avoids their real life by spending their time with video games,” or “we’re facebook friends but not real friends,” or, “sure i watch porn online but it’s not like i act out in my real life.” we just can’t. our digital lives are part of our real lives and it’s up to us to make sure we maintain a balance, keep ourselves capable of embodied connection, and be willing to put our devices fully away from time to time. 

and so, ask yourself, “what is my real?” observe the ratio of digital real to embodied real in your own life and weigh in with your self about where adjustments might be made. every time you feel tempted to evaluate someone else’s success or failure in navigating the balance, let it go and give them reason, healthy/embodied/compelling reasons, to connect with you in real time and with real meaning...where ever that may be.

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