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Virtuality: The Splenda of Existence

by Rachel D. Shaw

“That was designed to pluck nearly every biophilic synapse I have!” I exclaimed, as we walked out of the movie theater. “That,” of course, referred to Avatar. Avatar was meant to be overwhelming, and in just those ways. Through the means of 3D glasses and clever digital work, viewers were immersed in a seemingly vast world teeming with life. Along with the characters, the audience dashed through the undergrowth, swung from vines, and climbed trees. At every point, the characters—and the viewers—were surrounded by other living things: plants of astonishing variety, animals running the gamut from frightening predators to delicate and amusing insects. During the last few scenes of the movie, I felt possessed of a strange yearning—a gene-level desire not to see the story continue, but for the world of Pandora to exist… and to visit it in person.

And yet…

When I made that comment, my fiance was rather surprised. For him, the world of Pandora didn’t speak to some primitive link buried deep in his brain. Instead, what it reminded him of, especially the plants, were the carefully sculpted dioramas found in natural history museums—usually to depict prehistoric or undersea life. To me, the movie was achingly real. To him, it was an obvious fake. I felt hurt that he didn’t feel the same… but on the other hand, his observation was nothing short of truth. The “world” of Pandora is in fact a diorama, a glorious, amazing version of the little cardboard scenes many of us constructed as children. It is not real, even if many of us wish it was.

The dissonance between his experience and my own catalyzed something I’d been observing for a while. On the one hand, there is clearly a growing sense of lack and wrongness among human beings with regard to the non-human world. On the other, there is an increasing proliferation of technologies that seem designed to meet our need for engagement while not actually satisfying it. Avatar is a particularly vivid example of this—I found myself likening it to Splenda in conversations after I’d had a chance to ruminate over it—but it’s not the only instance.


Avatar posterThe catchy phrase most often used to describe the problem is “nature deficit disorder.” Usually the phrase is employed in discussions about children’s education, and serves as a way to justify increased outdoor activity—hikes in the woods, playing in the dirt, collecting bugs, and so on. Rarely is it applied to adult human beings. It seems too pat, often—the idea that simply plonking a young human being into a space where there is dirt beneath her feet rather than artificial substances is enough on its own to transform her from an apathetic, television-watching, and obese child into a lively and intelligent human animal. Sometimes the disorder is explicitly medicalized, and “nature” is offered as the cure to a number of disorders ranging from attention deficit disorder and autism to high cholesterol and lack of physical fitness. Before long, “nature” starts looking like a fad diet or exercise program, instead of the non-human world we inhabit. The other problem of constructions such as “nature deficit disorder” is that they tend to obscure the very real connections we have with the world—the air we breathe, the food we eat, the organisms we share space with, the waste we produce—by continuing the fiction that “nature” is something “out there” and not a part of our existence.

That there’s something lacking in the experience of many Americans and peoples of the developed world is increasingly hard to deny. That we live in a world facing large-scale environmental problems is clear. Anyone who takes the time to work his or her way through the science quickly becomes overwhelmed with the instances—species disappearing, habitats transforming, atmospheric patterns shifting, vegetation dispersal altering, oceans acidifying. But it’s not a scientific awareness of these problems that I’m driving at. Most people lack the training or time to make their way through this data, relying on watered down and distorted versions to understand what’s going on. What I’m seeing is a more instinctual reaction, the reaction of animals confined in an ever-shrinking cage.

Some of this manifests in stress reactions, such as self-mutilation, apathy, comfort-eating, and so on. Now, there are probably a variety of stressors at work in people’s lives, and most not obviously environmental ones. A while ago I was reading the comments in a blog thread that asked people to admit to some sort of unseemly habit—picking one’s nose, sticking chewing gum under chairs, that sort of thing. What struck me was how many people confessed to various kinds of minor self-mutilation—skin picking, hair eating, nail biting—and how this reminded me of a bird that belonged to a high school friend. This bird, a cockatiel, was a feather chewer. The poor animal reduced itself to a scrawny creature resembling a rubber chicken whose only intact feathers were on his head. Such self-damaging behaviors are recognized, in animals at least, as symptoms of captivity and lives of sensory deprivation. The reason there are balls in the jaguar cages and logs and toys in the elephant pens at the zoo are because without them, animals turn on their own bodies, weaving and rubbing their miseries away against the bars of their prisons.


Avatar: Jake Sully and his avatarIt was hard not to see the connection between the unhappiness of caged animals and the damaging self-soothing being performed by humans. The habitats we have created for ourselves are as lacking as the cement-and-bars cages of previous generations of zoos, and whether our awareness manifests in scientific reports, news articles on nature-deficit disorder and solastalgia, or nervous behaviors, it’s clear that most of us are aware of this on some level. The question then becomes, what, if anything, do we do about this. Rubbing our faces raw against the walls of our self-imposed captivity isn’t working.

However, just as picking and chewing are destructive ways of coping, many of the solutions we collectively reach for are unlikely to fix the underlying problem—human disassociation from an increasingly impoverished and damaged environment. They may even make it worse. We horrify ourselves with worst-case scenarios like that presented in the animated movie WALL-E or other dystopic fantasies, worlds in which, in the words of Avatar character Jake Sully, “there is nothing green” and humans struggle for dominance among the rubble of their broken technology. At the same time, we self-soothe with fantasies of lost green worlds and reconnecting with Nature, which often takes the form of indigenous peoples and talking trees and magnificent riding beasts with whom the riders form a psychic bond. (Avatar combines all of these, but we see its antecedents in movies like Pocahontas and books like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series.) You can even buy a “field guide” to the world of Avatar (subtitled An Activist Survival Guide) and place it on the shelf next to your Peterson or Sibley guides, if you are so inclined.

It is tempting to see these dystopias and utopias as harmless, as mere entertainment. That’s what concerns me. Aimed at mass audiences, they are meant to play familiar chords, and, by so doing, reinforce them. Yet the message that they reinforce is part of the problem: the message is that Nature is out there, and that humans are in here, and that living in sustainable ways is something that is possible only for limited, special, chosen people. The other thing that they do, in addition to reinforcing the nature-culture duality that’s been around for quite a while now, is introduce the aspect of virtuality, of virtual reality, to the mix. That is, not only is the non-human world “out there” but increasingly it is presented to us as no more real than the images on our computer monitors and television screens.

Avatar does a brilliant job manifesting these dynamics in easy-to-parse symbols. Not only is Pandora literally another world, it is one that human beings cannot inhabit, burt rather only visit and exploit. In an exaggeration of the idea that nature is inherently hostile to human beings, Pandora’s air is lethal to humans. The only way to fully enter the world of Pandora is through avatars; the allusion to the avatars familiar to players of online games and participants in online communities cannot be coincidental. Further driving home the message, while the creatures of Pandora easily bond with the nervous system of the planet, humans can only “plug in”—again quite literally—through the interface of the Na’vi avatar. Donning an avatar, humans enter Pandora while remaining safely in their interface at home; indeed, there is one scene where a character’s avatar is killed, and he goes offline, gasping and terrified, but very much alive—a luxury not granted to the Na’vi who inhabit Pandora in actuality. Both metaphorically in the context of the story, and literally in the context of the film, the Na’vi are the ultimate in non-player characters, existing to provide interaction, guidance, and targets for the human players and audience and graphics designers, and denied a separate existence of their own.

One may be tempted to just dismiss this as yet another film with stereotypical indigenes, white male heroes, and PC eco-babble message, combined with some really cool special effects. The problem is that the very virtuality that Avatar invokes and embodies is not simply entertaining. It is part of a larger cultural development, one which teaches us that the animals and plants of the nonhuman world are little more real than the pixels and photons in virtual worlds, and which teaches us that the solutions to problems in either can be solved primarily, or even entirely, by virtual actions performed via computer avatars and mouse-clicks. Just as artificial sweeteners like Splenda allow us to enjoy the sensation of sugar without the bodily consequences of ingesting sugar, and encourage us to gorge ourselves since there are apparently no repercussions for doing so, virtual reality can lead us to confuse virtual action with real-world engagement. We could find ourselves environmentally starving ourselves while surrounded by on-screen images of ecological abundance.

Here’s an example of this dynamic in action. The recent disaster in Haiti, a traumatic event in both human and environmental terms, becomes reduced to an occasion to procure for oneself a virtual animal, a “Haitian relief flamingo” that you can set alongside other virtual animals in a zoo made of pixels and code. In ZooWorld, a Facebook-based game, exotic and familiar animals, represented by cute cartoon versions of themselves, mingle (if you have the money to pay for them) with creatures like gremlins and unicorns and yetis. Not only does the Haitian relief flamingo stretch thin the relationship between the person earning it by donating a dollar to Haiti and the Haitian people whom that dollar is meant to help, it thins the line between real animals and fake animals, and turns all animals into little more than animated characters on the screen.

What does it matter if real penguins or polar bears go extinct, the logic inexorably leads us, if we can continue to play with their virtual counterparts unchanged? If the actual animals disappeared overnight, would we even know? Will the dollar reach Haitians, and how will it be used to help them, and by whom? From within the context of ZooWorld, these are irrelevant questions. It is enough to click, pay for Haitian aid in the same way that you obtain the “zoo dollars” that allow you to buy unicorns and yetis, and receive a virtual bird to serve as evidence of your participation.


Avatar scene with Jake Sully in the Floating MountainsSo how do we deal with a world in which a small, brief movement of finger on trackpad has become the perceptual equivalent of physically caring for injured people, where a couple of hours sitting in a darkened room substitutes for a walk over outdoor trails? It’s tempting to rail at virtuality in toto, to recommend a withdrawal from the electronic world, a burning of pixelated vanities. You see this in the actions of people like the no-heat crowd described in the New York Times, who live in freezing apartments and cabins out of some modern sense of thrift and hair-shirt mortification. Yet, despite their extremism, which makes such individuals easy to mock or pity, they do have a point: it’s hard to ignore the world when your breath is condensing in front of you, when the cold becomes part of your daily patterns.

In Avatar, the Na’vi literally connect to the world they inhabit, entwining tendrils within a long braid around tendrils belonging to other organisms. Humans, of course, lack such an easy uplink, and it is therefore tempting to accept the implicit message of the film, that humans by their very nature are incapable of such sensory connection. But is this true?

In Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with a Caribou Herd, author Karsten Heuer and photographer Leanne Allison documented the way that, after following the migrating Porcupine caribou herd for several months, they became able to sense the caribou, to feel their movements and direction, even when they could not see them. I myself remember how, on a months’ long expedition in the Australian outback, my eyes adapted to the night so well that by the end of the trip a half-moon’s light was more than enough to read by. Practitioners of “barefooting” and wearers of minimalist footwear like the FiveFingers shoe with toes report that after an initial period of discomfort walking on uneven surfaces, they come to relish the sensation and find most smooth, human-made surfaces tactilely “boring.” Follow a hunter or an experienced birder through the woods, and observe him or her make sense of small clues—holes in trees, a brief and distant call, a tuft of hair. Or visit a place from childhood, and note how a waft of a long-forgotten scent brings the memories rushing back.

So, humans are quite capable of connecting on deep, multiple levels with their environments, but it requires two things: immersion and time. While a 30-minute hike on one’s lunch break or a bout of tree-climbing during recess is a good thing, it’s not the same as through-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or going on a pilgrimage or living in a context where you engage with the environment intimately in order to survive. The problem we face, collectively, is that most people are unable to take such dramatic breaks from their ordinary lives. Even worse, the profound disjuncture between those two modes of living reinforces the idea that connectivity, full inhabitation, is a rare and special thing, out of the reach of most people (at least in the developed world). We cannot be Jake Sully, permanently relocated into his avatar. At best we are the red-shirt scientist who gets to taste that life from time to time but who must always come back to the lab at the end of the field trip.

This is where the danger of virtuality lurks. It teaches us that engaging with the world around us should be easy and painless, that we should be satisfied with the sweet taste of artificial nature even as we suffer environmental deficiencies. It programs us to accept solutions that do not require sacrifice of any kind, even when “sacrifice” is as strenuous as writing a check, addressing and licking an envelope, and applying a stamp. It trains us to believe that looking at a 3-D picture of a world is as good as going there in person, that sight and sound are the only senses that matter despite us being creatures that possess at least five. We are not the glorious Na’vi, leaping their way through the fecund world of Pandora; we are crippled Jake Sully lying prone in his uplink bed. Like Jake, we enter the link to distract us from our dysfunction, and by so doing, damage and weaken ourselves further.

The virtual world is not evil; movies and films can inspire us to care about things we’d otherwise never see, whether it be Pandora or the mysterious places revealed in Planet Earth, and they enable us to form connections with people we’d otherwise never meet. But ultimately it is not healthy, either for us or for the world we inhabit. If we want to avoid the dystopia of WALL-E, where humans are placated with artificial distractions and fake food, isolated from a world that has been reduced to rubble and cockroaches, virtuality needs to be viewed with skepticism and caution. Virtuality teaches us bad habits, habits that must be unlearned if we are to address the very real problems facing us, and our very real planet, today.


Rachel D. Shaw is a writer, photographer, and scholar of environmental studies and history. A two-time graduate of the Wildbranch Workshop for nature writing, she is a contributor to The Clade, a community environmental blog, and has had her poetry and photography published in the online literary magazine Qarrtsiluni. You can view her photography at her gallery, Sungazer Photography and Images.
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Notes, References, and Resources

Films and Media:

Nature Deficit Disorder:

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Environmental Enrichment for Zoo Animals:



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