Thursday, August 30, 2007

299 "Real Life" vs. a Book

Message no. 299[Branch from no. 292] Posted by Thomas Culhane (1311520071) on Saturday, February 10, 2007 12:16pm Subject: Re: Real life vs. a book

How many of you, as kids, hunkered under the covers with a flashlight at night reading, afraid your parents would burst into the room and discover you hadn't really gone to bed after all? I remember being told "I said lights out, and I was serious!! Now go to sleep!".

I bring this up because it seems to me that the "crisis" we are now facing in society concerning "kids who are lost in virtual reality" is actually as old as language.

I suspect that it predates writing by several millenia. Can you imagine our cavemen forebears? Try this thought on and see how it wears:


ARNO and his brothers GUNTER, HANS, GIPFEL and YURGE have built a tent out of sticks and bearskins and have shoveled some charcoals into a pit they have carved into the earth. ARNO, the eldest, is telling stories to his younger siblings about a giant white fur covered snow man he calls a YETI and which he claims wanders the glaciers.

ARNO: "And then, all of a sudden the YETI grabbed me by the foot and lifted me up to his one good eye and started sniffing me. He was taller than a bear and his breath stank of rotted flesh. He said to me: I'm going to eat you and use your bones to finish building a giant sled that I will use to journey across the ice bridges to the world of the Gods!"

GUNTER: You can't get to the world of the Gods on a sled!

ARNO: Can too!


FATHER: "Kids, how many times do I have to tell you to stop telling fantasy stories and go to sleep. We have to hunt mammoth tomorrow and you need to be well rested."

YURGE: But dad, Arno hasn't finished telling us about the Yeti!!

FATHER: Arno!!! I told you to stop scaring the children. There is no such thing as a YETI in our environment. You fill their heads with nonesense and lies. I've told you you should only talk about things you can see with your own eyes. Yeti's come from our dreams, but no man has ever seen one. You must never confuse children with images from dreams and images from eyes. There is only one reality that affects us outside and it is what we can see and touch. The land of the Gods and demons is for after our death and we want to postpone that as long as possible. Stop using the magic of words and language to bring the dreamtime and the realtime environments into confusion! I forbid it! Now go to sleep, and may each of you be able to distinguish between your nightmare fantasies and the real threats we have to face each day on the hunt!!

KIDS: Yes Dad!

ARNO: Sorry Dad, I just thought it was more fun to create a world in which I was a hero and make them believe it then to always be just the son who has to shlepp carcasses back to the cave every day!


Now imagine a different scenario, updated to 5,000 BC. We are now in Ancient Egypt and people have invented writing in Hieroglyphics. One child sits at the foot of an unfinished pyramid engrossed in reading a papyrus scroll...

"Akhnakhatun, my son", moans the mother, "would you PLEASE roll that blasted thing up and get back to work? You are supposed to be carrying lime up to the workers in the tomb so they can plaster the walls and all you do is sit and read those comic books!"

"But Mom, they are so cool... just wait until I finish this last scroll!"

"No dear... these scrolls are bad for your health. They will ruin your eyes and the stories they tell are not for children.They are violent and talk only of armies butchering other armies for control of the dynasty. I'm afraid you will grow up and become a warrior!"

"But what is wrong with wanting to be a warrior? It is so cool!"

"In the scrolls and on the wall paintings they always make it seem cool, and children get caught up in the fantasy. But real war is terrible. You have to learn to separate fantasy from reality. Scrolls and paintings make things seem real when they are not because they leave out important parts of reality. Scrolls are a dangerous invention. And for the MILLIONTH TIME THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS AS PEOPLE WITH DOGS HEADS AND BIRDS HEADS. Get a grip on reality!"


Do you guys get my point? Language.... whether encoded in speech, in storytelling, or in pictures on cave walls or in paintings or Hieroglyphics or text... creates a VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT that is ADDICTIVE. It enables people to experience alternate realities in which there are different roles. There are heroes and villains and options that don't exist in real life. Stories fill psychological needs for all of us who are dissatisfied with certain elements of our environments. Every society has undoubtedly had to grapple with the consequences of encoded fantasies that spring from our imagination as we reorder the images and sounds our senses pick up from reality and merge them with our dream realities.

I have no doubt that there was a time when parents were as worried about the influence of books on children as they now worry about the influence of video games. In fact we still worry when a child becomes “a book worm”. If you watch the Disney film “Alice in Wonderland” based on the fantasy by Lewis Carroll, you see that it starts with Alice’s parent worried that she never plays with the normal children or pays any attention to her environment, but is always lost in a book. Because of her worrisome addiction to the virtual realities she immerses herself in through the dangerous magic of books, Alice starts seeing things – white rabbits with pocket watches for example! The entire Alice in Wonderland scenario is a cautionary tale about somebody lost in virtual reality. Similarly, Belle in “Beauty in the Beast” has marginalized herself from the rest of society by her addiction to books, which she reads even when she is walking. She pays no attention to “reality”, preferring to live in her head. To the rest of the villagers this is very threatening. It is particularly threatening when it is a girl who is lost in the virtual reality of books because society when these fairy tales were written couldn’t understand why reading books would be productive for women. Think about the admonishment that Wendy’s parents give her in turn of the century England in PETER PAN! Wendy’s abnormal obsession with the fantasies in books is considered unladylike by her overly concerned parents who want her to leave the childish dreams of youth behind and prepare to be a good wife and mother. This is considered “growing up” – facing the “reality” of her socially prescribed role as a woman during a time when women were slaves to certain social norms. This is why she dreams of Never Never Land and the fantasy of “never growing up”. The sad thing about the end of Peter Pan is how Wendy decides to capitulate and give up her fantasies and conform to society.

The only reason we now encourage children to read all the time is because “first world” society shifted from a utilitarian group of producers to a privileged group of information processors. We have left the manufacturing and “reality” based burdens of dealing with the nuts and bolts of producing to third world countries. In countries like Egypt where child labor is the norm children are not encouraged to read unless they are in the upper class (there is not a very substantial middle class here).

Reading would be considered “escapist” and kids have “better things to do” (another “unfortunate side effect” of reading would be that the children might get fantasy ideas that they can be heroes and can rebel against the dire conditions of their exploited reality!) .

How many of you know that during slave times in America any African American caught reading a book would be killed? The whites were terrified that blacks would get ideas from books that would encourage them to revolt. To this day the trauma of centuries of being killed or beaten or threatened for reading have taken their toll on many of our still impoverished African American communities where literacy rates are low. And what is worse, now we make it worse by trying to FORCE kids to read so that reading has all the appeal of eating your vegetables! In inner city school such as the ones I worked in for a decade (south central Los Angeles) a predominance of white teachers are hired to go into black neighborhoods to stand like slave masters with verbal whips in front of a classroom environment where children are chained to desks in neat rows as if they were on a slave ship. Then the teachers bark in harsh tones “you must read! Why aren’t you reading?” while offering the absolutely most incomprehensible badly written boring books you could imagine. The textbooks in our inner city schools are so bad that most adults couldn’t stand reading them. When the children bring in comic books or fun books that they enjoy they are yelled at and the good material that they might enjoy is confiscated. It is as if we gave children horrible food to eat then yelled at them for not wanting to eat it, and then claimed they weren’t hungry!

What I am trying to get at here is that language (by which I mean a symbolic medium capable of transmitting sensory information across time and space) creates environments and these environments can affect the psychology of behavior in strong strong ways. Because of this people have always wanted to control what kinds of virtual environments their children and other peoples children were exposed to.

Montesque, at the time of the French Revolution, wrote, “THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD”.

I am challenging you now to consider that all forms of symbolic expression, whether coming out of some storyteller’s mouth, or out of a book or out of a computer screen or television, are powerful forces of social change.

Armed with this insight, the debate of virtual vs. real environments may appear somewhat different to you.

Your thoughts?

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