Our Abstract Society

I went camping for two weeks in Ethiopia with my family during this past Christmas holiday. There is a lot that I would like to write about Ethiopia that I will save for future posts that may not be written. What I would like to talk about today is a sense that many people get when they travel to countries outside of their developed nation.

“It just feels so real over there.”

When people say this they are referring to a sense of immediacy that is enchanting; a reality that has been obscured by the abstraction resulting from modernization. I don’t want to sound critical of modernization, it is what we have worked so hard to achieve, and what has allowed us to achieve so much. However, to consider it as concrete would be false and I think that it is important to be aware of the diversity of existence that exists in the world.

Some ways in which our lives are abstract:

1) We have no idea where the products we consume come from. When we buy chicken it is a bloodless breast sandwiched between cellophane and yellow Styrofoam. In rural and developing parts of the world you buy or raise the live chicken and kill it yourself.

2) People are statistics, casualties are numbers, when we go to war we kill with the push of a button, not the swinging of a machete. In short, much of our perception and action is impersonal.

3) We are protected from the elements by air conditioning and insulation

4) We don’t walk. By the way, if you live near a ghetto, try walking through it one day instead of driving around it… its amazing…

5) Our idea of philanthropy is charity. We buy a ticket to guilt-free lane via donating money to organizations who use it to live in large villas and drive Land Cruisers.

6) We believe what others report about our world instead of seeing it for ourselves.

7) We don’t have to worry about predators, or disease, or getting bombs dropped on us

This is maybe why 9-11 was such a shock to Americans. Some people need to worry about how they will survive, but we just worry about how to get our raise… or rather, our way of surviving is by having jobs and wages and the like, and not by avoiding crocodiles, bombs, or famine. So 9-11, if for a moment, made a lot of people worry about survival in this other, more immediate, sense.

I found it very hard to answer the question: “What do you do for a living?” How do you describe video game design to someone who has never played a video game? I don’t actually make anything physical – I work in a world of conceptual interaction that is eventually represented by code that is an abstraction of machine language. I think that being an options trader might provide a similar conundrum. These are occupations that are only viable under the protective, prosperous, umbrella of modernization. I must admit that I feel guilt, at times, knowing that a large part of my occupation is problem solving, and that there are more important problems to solve in the world than issues of game balance or usability. I console myself by proclaiming a desire to create media that will illuminate issues of moral relativity, personal growth, social injustice, and the like to a mainstream audience.

Ok, in summary, we make many assumptions about the world without using our powers of observation and contemplation to see things as they really are. Immersive travel (not staying in 5 star hotels for your entire vacation, having conversations with locals, eating with locals, etc) is a great way to gain a shift in perspective as informed by your experience of an existence that is at once foreign and familiar. If we can see more clearly, and empathize with others, then the decisions and actions in our life can be more informed. I can’t mandate the occasional exposure to a more gritty reality, but those who have stepped outside of their comfort zone are forever changed and speak fondly of the experience. So, if I can’t mandate, then I shale suggest! Please challenge your perception of what is real and please be open to new experiences and ideas.

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