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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7 Responses to Our Abstract Society

  1. Hans says:

    Interesting post Thomas, for sure! Im sure in many cases people are more happier there too. We have the tendency to focus more on things that are not important. but in places like that they dont take their life for granted so they have their priorites right. Anyway, hope things are going well. Hans

  2. jeff pd says:

    I like the post, grover. Our existence is without question easy and numb on a relative scale. I don’t know if that’s good in an absolute sense, but it’s something to keep in perspective.

  3. Santi says:

    Very interesting post Thomas.. I feel very related to you thinking. There’s a bunch of very interesting economists that are describing how our economy (and hence our material world) is abstracting.. Just think of how the consumption of music went from big orchestras in the 19th century where only a few could pay the ticket to the vinyl, casette, compact disc and finally the MP3 where anyone in the whole world can download any music from anywhere for an imperceptible cost. And that process, of abstraction and going from a society of products onto a society of services has a lot to do with media. The XXth century discovered the Radio, the TV and finally the Internet.. and media is about concepts, ideas and statistics above anything else..

    There’s an interesting book, The Age of Access from Jeremy Rifkin that talks about this.. I often find that kind of stuff very relevant for game designers, because our task is to create artifical worlds, and the best example for a world.. is the real one.

  4. BigLion says:

    Interesting perception.

    It is through modernization that we prosper and accumulate material wealth, so that we can travel back to primitive Africa to get away from modernization, prosperity and material wealth.

    Go figure…

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