Back in October, I traveled to the East Coast to see relatives in the Washington D.C. area. While I was there, I also had the incredible opportunity to visit many significant historical sites, including Civil War battlefields that speckle the region. One of the first I went to was Gettysburg, location of the deadliest battle in American history.
At one point during my tour of the battlefield, I knelt beside a stone wall where young boys almost half my age fought and died one hundred and sixty years ago. Looking across the field, I could see the forest of trees where fifteen thousand Confederate soldiers had waited for the order to make their fateful charge that, as one Confederate officer later put it, “achieved nothing but glory.”
Two things struck me about the whole experience.
One, places such as Gettysburg have changed little since the day Lee’s army first marched into the town thinking the impending fight would end the war. Unlike other historical locations situated amid modern cities, Gettysburg has not lost the surrounding environment to urban planning and population growth. You feel transported back in time and can almost sense the presence of the ghosts of fallen soldiers as you walk about.
Second, it struck me deeply that it was all real. Prior to that moment, Gettysburg had been a place I had heard about. I had read books about Gettysburg, viewed pictures of the battlefield, and watched movies filmed there. But I had never actually seen it myself, and it was only then that I fully accepted it as something other than a concept. It no longer required faith that what I had previously relied on was accurate.
A similar experience occurred when I viewed one of several original copies of the Magna Carta kept in the National Archives. I had long before read stories of cruel King John – courtesy of Robin Hood tales – and the English barons who forced him to sign a document that would inspire the signing of the Declaration of Independence centuries later. However, like with Gettysburg, it had only been an abstract idea or thought. No longer.
I don’t think people are fully aware of how much of our life consists of dealing in the abstract. Less and less we deal with others directly. We don’t literally see each other or speak to one another. What we deal with directly are intermediaries; phones, computers, laptops, newspapers, television, and radio. But for whatever reason, we do not accept them as truly genuine. We can watch a person on TV for years and develop a sense of familiarity, but there is a sense of awkwardness when meet them in the flesh. We speak words online we would probably never say to someone’s face (though there are exceptions) because for whatever reason it doesn’t “feel” the same.
It is why I am rather sympathetic to “Doubting” Thomas, the Apostle who infamously declared he needed to see Jesus and touch his wounds to believe he had resurrected from the dead. I doubt he would have said anything different if Skype had existed.
We are all have a Doubting Thomas within us, but with an iPhone. We can read about things, write about them, watch them, and view photos. Yet none of it has the same effect of seeing something with our own eyes. It is as though in the recesses of our minds, our subconscious retains a profound suspicion that what we see isn’t real until we actually see it and receive confirmation. It is one thing to learn about the Magna Carta; it is another to stand inches away from the millennia-old document with the King’s seal still attached and know from direct witness that it existed.
Perhaps this explains the sense of isolation many people feel despite living in an era of instantaneous global communication. The entire world is within our grasp, yet no chat forum can satiate our natural desire for organic human interaction the way an in-person discussion does. And yet, we find ourselves increasingly addicted to these intermediaries. We are beginning to favor them over the people in front of us. Go to any public area and note how many people are on their phones as opposed to speaking to the person beside them (I am guilty of this as much as anyone). How many times have you seen a family with every child’s eyes transfixed on some sort of electronic device?
Despite our apparent preference for the digital, I believe deep down people realize there has been a price to pay for the conveniences our technology affords us. Our reality is shaped not by what our physical senses perceive, but what our intermediaries present to us, and one wonders if the benefits have outweighed the loss.
The craving for the real versus the artificial is something I explore in my novel The Stringers. The protagonist, Roy is a bit of a misfit because, like his father, he perceives the value of direct human relations in a society where the use of artificial intermediaries are practically mandated by law. One character experiences such deprivation of authentic human contact that, like Doubting Thomas, she insists on touching those with whom she speaks to prove that they exist.
Ideally, a healthy balance between digital and the real could resolve what we might refer to as a “First World problem.” However, as I depict in my book, mankind tends to deal with such issues in absolutes.