Are we even seeing the same reality anymore?
“What will the consequences be of immersing yourself in a world that is isolated from the person standing next to you?”
That’s the question Tim Folger, a National Geographic writer, asks in his article, Revealed World, in the magazine’s Sept. 2010 issue. Check it out here; the picture alone is worth the price of admission.
Look closely at that picture. It represents the way an artificially-enhanced person might see things just five years from now. Little bits and pieces of digital information, attached to, overlaid upon and cluttering the visual field Mother Nature originally equipped our eyeballs to perceive. Humankind has, traditionally, distinguished reality from fantasy by consensus agreement. If a crowd of people are on that Washington, D.C. street corner, and 99 of them agree that Peregrine Espresso is right there on the corner, but the hundredth person says, No, Peregrine Espresso is no longer there, now it’s turned into a Martian spaceport, then we can all agree that 99 of us are right, and that hundredth monkey is wrong, if not outright crazy. Right? End of story.
But what happens if the underlying reality–that D.C. streetcorner–becomes so chopped up and splintered into individual links and informational matrixes that carry our brains forward into the future and backward into the past that it no longer has anything to do with the reality that the person standing next to us perceives? That’s the backdrop of Folger’s question.
Keep in mind, in this brave new perception of the future, in which we’ll be seeing these things through contact lenses or even retinal implants, what you see will necessarily be different from what I see. Far different, because your links will not be mine, and vice versa. You might learn that there are 50 of your Twitter followers in the area; I might have none (and at the present rate of my Twitter usage, that’s quite likely to be the case). Never mind that, with all this information being shoveled into our heads, there’s barely enough time or energy left over for either of us to even acknowledge the other’s existence. That’s would be a tragic denouement to the human condition. But the problem is compounded by each of us actually perceiving profoundly differing aspects of the visual field. We may be standing next to each other, but we might as well be on different continents.
What all this has to do with wine criticism is pretty obvious. It takes us further down the road from cohesion to anarchy. When we’re all looking at the same thing, but seeing different things, we will no longer have the luxury of knowing that there are templates we can agree on. The First Growths got famous because sooner or later everybody agreed they were better than the Fifth Growths. But that occurred during an era when general agreement was possible. With the cultural fracturing we’re now witnessing–technological, political, religious, personal–it will be harder than ever for all of us to agree on anything, including which wines are of the first rank and which aren’t.
Will you miss living in such a world? I will. It would be a democracy, but it wouldn’t be a happy place, or make much sense. I like and depend on the fact that some wines are meritoriously superior to others, and I enjoy being part of the conversation that decides which is which. I will admit to taking some small pleasure in the thought that my opinion carries perhaps more weight than someone else’s. Having standards may smack of elitism, but it’s fundamental to the sound ordering of the world.
But which world? Which brings me back to Folger’s question. “What will the consequences be of immersing yourself in a world that is isolated from the person standing next to you?” This is a question we should really be asking in a more serious way than we so far have, and that blogging has rushed to the fore. It may be that having the need to ask it means that it’s already too late to forestall the consequences. The horse may have left the barn.