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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.

  1. I know a family where each family member has their own iPad. They spend the evenings “together” each immersed in their own realities, watching TV shows, or videos, or reading web sites, etc.

    Let that sink in for a second.

    Now let’s take the same family and each give them their own book, magazine, newspaper in which to get lost. Is that really any different?

    Didn’t the horse leave the barn with the invention of the printing press?

    The real issue is not the delivery media, but rather it’s remembering to come back to meatspace once in a while… this isn’t really a new problem.

  2. The Brave New World simply will enhance something that has been true of humanity from the start: each of us does experience a different reality.

    But does perception define reality? Is reality defined as a cultural consensus? Philosophers have been wringing these questions by their necks for all of recorded history. Personally, I don’t believe there is some grand unified theory that answers these questions across the spectrum of the human condition.

    However, some things are “true” regardless of contrary experience or opinion. Phillip K. Dick said: “Reality is what remains after you cease to believe in it.” Science is not determined by plebiscite. If the first growths are only the “best” so long as a majority of us believe it to be so, then that these wines are first growths is neither reality nor provable by the scientific method.

    Don’t lose heart, Steve. What binds us together is language. In order to communicate with each other we have to agree to a definition of terms. Seems to me that the role of “critic” has always been to articulate the definition for the rest of us. You’ll adapt.

  3. Jefe, I like meatspace! More to the point, I didn’t mean to comment on the whole digital revolution, only on its impact on wine writing and reviewing. That’s always a favorite topic of mine.

  4. Steve, There is no accounting for taste. We are all different. Bordeaux is popular (better) because at some olden time its tax rate was better for the English than the Rochelle wines. The English got used to the new styles, so we now like Bordeaux over Rochelle. It is the same for modern styles. I know of quite successful wineries that make wines that I do not like, but manage to sell more than I. Good on them. They have found the market that likes their stuff. It was a long journey and I am happy that they made it successfully. So yes, I agree that the templates are different. They have always been differnet and artificial (unique to the individual). We can only express our subjective opinion and hope that others respect what we have to say.

  5. Although “virtual reality” and the idea of “life” as “information processing” seem (objectively) tempting, the subjective notion of “reality” has become a relic of the 20th century since Robert B. Laughlin and George Chapline published a scientific paper called “Quantum Phase Transitions and the Breakdown of Classical General Relativity” [G. Chapline (Los Alamos), E. Hohlfeld, R. B. Laughlin, D. I. Santiago (Stanford University);; (Submitted on 25 Dec 2000)]; and brought up the notion that a “gravitational collapse provided by classical general relativity cannot be physically correct because it conflicts with ordinary quantum mechanics”. It follows the fact that “an event horizon makes it impossible to, everywhere, synchronize atomic clocks” [1]. In other words, Quantum Mechanics requires “objective universal time” and “non-local” large scale correlations which are present in (Minkowski) space-time.
    [1] Texas Conference on Relativistic Astrophysics, Stanford, Ca 12/12-12/17/04; DARK ENERGY STARS; G. Chapline; LLNL, Livermore, CA; 2005.

  6. Peter, wow. My little blog is now a place for learned discussions on quantum mechanics! Who woulda thunk?

  7. Not surprisingly, I completely disagree with your reaction to the photo, Steve. Don’t know yet about the article. I find the overlays hugely exciting because they greatly enhance the reality presented to our non digital necessarily limited personal view.

    We can take in the beauty of the streetscape and what it tells us about this place in this time. It also might trigger memories and other “real world” dimensions. Then we can fire up our phone or other device and pull out all the other information that adds to what our own limited faculties have gleaned.

    Before deciding to head into the restaurant, for example, we can review what yelp or chowhound or yes, what the local restaurant critic has said about the place. Ditto with the wine list. We have access to my beloved crowdsourced data as well as the evaluations of individual reviewers. We can arrive at the modern equivalent of agreement on First Growth (superior) wines far more efficiently, incorporating the latest opinions as they continue to emerge in real time. And so it goes.

    The take away: far from leading to isolation, this newly equipped contemporary world reinforces human and communal interaction. And for those moments of solitude and unadulterated experience we can stay unwired.

  8. plus, with all of the wine we drink…we are going to live much longer to experience AR!

  9. Isn’t this always the question the old ask of the new? Didn’t your generation face the same challenges from your parents?

    Anyway, I’m always curious of the counterculture, how they mock the mainstream, but don’t they adhere to their own cohesion?

    Steve, I think you’re just worried they won’t settle on the same conclusions you have, not that they won’t settle on a conclusion.

  10. Theo, you’re right, every old generation worries that the new generation is throwing out all the rules. I try to straddle the two generations.

  11. Steve,

    The situation you pointed out already exists. The difference is that the evidence of it is more ummm, evident. Remember Platos cave?

    Why did Fugi film get so popular? Besides the great marketing the film, at least originally, displayed some colors more vibrantly. Supposedly that is because the ‘asian eye’ see differently than the occidental eye.

    Some people gave up going to visit their neighbors to talk and started using the telephone, then they switched to e-mails, then to cell phones and now social media sites. They could still go visit in person but then what would they do with the expensive technology they bought.

    Good thing is you cannot drink wine over a phone or e-mail or cell phone… least not yet.

  12. I like meatspace too! In fact the biggest hole I see in this whole location based thing is that, unless you are with a group of people for whom the checkin thing is considered “good etiquette”, by reaching for your Small Annoying Device you’re probably pissing off one or more companions who don’t see it that way.

    You know, I was looking at that picture again. Consider two scenarios. One, if you live in the neighborhood these are things you already know for the most part, so you don’t need the display. If you are a visitor, you could have a map (you know, on paper 😉 with public transport info that would cover the important stuff.

    And if you REALLY case about what constellations you can’t see during the day, you’ll already be carrying a star chart 😉

  13. There was a time a long, long time ago
    Chevys and levees played on the radio
    No cell phones, just 20,000 lights
    Swaying on a Saturday night, alright

    Can you imagine that slice of time?
    Rock and roll was young
    People stood in line
    To hear music that played into their lives
    That you could carry till the day you die

    Hey man sing me a song
    When we were everyone
    We were more than just a slice of American Pie

    Have you read my blog today?
    300 million little USA’s
    Your doorstep is just a click away
    We’ll get together one of these days

    How can you be as nice as me
    You’re not from the same slice as me
    Where do we go from here my friend
    Is this the way our story ends?

    Hey man sing me a song
    When we were everyone
    We were more than just a slice of American Pie

    (a “slice” from Five for Fighting)

  14. Steve, I appreciate the deep article and the link.

    To say as some have, that this has always been the case, strikes me as true, but just to a much lesser extent. As AR uses our brains, there’s simply less left over for the “meatspace” (which excellent term I will now use!). I would worry about what happens when people are not living in the present physically and instead subsist on a diet of info-junk.

    I’ll just come out and say it: isn’t the virtual world Phony? Crowdsourced reviews of art tend to be meaningless regressions to the mean–whether in books, music, wine, or films. They’re good for restaurants (yelp) and hotels (tripadvisor). Wine is on the art side.

    As an aside, I love the idea that one would care about daytime constellation locations. That’s for the Sheikh of Geek for sure.

  15. Steve,
    I don’t like the idea of a complete happy app-y world either, but I think those apps and wine criticism have much more in common than it appears: it’s one person (or a company for an app) telling the world what they think one should see/perceive — in a wine, in a street corner — no matter. to me it’s nothing new. it’s the intensity of the apps that’s frightening, perhaps as much as the intensity of all the self-proclaimed wine experts mingling with the “establishment” on the web telling everyone what the latest and greatest is — put ALL of their opinions about a wine on one “street corner” scene and my head would really hurt.
    the problem, can a singular “old establishment” voice like yours still be heard? i say yes. maybe to fewer people because others will be drawn to the “new voices,” but so be it. keep delivering the great work with your individual take on what you see, and people will value that. and return to that once the wishy washy goes bye bye.

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