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Virtual Is No Refuge From Reality

For children, no escape from America’s car-dependent, cheap-oil fiesta

September 26, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

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  It’s not a coincidence that the degree of grandiose empowerment provided by virtual “entertainments” exists in inverse relation to the loss of power that suburban children suffer in controlling their own lives.

One of the extremely painful lessons of our time, I’m convinced, will be that the virtual is not an adequate substitute for the real. It will be painful because the notion of virtuality has become a psychological crutch for a culture that is recklessly destructive of real places, real experiences, real relationships with real people, and real notions of purposeful, decent behavior.

One of the most popular beliefs of the computer era has been that virtual places are every bit as okay as real places. This idea gained popularity in direct proportion to the spread of immersively ugly, monotonous, dysfunctional suburban environments through the 1980s and 90s. The more our nation came to be composed of crappy housing subdivisions, highway strips, Big Box fiefdoms, and parking wastelands, the more appealing the idea of virtual reality became.

For one thing, it was a way of turning the lack of something into an opportunity to sell more products. The lack of town centers in suburbia led to malls. The lack of access to either complex integral townscapes or real rural landscapes led to theme parks or, in the case of Las Vegas, fragmentary ersatz urbanism. The general impoverishment of the public realm – or the relegation of it to mere decorative berms between zoning categories – was compensated for by the exorbitant internal luxury of new private houses, with their home theaters, “great rooms,” and three-car garages.

For adults the result has been an amazing amount of pervasive situational loneliness. Despite the fact that so many Americans own a car there is no place to go, at least no places of casual socializing unrelated to chain store commerce. So the chat rooms and listserves of the Internet are supposed to take the place of actually being somewhere.

Captive Kids
For children, this trend has been catastrophic because they lack the mobility to use environments designed solely for motoring. This consigns kids either to nebulous low-grade hangouts in the left over scrap places of suburbia – the 7-Eleven parking lot, the storm sump, the wooded “buffer” between the housing tract and the strip mall – or to virtual and heavily commercialized public realms of television and the computer, which include rentable movies, the Internet, and computer games.

The most remarkable aspect of these movies and games is their violence, grandiosity, antisocial behavior, and exaltation of technology. A lone Bruce Willis potently and adroitly kills dozens of enemies and saves the world. A gamer manipulates a joystick to waste legions of invaders with virtual gunfire or death rays to save the world. The wish to save the world is obviously not inadvertent since it is based on the perhaps subconscious recognition that our immediate “world” of American culture and American place badly needs to be saved.

It’s not a coincidence that the degree of grandiose fantasized empowerment provided by these “entertainments” exists in inverse relation to the loss of power that suburban children suffer in controlling their own lives. Stuck in a disaggregated habitat and totally dependent on chauffeuring to get from one part of their world to another, suburban children are deprived of the most fundamental process of growing up: Developing a sense of personal sovereignty, the confidence of being able to make decisions about using one’s environment, and then acting on those decisions.

The fact that so many suburban children are obese should tell us that they have also lost control even of their own bodies, a final, tragic insult on top of the developmental injuries they endure.

Technology, Cheap Oil, Listless Lives
It has been an over-investment in technology that got us into this predicament —  the wish to build a drive-in utopia. And it will be the failure of this entropic project that may rescue us, if it doesn’t put the human race out of business altogether.

Specifically, the world is now facing the end of a century-long cheap oil fiesta with no real prospect of replacing fossil fuels with other things. There is not going to be any“hydrogen economy.” It’s a fantasy promoted by politicians and business leaders who see what is coming, are scared out of their wits, and have nothing offer besides wishful thinking. The bottom line is this: No combination of alternative fuels or procedures will allow us to run what we are currently running in the United States, or even a substantial fraction of it.

If we want American civilization to continue we will have to rescale and reorganize everything we do, from farming, to schooling, to retail commerce, to the places we live in. We will have to rebuild local networks of economic interdependence and we will have to reconstruct real communities as the context for it to happen in. There will be a lot less motoring.

Circumstances will compel us to do this or the future will belong to other people in other places. It will be a difficult transition in any case. But a half century from now we may look back and marvel that we had ever become so collectively psychotic to pretend that the virtual was the same as the real.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of Geography of Nowhere and Home From Nowhere, two of the Smart Growth movement’s seminal books. Reach him at kunstler@aol.com.

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