Sunday, January 23, 2011

Life in the age of Pretend
by David Gilfix

This article was published in The Boston Herald, and has been revised.

To misquote former President Clinton, it all depends on what your definition of pretend is.  But let’s not quibble!  For this discussion, pretend includes activities done vicariously, indirectly, or via -outsourcing that we pretended to have actually done ourselves.

It’s a super age for the great pretenders.  

Over 500 million people (including me) pretend to visit people on Facebook, where we each have, on average, 130 pretend friends (do you know anyone who really has that many?).  Of course, Facebook, itself, is fundamentally pretend.   First, it is not a book, and second, you never “face” your friends - its whole purpose is to encourage non face-to-face social encounters that we have conveniently coined as “virtual”.  But old-fashioned concepts of friendship matter little in new-fashioned playgrounds like Facebook.  Founder Mark Zuckerberg was just chosen as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year”, which means that all his pretend Facebook friends can send him pretend roses. 

Like Facebook, text messaging has essentially replaced traditional phone calls as a more convenient but pretend form of speaking.  Messaging is now so popular that it is standard practice for high school students to pretend to talk to each other while texting other ‘friends’.  (If u dont get y then u r 2 old).  Similarly, according to Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone, 175 million Tweeters now send and anxiously await these virtual status updates of 140 characters or fewer that we pretend to be newsworthy.

On the home front, 63 percent of parents keep their televisions on while pretending to pay attention to their children at family dinners.  We all spend more time watching TV - three hours per day to see actors pretend to be real characters -- than we spend paying attention to each other or engaging in real activities.  Toys like Guitar Hero ‘empower’ kids to play pretend guitar rather than learn a real one.  36 million units of Nintendo’s Wii in US circulation allow kids to pretend to play outdoor games like tennis without actually going outside, playing tennis, or being with anyone.

But virtual living might be preferable to the self-deceptions of actual living. In this Age of Pretend, we are engaged in a lively, sometimes heated national debate about how to improve our children’s education.  This while we approve school budget cuts in town after town, and at the same buy record amounts of iPods, iPads, cell phones, laptops, Wiis, DSes, Xboxes, and high definition TVs -- enabling the next generation of decision makers to stare at screens for an average of seven mind-numbing hours per day rather than interacting with the real world.

Meanwhile, as we eagerly embrace our new separate-but-together-online life style, we seem to outsource more of our off-screen tasks like home repairs, painting, and gardening, and we find less time for really getting together with friends and family.

Of course, none of these pretend trends began yesterday; they took many years to develop.  It might be impossible, but for a minute let's just pretend we can cure this epidemic.  What then would we actually do?


Julia Berkley said...

Ouch! Unfortunately, too true!

Anonymous said...

"Life in the age of Pretend" was a very insightful piece of narrative about what difference it makes to pursue life in flesh and blood. I thought of a poet who lived across the street from a building once residence for you, dear friend--one my my favorites. "There is a great deal of difference in believing something still, and believing it again." — W.H. Auden
Auden's words may speak to our time about what a difference it makes to live in the real world, with all its splendor, darkness, struggle, and yearning for light.
Thanks, David. Hal

Scam Buster (AKA David Merfeld) said...

This, relatively new, concept of similitudinous living, bothers me at least as much as it does you.

When we have visited the canyon lands of the Southwest, we have found Las Vegas to be by far the most convenient airport: It's only a few hours to Zion, Bryce, the North Rim, Cedar Breaks, etc. Twice, we have landed late enough in the day that it made more sense to sleep there, rather than pushing on straight to the desert. Within a few minutes, I started to have a visceral, almost unmanageable, reaction to that place. It is a city built on the concept of adult make-believe.

When a 5-year-old makes believe he/she is in the Valley of the Kings, or on a Gondola in the Grand Canal, it is age-appropriate, and totally healthy. When a 35-year old, who is perfectly capable of actually visiting these places, does so, it is almost perverted. We both know why this archetypical 35-year old visits Vegas, rather than Venice: Venice is hot, and car-free; Vegas has air conditioning, and doesn't require that you walk anywhere.

And, you don't want to know my reaction to Disneyland...

David Kassel said...

David, it's interesting that you can still use the word "pretend" to describe Facebrook relationships and the rest. But we seem to be fast approaching the stage in which these relationships will become the "real" ones and face-to-face encounters will be seen as quaint relics of the past.

Emily Korzenik said...

Dear David,
I not only agree with your article "Life in the Age of Pretend" but I live by that agreement. I have chosen not to join Facebook or Twitter because I am already blessed with many friends whom I have too little time to enjoy or to truly be a friend (yourself included) I watch very little TV because it is hard enough to keep up with my reading for the 2 book groups I belong to not to mention a little professional reading and writing. Although I think my iPad is remarkable, at 81 the newest or latest thing is not immediately attractive. Sometimes I think I have been dragged screaming and kicking into the 21st century.

In any case I admire greatly your creativity and the breadth of it.
Fond greetings,
Reb Emily

Z said...

I wonder what Marshall McLuhan would have to say? Is it pretend or extending the global village, like people around a campfire but using Facebook instead. While television removes people from group contact, the virtual world gets people to interact with one another. Granted it is not the same as being with neighbors or friends but does provide more human interaction than watching tv.

David Gilfix said...

Interesting comments! Here are some additional thoughts in response to your insights:

David Kassel, I share your prediction that soon we will consider these new relationships as “normal.” And I’m not sure what to do about it; it’s like trying to stop a tidal wave with a broom.

Yes, there are benefits to every one of our modern forms of pretend mentioned in this article. For example, via Facebook I have reconnected with old friends in Argentina, Italy, Tennessee, Spain, and Israel.

A bumper sticker that used to be popular read, “This car has climbed Mt. Washington.” I loved that line because it was honest; it didn’t say, the “owner” of this car climbed (or even drove up) Mt. Washington, which would have been deceptive. However, metaphorically, today it seems we want to pretend we’ve made the climb without putting in the time (a nice little rhyme, by the way).

Which brings us to the common element in all of these activities in our Age of Pretend (be they virtual, indirect, or via outsourcing): they allow us to believe we’ve made the climb without putting in the time.

But how much do we lose of the most essential human experience when we don’t put in the time to really learn an instrument, play a sport, talk, or be together?

Nietzsche believed that a philosophy is only relevant if you are willing to live by it. I found the comments by Emily Korzenik inspiring. At 81 years young, she still lives by her conviction that she should put most of her time in the things she most values.

rochrist said...

Sorry, no, Walker doesn't believe his nonsense abouot unions being responsible for the budget crisis. He doesn't even believe in the budget crisis itself other than as a tool to bludgeon the democrats with, or he wouldn't have handed businesses a 142 million dollar tax cut the second he took office.

This is purely an attempt to damage democratic fundraising ability. The barely even tried to hide it.

rochrist said...

Sorry, the preceding was intended for the Wisconsin post. I'll put it there. :)