One mid-autumn evening, during a stringent ‘lockdown’ period imposed on my country in response to the coronavirus pandemic, I was lying in bed with my laptop. While watching some video, or reading some article, it occurred to me that I could not remember how I had spent the last few hours. I knew that I had spent them in front of the computer screen, and, doubtlessly, on the internet. A few hours earlier, I had finished work, which I also did from a laptop in my bedroom. And after that I must have cooked dinner. But after that…well, it was anyone’s guess.
A few nights later, it was 9pm, and I was once again involved in the activity of forgettable browsing. This time, not as many hours had elapsed, but the evening was no less indistinct. My body cried out for movement. It wanted out. Not a switch to another tab – not a four-minute pause for a feijoa then another queued up YouTube video – out.
The air outside was bracing, silent. Dressed for the Arctic, I set out on a journey to rediscover the Real World. First, I headed up a gentle hill, passing by the local shopping village and the city gardens, then veered right onto another, steeper hill. At a certain point along the winding road I noticed the entrance to a mysterious, white-balustraded staircase nestled in the bush. Illuminated, it beckoned me from afar.
Things unsurprisingly took a turn for the spooky. Ascending the towering stairway, with its white underlighting and overgrowing trees on either side, I felt I might be going to face my final reckoning. An eternity of being impaled by a sadistic imp, perhaps. It was a relief when I reached the summit and emerged instead on a suburban street.
The eerie atmosphere solidified as I pressed deeper into the hills. I walked the wrong way up a one-way street, which felt symbolically foreboding. The silhouette of a rat scampered across a fencetop, before vanishing into the shadows. An owl hooted from an indeterminable location, its call reverberating palely through the hollow night.
There was almost no one in sight the whole time I was out. The only evidence of civilisation was a few snatches of laughter and jabbering from nearby houses, which could easily have been tape recordings installed by the World Government.
And so it went on, the night growing ever creepier. I passed a sign atop which a small gnome stood sentinel, staring down with a sinister grin. The address on the sign, ‘Pembroke Court’, smacked of a motel you would check into if you wanted a sixty per cent chance of witnessing a homicide.
2D – The New 3D
Much of modern life is set up in a way that either facilitates or actively encourages the first kind of scenario I described – an interminable browsing on a two-dimensional screen, a flitting from one digital task to the next. Most of the activities of our times can be achieved through screens. You can text, email, call and video conference people to communicate with them. Listen to music. Get an education. Search the answer to any question that occurs to you, without having to resort to brainpower. Organise travel. Buy books, clothes, groceries, delivered to your door. Manage your bank account. Start and run a business. See a doctor. All in two dimensions.
And it is not that two-dimensionality is a mere detail of contemporary existence – it is the premise of it.
Why do we book flights online, if not to avoid going out to a travel agent? Why do we text friends, other than for the convenience of keeping in touch without having to go and visit them in person? The boon of the technological advance has been its reduction of the administration costs of day-to-day life. What once had to be done in the wider, three-dimensional world now simply might be done in it, or perhaps can’t be done at all. Is it possible to buy a ticket to a Justin Bieber concert without the internet? Good luck lining up for one at a Ticketek booth.
Yes, everything is easier in two dimensions. You don’t have to expend physical energy to accomplish mundanities. And you can always ‘be in touch.’ You can always pick up the phone and call someone, if you want to. Or text them. Everything is at your fingertips. It’s fantastic!
So, what is the catch?
Well…it’s just not very – you know – memorable.
When relating the tale of my ‘spooky walk’, I didn’t have to think hard about what happened. The ‘silhouette of a rat scampering across a fencetop’ was not a made up image, written in to fill in the blanks of an actually banal anecdote – it was really there. Disarmingly. So was the hoot of the owl, and the bitter air, and the psychopathically grinning creature of folklore. These were all very clear features of my experience, felt vividly in the moment, and etched into my mind’s senses.
But the evening at my laptop? I can’t remember a single thing I did. There was no distinctness to that slice of life whatsoever. Maybe I watched some videos, maybe I read some articles, or maybe I did some writing. Who would know? Not me, that’s for sure. A Google employee in Beijing would be better placed to answer.
These two contrasting stories are absolutely typical of how we experience reality, and why the contemporary status quo should be regarded with some caution. I am not going to go into the proliferation of loneliness, depression, and chronic physical illnesses across the developed world, though I think the two-dimensional lifestyle has a lot to do with it. But I do want to delve into what I see as the essential problem with the two-dimensional life, which leads to it being so meh.
Where Am I?
“Do you ever walk into a room and forget what you came for?”
It’s one of the oldest jokes of observational comedians. You know where you are, but can’t remember what you’re there to do.
Two-dimensional living is the opposite. You know what you came here for, but you don’t know where you are. Everything blurs into itself. Why? Because the two-dimensional realm is woefully deficient in context separation.
Suppose I work for eight hours on my laptop, then have dinner, then spend the rest of the evening on my laptop again, browsing Reddit and watching TV shows. Almost all the activities of my day have taken place on a single device, likely from a similar sitting position. Even if I move to another location in the house when I switch activity, I am still inside, within my usual confines, on a screen. Where is the separation of events in my experience?
Now suppose instead I walk to an office building designated for my job and work there for eight hours, then walk home, have dinner, read a paperback book for an hour, and finally go out again to the cinema to watch a film. Now, I am switching environments for each activity – they are tethered to different locations in three-dimensional space. They might involve two-dimensional pages and screens, but they are qualitatively different from each other, and separated geographically.
The latter is the three-dimensional style of living. The day still feels routine, but each different part of it is perceived more vividly than a day spent entirely in front of a laptop screen. It feels more engaging, more memorable, more ceremonial.
There is no sense of ceremony in the two-dimensional world. Everything feels the same. The only stimuli are visual and auditory – no smell, taste, or touch. Whether I am ordering takeaway or having a team meeting, I’m on a screen. There is a simulation of a different context, but not a first-degree reality of it. If engaged in too often, and too much to the exclusion of activities in the wider three-dimensional realm, these two-dimensional activities become superficial, tiring, and forgettable. We will not, on our death beds, look back on our lives and recall with affection the days we sat in front of a computer for hours consuming content.
We understand intuitively that physical contact and movement are important. Weddings and funerals – important events – are (almost) always conducted in the real world. We go out to concerts, bars, restaurants, parties, gyms, and play sports and musical instruments, all to experience three-dimensional life. But we simply don’t do as many of these things nowadays as we would have done a hundred years ago, before life could be done from a screen.
Return To Reality
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘two-dimensional’ activities; the penning of this blog post is one. So is your reading it. It would be inane to say that life shouldn’t involve any such things, as most of us adore them, and they can bring us genuine joy. However, they are not meant to constitute the entirety or majority of existence.
Modern society has fallen deeper and deeper into the two-dimensional trap, wherein full sensory experiences in the three-dimensional world are supplanted by convenient simulations. Universal experience shows us that when we don’t balance these simulations with real-world activities, the result is a shallowly-felt life. So if ‘real-world activities’ are no longer necessary, we have to make a conscious effort to do them.
Society needs to get out more.