Has Life Become More Imagined than Real?


[With the scandal that has erupted over Beyonce’s still-unconfessed lip-synching of the Star Spangled Banner, some are questioning whether anything that comes to us by way of television or the internet is indeed real. In the guest essay below, our friend and occasional contributor James Tolard suggests that although the digital enhancements that bring us spectacular photographs of distant galaxies and such is nothing short of miraculous, technology may be weaning humans from the visceral pleasures of experiencing reality itself. RA]

One little parlor game that amuses my friends begins with a question:  Those beautiful photos that NASA releases daily – with the right equipment, do you think you could equal them? Well, some might answer that they could if they had a telescope like the Hubble. Or access to the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. And so on. Just a matter of a large telescope and a specialist camera. And, that is a kind of answer. But there is more. All these big astronomical bureaus employ “data visualizers” – i.e., men and women who turn data into images. What?  Yes, to repeat: Data visualizers assemble zeros and ones from these telescopes, form some kind of image, colorize it; and then, with the blessings of the director of data or some other official, and of course, a stamp of approval from the director of public relations (someone has to pay those NASA salaries and the costs of launching Rover, Discovery, Hubble, etc.), the images are released onto the web and to select newspapers,  where they bring understandable delight to fans everywhere, myself included.

My friends are usually surprised to learn that producing these photos entails simply looking out into the cosmos, snapping an iPhone image, and sharing it with the world. The process of accumulating data can be so complex and time-consuming that one wonders how it happens at all. Rather than explore those issues, at the risk of sounding like Discover magazine, astounded and naive at the wonders of nature, I prefer wondering how we reached a state of existence where almost all our operative images are intellectual constructs.

Sun Does Not ‘Rise’

Take the simple rising and setting of the sun, which does neither. We can see it rise. We can measure its arc. We can predict its locations millennia ahead of its actual position. Yet, it does not rise or set. The earth turns, and the earth revolves, and the solar system revolves, and the galaxy revolves, and the various assemblages of galaxies do something or other, What is it, then, that we experience? A direct experience of the cosmos? No an image of it, constructed from data and from well-accepted hypotheses. Now, we have this going on around us. We live more and more in a world of not experiencing things which we experience. For example, we “like” this actor, we love that actress. We think this is a great song. We “travel” but do not use our legs. What kind of life is that?

In my little neck of the woods, I am aware that, running under the limestone hills are caves and caverns, some of which are said to house images of men. Who painted them 40,000 years ago?  They created these images with their hands, using their eyes, and some kinds of pigments — mostly charcoal and dies (pigments, more correctly) from plants. Those bison were actually within eyeshot, dangerously close. The wild cats roared in the twilight, with no super-fit cameraman and his $25k night-vision, super digital camera to record them.  And now, I can sit here in my den, with the computer screen in front of me, “experiencing” images — that is, I can live in my imagination while the whole world passes by, under and above me! How did we get to that state of affairs?  Did we perhaps always live that way? Is not a man an oddity in nature, unable to live by instinct, needing knowledge, marking patterns? Who would have imagined, in those deep caves in Lascaux, that one day men with broad hats, leather boots, and horses would stand by bison, saving them from extinction!

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John Jay February 5, 2013, 10:49 pm

“some are questioning whether anything that comes to us by way of television or the internet is indeed real”

Speaking of unreal, the WH released photo of the POTUS skeet shooting seems to have been doctored, no wonder they warned against anyone from a photoshop job on it.
Look at the angle of the wrist on his right arm in relation to his forearm.
Can you duplicate that wrist and hand position?
I can’t.
And I think long guns have not produced that much gun smoke since the 1860s.
And his ear protection gear seems to be an audio headset, if you zoom in you can see a wire there.
I may be imagining things.
So look at the photo and decide for yourself.
Or Unreal?

Steve February 5, 2013, 7:18 pm



This is just part of the AP article for all of the intellectuals who do not worry about Due Process of Law, or the Separation of Powrers Doctine.

By all means trade – be happy – there is no way the administrative branch will usurp Due Process of Law for an American – Well you missed the trade, and did not take profits at midway. The bankers and corporate heads do not worry about Due Process of Law, now do they! Do the crime pay the bribe Goldman, J.P., BANA

From Associated Press
February 05, 2013 10:55 AM EST
WASHINGTON (AP) — An internal Justice Department memo says it is legal for the government to kill U.S. citizens abroad if it believes they are senior al-Qaida leaders continually engaged in operations aimed at killing Americans.

The document provides a legal rationale behind the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes against al-Qaida suspects.

The 16-page document says it is lawful to target al-Qaida linked U.S. citizens if they pose an “imminent” threat of violent attack against Americans, and that delaying action against such people would create an unacceptably high risk. Such circumstances may necessitate expanding the concept of imminent threat, the memo says.

“The threat posed by al-Qaida and its associated forces demands a broader concept of imminence in judging when a person continually planning terror attacks presents an imminent threat,” the document added.

A September 2011 drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens.

The memo does not require the U.S. to have information about a specific imminent attack against the U.S. But it does require that capture of a terrorist suspect not be feasible and that any such lethal operation by the United States targeting a person comply with fundamental law-of-war principles.

Steve February 5, 2013, 7:22 pm

By the Way – There is no Congressional Declaration of War – so we are not at War and the Law of War does not govern Obama administrative Draconianism

Registered your weapons of war yet? Do not register you 2nd protected arms, and administratively one is against the government.

A simple memo from DOJ, no court opinion, and BOOM!

BigTom February 4, 2013, 11:05 pm

Personally I like the Super Bowl. For decades the gladiator analogy has been popular, however to me the game represents more importantly the innate competetive nature of man. We can negativily philosophize it all we want and abstract it all into a degrading metaphysical ethos to sooth our neglected and affronted intellect if one chooses, as the game as protrayed on television will sometimes do that to ones sensibilities, but in the end we are what we are, genetically endowed human beings with traits we can either deny or expand upon. Yep, just as the stars out there in the universe are a part of our world, so is the sometimes daily mundane task of surviving each 24 hour stint. And yep, the super bowl has all turned into much to much hype, and the ‘beyonce’ half time show this year was nothing more than a strip club act. I expected her at any moment to jump down into the audience and do a lap dance upon someone in return for a few bucks stuffed into the proper places. We can be disgusted with how man sometimes interperts his universe, but I find it hard to be disgusted with mankind. In the end I sometimes do have to remind myself to marvel at the ‘what is’ and the game itself IMHO portrayed no lies of intent upon the unsuspecting public, as much as MSM daily television does. To me the game expresses a spirt of just part of what the human species is, competitive in nature.
“I prefer wondering how we reached a state of existence where almost all our operative images are intellectual constructs.” I prefer to examine Mr. James Tolard’s quote from the above article……

Jill February 4, 2013, 8:15 pm

That’s a good question: Are the gains bigger? Or the losses? The gains & losses from losing touch somewhat with our direct experience & from expanding our perceptions of both real & illusory items. I think the answer is different for different indivduals, generations, & groups of individuals. Another question: What might we do to limit the losses or harm done, & to increase the benefits we experience? How might we decrease our intake of propaganda & other fake/illusory items on the expanded canvas.

martin schnell February 4, 2013, 10:50 pm

Jill, I would say one alternative, that seems to quietly gaining popularity, even in very mainstream companies is meditation and mindfulness. The essence here is to really experience the moment, and to be able to step outside of your problem/situation and look at it as an observer. It really is a very simple (in theory) change in perspective, but a very powerful one. It is in fact looking inward and really learning how to “experience”. It is the opposite of the outward focused consumption society that many of us live in.

What is really interesting is the scientific research being done that seems to show the strong benefits of meditation. In fact I was on a webinar recently for professional accountants and they spend half the time talking about mindfulness and meditation. Kind of blew me away how mainstream it is becoming. The other beauty is that it can be very very low cost.

martin schnell February 4, 2013, 5:52 pm

Well … a human is a chemical construction that experiences its environment, but the perception is not total perception, it is just a subset of reality. The caveman could not see all that there was, just what his brain could process (for example the eye/brain only processes a subset of light wavelengths).

I prefer to look at current advances as offering a much bigger canvas on which to view reality (though still obviously only a subset).

If that sounds confusing, I think of it this way. Our brains are products of evolution. They are not perfect (see behavioral economics for plenty of examples). If they could be designed in advance, they would be better designed. But technology is offering a potential way in which we can rewire our brains and integrate in outside devices, sort of like updating a computer to add an extra hard drive, or more memory, or a faster CPU, or a webcam.

If we are going to reach for the stars, or try to understand more about our existence, we will need this augmented perception and processing power. Will it be a “better” existence? On the whole yes. We definitely will lose something, but what we gain I think will outweigh these losses – just as immigrants who go to a new land leave something behind as they search for something better, there will be things we will love and things we will miss. But I think that is part of the journey of life.

Tiburon February 5, 2013, 12:34 am

Well…maybe we should all be careful about what we wish for. There’s an optic that gives a view somewhat fraught with malevolence, whenever we begin to talk about “transhumanism”, as effectively are doing in your comment, Martin.
A passably entertaining and fully cautionary, documentary, The Age of Transitions (Aaron Franz), discusses with mostly balanced references (IMHO), the links between Eugenics and Transhumanist thought.
After watching, I guess I realized that if ever clearly confronted with choice (rather than being ‘co-opted’), that despite the admitted attractions of a virtual life (a ‘do-over’ possibility at play, perhaps?), I’d identify as a “Terrist”. Not that I’m against ‘Life Extension’, per se. (ie http://www.lef.org)

The Doc – http://watchdocumentary.org/watch/the-age-of-transitions-video_64d26fc78.html

Robert February 4, 2013, 5:48 pm

Now THIS is a commentary I can sink my teeth into… and perfect timing: following the biggest “spend more money” commercial fan-fest of the year; all orbiting around a 60 minute football game.

The gala has grown to exceed the gravity of the sporting event anchor. Seems people are really only looking for a reason to party.

A football game is merely the competitive display of the modern day gladiators, albeit a much more civilized version, since the losers have only their disappointment to nurse; along with their sore muscles and the odd torn cartilage, sprained ankle, or blown out ACL… Still beats having your carcass carried out on a log cart with a sword blade wedged between two of your ribs, I guess.

But, what are people talking about this morning? The game? No, silly rabbits – People are talking about the COMMERCIALS. (oh- and few seem to be all excited about Beyonce flashing the Illuminati symbol- Is it mere coincidence that Jay-Z’s record company is called Rock a Fella Records? )

The entertainment of the commercial gala has exceeded the primary reason for even playing the game at all.

And yet, there is a very beneficial social component of this annual festivity that reaps true personal reward; but one must wonder WHY there has to be a commercial reason to invite 30 people over for an indulgent feast of cheap food and even cheaper beer.

We all eventually found ourselves, instead, sitting out back; with an open fire burning in our ground pit, and with casual conversation among friends organized around a myriad of real topics… but strangely enough, football and commercials where not among the subjects discussed.

Sure, the game was playing in the house on the gigantic mega-screen, but at the end of the night, it seemed that interaction among friends was a far more valid reason to get together and laugh then the football game was…

But unfortunately, we ended up missing most of the commercials; and now today there is nothing to chatter about around the water cooler with the co-workers…

We’re such losers.

Chris T. February 4, 2013, 5:16 pm

“Perhaps our own experience gives us no clue as to whether that is so or not.”

It’s really worse:
our experience gives us plenty of clues, but we have been conditioned to disregard those in favor of what is commonly presented, we disbelieve our own perceptions more.

economic happy talk?
the general state of fear with respect to kids’ safety?
and so on…

Jill February 4, 2013, 6:12 am

Fascinating essay, James. We humans are biologically adapted to function well living in woods, jungles etc. Perhaps a lot of our woes in the modern world are due to the fact that, in building our protective buildings, cities etc., we have gotten so far away from direct experience that we end up acting in ways that are not in our best interests.

If we can see the lion or bear, it makes sense to be afraid & to protect ourselves. But what about if we listened to someone’s loony conspiracy theory on TV or over the Internet? We may have no basis in our own personal experience for judging whether such fear is warranted. What if advertisers on TV are trying to sell us objects, or political policies/ideologies, that they claim will improve our lives immeasurably? Perhaps our own experience gives us no clue as to whether that is so or not.

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