For people with an interest in history, the best part of travel is seeing the things that you recall from your history books. To stand on the grounds of some historic battle, imagining what it was like for the people involved, makes history come alive. Usually, the thing that surprises people is the smallness. You see the place where some great conflict was resolved and you’re suddenly struck by just how human it is in terms of scale. That’s when it hits you that it was real people engaged in real human activity.
That was my experience at Turku castle when I was in Finland. I’ve been in a lot of very old buildings, so I am used to the closeness of these places, but the smallness of the castle was impressive. From the outside, it has the desired effect. It is towering as you approach it on foot, which was surely the idea of the people who built it. It was supposed to be an intimidating fortification. The guys in side, after all, were the people in charge and they wanted everyone within eye-shot to know it and respect it.
Once you enter, perspective begins to change. In the late 13th century when the castle was built, Europeans had not caught up to the Romans, in terms of engineering and architecture. The arch was still a struggle, for example. As a result, in order to build up, it still meant starting wide. If you wanted a high wall, it had to have a very wide base. To have multiple floors, meant thick ceilings, tiny windows and narrow passageways. The effect, once inside, is almost claustrophobic. It was like living in a cave.
One of the stranger things you will see when you tour the place is young people constantly looking at their phones. At first I thought they were just texting friends or simply unable to pay attention. Instead, what I learned is they were looking at pictures on-line of where they were in the castle. In other words, reality was now their virtual reality and virtual reality was their reality. They could better relate to the images on their phones and the descriptions, than the actual place with the plaques describing the rooms.
In this story about the opening of Nero’s palace, there is a bit toward the bottom where they describe how you can experience the place with virtual reality goggles. There is a picture of people looking rather silly with the things strapped onto their faces. They look like prisoners in some sort of dystopian prison facility. As absurd as it seems, the people who created the exhibit think it is a winning idea. They are probably right. Young people will prefer to sit in the darkness wearing a headset than trying to use their imagination.
When I was a kid, people used to fret about young people watching television, rather than using their imaginations playing games. Most of these concerns were dismissed, as television was rather crude. I grew up with a black and white television until we got the fancy color model that was rather cartoonish in retrospect. No child was ever going to mistake the flickering images on the TV screen for reality or even a plausible replacement for what they could imagine. Television was just fancy cartoons at that stage.
We have come a long way and more important, the internet is far more immersive than television, because it is interactive. About a quarter of adult Americans are on-line constantly. Some of it is the requirement of work, but most of it is simply the fact that on-line is now as much a part of real life as real life. It’s no surprise that those young people in Turku would be confused by the inside of that castle and decide to use their phones to reorient themselves. They lack the imagination to do otherwise.
That’s the thing about imagination. It is a form of getting lost. To imagine things you have to wander off from what you know, using bits and pieces of what you do know to infer things about someplace you have never seen or create a place that does not exist. To imagine what it was like for people 500 years ago, you have to leave this world and wander off to a place you can never truly know. It’s like wandering off in a strange city. There is a risk involved, as you could imagine things that you don’t like all that much.
That’s another thing you see while traveling. Of course, we all see young people walking about with their phone right in front of their face. It’s easy to make sport of, because it is ridiculous to anyone over the age of 40, but it says something about the age. You’ll also notice fewer tourists just wandering around a city. They use their GPS to go from point to point, as if the in-between bits are static. Just wandering around is not only scary to modern people, it is pointless. They can’t imagine the purpose of it.
As the doors of the custodial state slowly close on us, you have to wonder if one of the consequences is a loss of imagination. Maybe that is just a function of us getting dumber, but the immersion in virtual reality may play a part as well. In fact, that may be why people are so sanguine about their infantilization. Their minds are so busy in the virtual world, they are oblivious to what’s happening in the real world. Notice the concern for on-line censorship, but the indifference to an oligopoly controlling the financial system.
On the other hand, maybe the apparent lack of imagination is simply an end point, in the Spenglarian sense of history. The escape into the virtual world is not an escape at all, but rather a new way to experience the same old thing. Virtual reality is like a rebooting of an old movie or TV series. The person’s on-line life is the same character they play in real life, just on a different set. Like old people reminiscing about the old days, we’re simply busying ourselves as we wait to be washed away by whatever comes next.