Experience or catastrophe

With all the noise about the new information economy, the digital revolution and the potential of “big data,” it’s easy to assume that these things are somehow important and necessary. The media is in a feeding frenzy and venture capitalists are lining up to put money in the pockets of anyone with a new, disruptive technology. But is any of this really necessary or helpful to anyone other than those who stand to profit? Isn’t it time we started asking some elemental questions about where we’re going and why we’re in such a hurry to get there? As we stand on the brink of an planetary crisis, what do we really need to be doing at this moment? In his 1920 book, The Outline of History, H. G. Wells pondered the horrific events of World War 1 and famously concluded that “we are in a race between education and catastrophe.” Those words were true enough in their day, but today we face an even more complex challenge. The threat of war still looms but our peril is magnified by ecological devastation, body-life mismatch and other features of the primate’s predicament. Education remains vital, but in a computer-addicted world where more and more of our lives are digitally disembodied, we desperately need actual flesh-and-blood engagement with our habitat and one another. We might well say that we are in a race between experience and catastrophe.

Experience has always been our master teacher. For the vast majority of our time on earth it has been experience, not information, that guided our behavior and provided life lessons. Experience cuts through the fog of abstraction and goes directly to the deepest layers of our tissue. Experience is intimate and tangible; it creates emotion and meaning; it sticks in our memories and it tends to change lives. In contrast, abstract digitally-mediated information, no matter how accurate and voluminous, simply floods our cognitive capacity and leaves us numb.

Our digital addiction is killing us. Our computers and phones are becoming our masters. Our attention is fragmented almost beyond repair. We can scarcely remember what analog habitat and people are really like. What we need more than anything else right now is a unifying, whole-body experience, a focal point for meaning in our lives. We need engagement and discipline, a way of living that draws our energies together into a powerful and coherent whole. Specifically, we need three kinds of experience: vigorous, even arduous experience of our raw physicality in movement; intimate experience of natural habitat, including real-time physical contact with land, water, plants and animals; and finally, authentic, face-to-face contact with flesh and blood human beings, our tribe.

Most importantly, we need to put our lives up against the world and find out what we’re really made of. And we need to do it often, with regularity, with creativity and with resolve. “Digital experience” is an oxymoron; no amount of on-line content will ever substitute for authentic physical contact. There must be a doing–a consistent, engaging, risky and powerful doing. Without such a genuine engagement, our lives will simply pixelate into ghostly digital abstractions; our only “experience” will be a trace, somewhere in “the cloud.” And that will be the final catastrophe.