I’m Not Here
Wheeler Winston Dixon / University of Nebraska-Lincoln

I'm Not Here

I’m Not Here.

“Someday all of our technology will learn to emotionally manipulate us. Your smartphone is already doing it. Your desktop computer has been doing it for years. As your possessions learn to fill your emotional void, your need for the comfort of other humans will continue to decrease. Eventually we’ll be a society of sociopaths. I’m already halfway there.”1 – Scott Adams , May 27, 2011

I have a reasonably significant web presence. I have a print blog, a video blog, a web page, and I blog pretty much everyday, in addition to blogs that are written about my work, and articles that I contribute to as an interview subject. Just Google me, and you’ll get a lot of hits. You’ll also get a Facebook hit, which is interesting to me, since I am not on Facebook, and have absolutely no intention of joining Academia.edu, Facebook, LinkedIn, Ning, MyLife, Google +, Tagged, Orkul, Hi5, Myyearbook, Meetup, Badoo, Bebo, Friendster, Sociopath (yes, there is such a site), Twitter, or any other social networking site, because I profoundly believe that these networks are nothing more than massive marketing tools to create vast databases on whomever is shortsighted enough to sign up.2

If someone wants to get in touch with me, it’s really easy – search my name in Google, go to my webpage, and voila! contact! – and I have an actual – as opposed to virtual – group of friends with whom I can interact, both on and offline. Facebook now has 800 million users, but as I noted in a blog on my own website, this hardly gives me any room for comfort. Rather, I find it deeply disturbing. Because as far as I’m concerned, all of these people have left the building. They live online, and not in the real world.

Recently, I spent some time at the house of a friend while on vacation, but soon discovered that I might as well not be there at all; my host spent nearly all her time on Facebook, updating her profile and posting pictures for her online friends, and here I was, having come some 1500 miles to visit, while she pounded away at the keyboard, oblivious to my presence.

I should point out here that I never write directly on a computer – I hand write all my books, articles, and essays – then have them typed up, and use the computer only to edit, spell check and format. Thus, when I write, I have more time to think, without being potentially sidetracked by hyperlinks, pop up web ads and messages, just having a blank page to fill up, cut off from any outside distractions. Incidentally, I recommend this approach to all writers; it just makes for a more thoughtful end result.

But in my own way, I’m just as bad, I’m sure; when I get started on editing a project, I hammer away at the keys to get it done, and anyone else in the room vanishes into thin air, but that’s why I now try to schedule my work time, and my online time, for those occasions when others aren’t around, so I can concentrate my energies on my work without “checking out” on the present. But most people don’t do this; even if they’re in a room with you, they’re constantly checking their iPhone for messages, or their Blackberry, or shutting down with an iPod; anything not to be in the here and now.



In the 1960s, an oft-heard mantra was “be here now” – center down, appreciate your current existence, be sensitive to your real surroundings. Now, with FarmVille, World of Warcraft, and other online role playing games too numerous to mention, to say nothing of online gambling, porn, and poker sites, the motto might as well be “be somewhere else – anywhere but here.” Social networks are one narcotic escape, but massively multiplayer online role-playing games are equally addictive to much of the population. I don’t think this is a good thing.

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

As Wikipedia defines them, succinctly but all too accurately, “massively multiplayer online role-playing games are large multi-user games that take place in perpetual [my emphasis] online worlds with hundreds or thousands of other players. MMORPGs can also include computer role-playing games in which each player controls an avatar that interacts with other players, completes tasks to gain experience and acquires items,”3 and as with Facebook, the idea is to never get off, to always be online, and to live your life entirely in a virtual world. The attraction, presumably, is that your own life is so empty that anyplace is better than where you really are, and also that you lack the creativity to create imaginary worlds of your own, digital or otherwise. So you sign up to participate in someone else’s fictive construct, for literally unlimited amounts of time.

Of course, the argument could be made that one experiences a similar phenomenon every time one goes to the movies; you sit in a darkened auditorium with hundreds of strangers, and submit to whatever is presented on the screen. The same is true when you watch conventional television. But these are one-way experiences; unless you’re a theorist who is deconstructing the images presented to you, or else a lay viewer entirely caught up in the narrative, you can always switch the television off, or leave the theater. And television is a passive medium in any event, almost designed to be background information, while you get on with your life in the real world.

In interactive games and social media web sites, one has the illusion of control, in that one can manipulate avatars to do one’s bidding, just so long as those avatars remain within the confines of the game, or on social media websites, add and/or delete “friends” at will. But once outside the game or social media site, the avatars cease to exist, as well as the “friends,” and so does the world they inhabit. What happens to the game player then; does s/he cease to exist as well, assuming that they’ve spent an enormous amount of time on line? And what about your virtual “friends”? Are they your friends when you’re not online?



The other factor, of course, is quite obvious; everyone is the “star” of his or her own Facebook profile, and so the world becomes very small and insular, as if you’re someone special. But you’re not. You’re just another of the 800 million people on Facebook. Facebook, of course, wants to personalize the experience, and make you feel like real communication is going on. But all that’s really happening is data mining, and a series of tenuous on-line “relationships” that can evaporate with a few keystrokes.

And the online world can be awfully seductive. As I noted in my blog Frame by Frame4 on September 30, 2011:

In 1956, Charles Eric Maine (born David McIlwain in 1921) published a superb, often overlooked science fiction novel, Escapement, which posited a bleak virtual future. In Maine’s novel, tech mogul Paul Zakon, head of the “3-D Cinesphere organization,” builds a worldwide network of “Dream Palaces,” in which millions of “dreamers” lie immobile in isolation chambers, hooked up to electrodes and put into a semi-comatose state through a combination of IV drugs and liquid protein.

These “dreamers” spend most of their lives existing only in a fantasy world, from which they emerge only when they’ve run out of money, and are taken out of the system. Then, like the addicts they are, the erstwhile “dreamers” desperately work at whatever menial job they can find until they can scrape together enough cash for another 6 months or so in one of Zakon’s “Dream Palaces,” and then the process repeats all over again.

His unwilling associate in all of this is Dr. Philip Maxwell, whose research has created the “Dream Palaces,” in which millions of men and women are electronically fed dream scenarios more real than life, and experience a simulated existence of power, wealth, and sexual abandon. As Maine prophetically writes, describing the rise of Zakon’s “Dream Palaces” – and remember, this is more than half a century ago –

“At first the thing had been a novelty, an expensive novelty, demonstrated in a handful of specially adapted theatres in the major cities of the States. But the novelty had also been an enormous success. The Cinesphere studios converted their sound stages into psycho-recording sets, and ambitious productions were recorded on miles of brown plastic tape. Lavish, spectacular and sensational productions, loaded with romance and glamour and an aphrodisiac innuendo of sex. [. . .] In the space of four years psycho theatres – later to be called Dream Palaces – were installed in their thousands throughout North America. [. . .] Dreamplays were produced that ran continuously for days, and then weeks, and finally, years.”5

As Maxwell becomes increasingly uneasy with the growth of Zakon’s empire, he starts to move against his employer, but finds that Zakon’s hold on both the populace and the law is too tight. People want what the novel terms as “unlife”; otherwise, why would it be so popular?

Eventually, a quarter of the world’s population is sequestered in isolation tanks, and as they increase the length of their “dream” escapes, they gradually default on mortgage payments and other responsibilities, and so the Cinesphere corporation acquires their property and cash savings, exponentially increasing Zakon’s empire with each passing day.

As he tours the facility with Zakon, Maxwell stops to examine the isolation tank of one Paula Mullen, 27, who has signed up for a dream entitled “woman of the world” – length, eight years of uninterrupted synthetic fantasy – in which she imagines herself alive, awake, and the center of worldwide media attention. In reality, of course, she is an immobile, nearly corpse-like husk in an oversize filing cabinet, but Zakon sees nothing wrong with this. As Zakon tells Maxwell,

“There’s nothing anti-social about unlife, Maxwell. In fact, it acts as a scavenger of society, and removes the more anti-social types from active circulation. Take this Miss Mullen [. . .] and try to imagine her as a useful member of society. She chose to escape from society for eight years. That proves she was one of the many millions of maladjusted people living out their lives in dull unending routine. The kind of people who find no creative pleasure in work. Who seek their fun in furtive sex relations and objective entertainment. She’s better off here. She’s happier than she ever knew and she’s no longer a burden to society.”6

One can’t help comparing the operations of the fictional Cinesphere corporation to the real life virtual worlds offered on the web, to which hundreds of millions of people subscribe, and spend countless hours, and real (as opposed to virtual) money to “exist” in a more attractive, alternative universe. Digital technological advances have long superseded the mechanics of Cinesphere’s fictitious operations, the fact remains that for many, online virtual life has become an addiction, and more “real” than the physical existence they so desperately hope to escape.

I take long walks nearly every day, and when I do, I just take myself along, and use the time to think about what I’m going to do next. I listen to the sounds of the wind in the trees, the birds, traffic, other people who aren’t wired up, and actually engage in conversation with passersby. I don’t listen to music; I walk, I think, I take in my surroundings, and I contemplate the world as it is. This is valuable, and increasingly rare work. It’s where new ideas are generated. Being unplugged gives one a chance to think about the forces that our shaping our society today. Being online all the time offers nothing but an overload of information, which can’t possibly be sorted out.

Luis Buñuel recognized this when he decried in 1980, just three years before his death – long before the digital revolution took hold, but with typical prescience – the ceaseless profusion of meaningless images that confront us at every turn. As he noted in his essay, “Pessimism,”

“The glut of information has [. . .] brought about a serious deterioration in human consciousness today. If the pope dies, if a chief of state is assassinated, television is there. What good does it do one to be present everywhere? Today man can never be alone with himself, as he could in the Middle Ages. The result of all this is that anguish is absolute and confusion total.”7

Recently, I designed a t-shirt, which I propose as a default uniform for everyone who spends more time online than in the real world, assuming that it is by choice, and not because of a work requirement. All it says is “I’M NOT HERE” in bold cap letters. You can see it above; feel free to adopt and use it as you see fit. I think it’s the only mantra that really summarizes the 21st century.

If you’re listening to an iPod, you’re not here. If you’re on Facebook, you’re not here. If you’re on FarmVille, you’re not here. If you’re playing an interactive videogame, or a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, you’re not here. If you’re checking your e-mail, your Blackberry, or tweeting, you’re not here. If you’re not here in the here and now, then you’re not here. Virtual realities don’t exist; virtual unrealities do. And when you check into them, you become unreal, as well.

Yes, we live in a digital age, and some online time is needed, enjoyable, and useful. No one would want to go back to the analogue era, simply because of the many conveniences, especially in the world of moving image studies, which the digital world can offer. And yes, one could easily say that reading a book, or listening to a CD, or going to see a movie are all related experiences, as I note above, and that for the duration of those experiences, you aren’t here, either. But those experiences have limits, while the goal of Facebook and all its allies is to get you online and keep you online, for as long as possible – forever if possible, as in “keep me logged in.” And when that happens, as far as I am concerned, you cease to exist in the real world.

Image Credits:

1. I’m Not Here (The image was created by Wheeler Winston Dixon.)
2. FarmVille
3. World of Warcraft
4. Facebook

Please feel free to comment.

  1. Adams, Scott. “People Who Don’t Need People,” The Scott Adams Blog, May 27, 2011, . October 5, 2011. []
  2. “Top 15 Most Popular Social Networking Sites, October 2011,” eBizMBA, . October 5, 2011. []
  3. “List of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games,” Wikipedia, . October 5, 2011. []
  4. Dixon, Wheeler Winston. “Escapement, or Virtual Unreality,” Frame by Frame, September 30, 2011, . October 5, 2011. []
  5. Maine, Charles Eric. Escapement. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956: 182, 184. []
  6. Maine, Charles Eric. Escapement. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956: 207. []
  7. Buñuel, Luis. “Pessimism,” An Unspeakable Betrayal: Selected Writings of Luis Buñuel. Trans. Garrett White. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1995: 258-263. []

One comment

  • Thank you [and your typist ;)]for your article. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, you make some good points. Walks are definitely good for writing.

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