My Address to the Class of 2016--Your top challenge of four: Virtualness
I have invited myself to your graduation to help celebrate your achievements so far and to look forward with you to the paths ahead. As a university professor I attended many graduation ceremonies and cheered on my own students and congratulated them and their families for hard work, unwavering commitment, and the luck of the draw for being a member of a society that still believes in education despite how hard it makes some of you struggle to complete it.
You may not welcome advice-giving from an uninvited outsider, but I am following your progress somewhat closely, watching the ins and outs of our cultural changes as you encounter them alone and as a group. As a professor, retired now, I feel a responsibility to you as students but also more like an uncle who has your best interests at heart and who has tried to pave the way for your generation with my teaching, writing, and thinking about where we are going as a society, as well as for the generation of my own grandchildren. So let me try to entertain and enlighten you about some major things you might strive for and also avoid in your next stage of life.
I should add that I can offer no advice about a career, a belief system, a dietary or health regimen, a high-tech start up, an innovative food fantasy investment , and certainly not a key to romance and happiness. I focus on fulfillment as a theme, and my advice is of the most philosophical sort and thus potentially useless.
Each one of you obviously has individual talents, proclivities, and goals. Most graduation addresses focus on those goals often in a very general and non-controversial way. Let me try to be as specific and contentious about the particular challenges of you as individuals may face as you push toward whatever goals toward fulfillment you set for yourself.
The first four issues or fundamentals concern some of the more defining aspects of youth culture today, which a college degree in some respects gives you a perspective on and an awareness to surmount. In my view they are things to rise above even though they are at the core of the way young people behave and help define themselves these days. The four fundamental challenges simply are: virtualness, self-focus, uprootedness, and loneliness. You may not think these as the first challenges you may have to overcome—such as paying off student debt, planning a gap year, or finding a graduate school or job, moving away, or finding a partner or mate. However, putting these problematic fundamentals in their positive or contrary form may give you a better idea of what you must try to keep in mind.
The contrary to virtualness is actualness. What is real and actual and unmediated is becoming harder and harder to find, appreciate, and grasp. Technology has fabricated a substitute world readily available through all sorts of devices, which will only get more amazing and prevalent as the decades advance with new and ever more difficult, even unprecedented problems—you know the list: climate disruption, wars and dislocation, resource depletion, growing greed. You will be drawn to the virtualness of mediated visions since your generation was brought up with them and you delight in them no longer just as toys but as tools of thinking and sources of experience and as a comforting background, much like a companion to accompany you wherever you go. And where you might be going might be nowhere in fact.
Consider how stationary you are when engaged in virtual reality. You may indeed be moving but you must steadily direct and fix your eyes, ears, and attention to some sort of display. But walking into walls and losing muscle tone are not the main liabilities of heavy “virturalosity.” The images and sounds and motions on that display simulate a world we are familiar with, though it lacks smells, touch, and taste. With just a few cues we fill in gravity and space. But in fact we are nowhere except facing a screen or under a headset that invites our willing imagination into half-believing we are somewhere else.
In fact, that simulacrum has designs on you—to buy something, believe something, or simply to accept another’s version of reality temporarily as your own. It would seem a harmless game, a diversion with calculated threats and engineered pleasures. But what is missing is the whole challenge of dealing with what is actual--that is, what you bring to society, culture, politics, and the envelop of natural world surrounding us. You are in them and on them in terms of your goals and memories, your fears and your emotions, our history and your place in it. Giving them up for a very thin slice of pixilated images and sounds may be a pleasant diversion, but over-stimulated sight and sound then take over as a way to erase all the problems, achievements, emotional weight, and imaginary dreams you have acquired up to that point. An alternative seeming reality wiped almost clean of all the heaviness of your rich and problematic experience would seem a great sacrifice, but it easily becomes an alluring alternative, a simply available comfort, potentially luring you into state of mindless airy entertainments.
Czech writer Milan Kundera explored the lives of five characters in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) who relish an escape from the heaviness of social disintegration of their society by trying to live outside of it while in it—in a phantasmagora of beautiful romance and sexuality. “Lightness” here means occurring fleetingly and never recurring, making life absurd, even fun, since nothing seems to matter but the transient and the pleasurable. Romance and sex may seem actual but these characters deploy them as deliberately disengaged phenomenon and therefore “light.” Paradoxically that lightness becomes “unbearable” in both senses: intolerable and insubstantial.
Virtualness becomes intolerable too. You earn to avoid history and memory since your own immediate sensations define your existence. If this does not feel terrifying to you, so be it. You would still be an actual body, a physical and mental entity, but stuck in a corridor of virtual reality, like someone stuck in a narrow tunnel who is unaware how uncomfortable and confining it is as they slip further into it. And this tube existence would pour mediated experience through your eyes and ears like an unregulated drug coursing through your body, distorting sensations even as it seemingly enhances them.
The actual, with all its confusions, pain and uncertainty and its principle of holding you responsible for your choices and actions, can be reassuring and challenging and worth the weight of its burden of history pressing on your mind and body as a key source of locating where and who you are. You will be tempted to dispel that weight more and more. Advice? Stay burdened. Turn off the screen, stop the music, shut off the communication devices. Ration them like alcohol, drugs, and sex. You know this already. They are now pervasive, approved addictions that seem to have real benefits, personal, social, economic, but they are a false way toward fullness and fulfillment, seductive but ultimately isolating.
The second fundamental is that: isolation or loneliness, and its contrary is not social engagement—that’s the contrary to virtualness--but solitude.
This may be harder to realize than actuality, because it’s so like its opposi