We all dream: involuntarily when asleep and imaginatively when we reflect upon our aspirations. And through endeavour, doing the lottery, asking someone to be our life partner or conceiving children, we strive to realise those dreams.
But dreams are fantasies – and fantasies are untested realities. So most of us, unless we are mad, learn to test our dreams against the realities we face. These may be to do with our abilities, our circumstances or the difficulty of persuading others to see things our way. Mostly we get used to disappointments. It’s unlikely we’ll become either famous or very rich, and often the object of our passion does not reciprocate. Yet very often too, we find ourselves quite well-regarded, able to buy the stuff and the experiences we desire and wake up next to a person whom we love and know loves us.
However such mundane pragmatic contentment is counter-cultural; humanity would not have come so far had we settled for mere contentment. It’s evident that we need to strive restlessly for better understanding of our condition, better governance of our societies, better control of our environment and far better emotional and physical relationships between the sexes.
Yet these desired states and their evolutionary process are only born of the Sturm und Drang of periodic upheaval and revolution. At each plateau we snails and Neanderthals find our habitat congenial enough to thrive until some mega-mollusc or super-hominid comes along to challenge our stasis. Such revolutions have long characterised our history; the dreams and aspirations of philosophers, emperors and scientists have always gripped our lives and shaped our futures for good or ill.
On the transitional cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries we have been caught by the great Internet revolution. Like all revolutions it promises – if its disciples and commentators are to be believed – the death of everything that opposes it. Books, universities, wars and sex may be reduced, simulated, redacted and replaced by tablets, remote learning, drones and instant messaging.
And it’s here that fantasy and reality have become dangerously blurred. This is not a mere question of jerking off over pornography. The Internet caters for both fantasy and real life. But acts and their consequences can be disconnected by remoteness. We can kill villagers in faraway locations from the comfort of our home base. We can get rich by using an avatar in a virtual world to buy and sell property. We can seduce the young or gullible or traduce the reputations of people we decide to hate or deride.
The most gratuitous screen violence and most abhorrent sexual imagery tend to have the greatest impact on those already predisposed to excess and, therefore, already suggestible and susceptible to harm. In a much broader context, the ubiquity, ease of access and immediacy of social media has created an astonishing and pervasive addiction among the populace. In the absence of other educational and social influences the vulnerable are prone to the delusion that the Twittering, Wikileaking and Face-booking Internet is all about free speech and the chance to infinitely extend our egos.
The BBC’s experience with the whole child abuse scandal suggests that in order to avoid a reversion to censorship, we need to hope for another evolutionary leap. This would be to where a Society has become sophisticated enough to be able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. Sadly, it seems that those with the biggest egos are the least likely to educate us in that distinction – as George Monbiot, Sally Bercow or Stephen Fry demonstrate. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame the Twitterocracy; many are so consumed by the need for their minutes of fame that they become unable to appreciate how dangerously thin this transparent pellicle between the real and virtual worlds can be: witness the poor sap who had his debit card personalised with his photo and then posted it on Facebook – account numbers and all.
Outside my window, a great murmuration of starlings swirls above the ploughed fields. They settle together for a while moving in little sequenced groups across the soil. There is a cacophony of twittering and then they leave in a series of smaller clusters, leaders and followers bound for some new destination but ultimately all coalescing again. There is purpose in their movement – to find food and evade predators. But they have one thing in common with the twittering humanoids. As they take to the air, they shit on everything.