This virtual world

This piece was probably one of my first non-fiction articles. Sadly, it remains as true now as when I wrote it, despite our knowledge of the pollutants in those coal power station emissions.

Seeing is believing, right? As old-fashioned sceptics used to point out, however neat a theory might be, it was still debatable, whereas you couldn’t argue with what was in front of your very eyes, now could you?

These days what’s in front of your eyes is probably your computer or your television/video screen. And it seems the powers-that-be expect us to believe what we see and hear there regardless of the silent screaming from the sceptical minority as virtual reality virtually replaces reality.

A classic Leunig cartoon comes to mind: on the floor of a room bare of any furniture but a telly sits one of his waifs, mesmerised by the small screen picture of a sunset, whilst through the window behind him a grand sunset is taking place unnoticed.

Virtual worlds can be created by oft-repeated fallacies as much as by flickering images. Once ships stopped reportedly falling off the edge of the flat world, circumnavigation of the previously ludicrous round one became the reality, and the diehard proponents of the flat world theory became the madmen.

As man’s knowledge increases, unfortunately so does his ego. Scientists kid themselves that once they have worked out how a part of a thing works, they know all about it, by scientific extrapolation and logical extension. The fact that they are later proved wrong by other scientists is irrelevant. Like the innocent, their explanation was “true”, the new reality, till proved otherwise.

As the body of knowledge has increased, it has become more difficult to be the well rounded Renaissance man. So we specialise. Specialists work in rarified worlds, be they shining stainless steel laboratories, booklined studies, humming computer rooms or ivory towers.

They use their brains more than their eyes, focus their thoughts intensively within, not extensively without, their worlds. They forget that our world is a complex unit, that their disciplines, however large, are derived from what already exists in an infinitely larger form. They put the cart of knowledge before the horse of reality.

Statisticians are just as bad. They make the field of economics totally unrelated to the price of our daily bread from whence it derived. We don’t need to check our rising grocery bills or our falling bank balance: we are told that we are % better off than our parents and % better off than we were last year (under some other government).

The unemployed can take heart from the figures too: there are less of you. The fact that your unemployment centre has been closed down under the new privatised system or that you have been reclassified and rendered ineligible for unemployment benefits is irrelevant.

The unemployment figure is falling, therefore employment must be rising. It’s just that neither you nor your unemployed friends and families happen to know anyone on that rising tide. Virtual employment will have to do you.

In an equally tangible field, if you have virtually no daily bread to consider, you could try looking at your local skyline and breathing your local air, but for God’s sake don’t drink the water.

You don’t need to read the pollution level figures for the day to know if it’s bad: you can see it, smell it, cough it. No one will argue with you that you live in a pure environment, it’s just the expected price you pay for the high population’s car usage, the amenities, the industries.

That works in the city, but not in the country. Country air is pure, the skies are clear and blue, right? Try asking any of the relevant authorities to see it differently.

Take the Hunter Valley: sure, we see a permanent pall extending over the whole Valley, clouding the ranges from view as if it’s burning-off time all year round. Only it doesn’t smell like bush burning, it smells like coal burning, like old steam trains.

Sure, we know a lot of it is the dust from the open-cut mines. We see huge columns of stuff rising from the short chimneys at the power stations;  it’s just ‘water vapour’, the billboards assure us, But what about what comes out of the tall towers; why is it often a noticeable yellowish-brown trail and why does it hang over the valley as a layer like that ?

Well, that’s just a colour, not a scientific measure. Emissions are monitored by the stations and their figures prove that they emissions comply with current environmental standards; any such perceived pollution can only be from an occasional technical problem.

So how come it’s always brown now when it wasn’t ten years ago?

A nostalgic trick of memory perhaps? These standards are set by responsible government authorities with access to the latest figures on danger levels to human health.

How do these levels change?

Well of course if people start getting sick or dying, developing new diseases, having deformed babies… that sort of thing… then they review the standards for the levels.

What about in between?

All emissions comply with current environmental standards.

All emissions comply with current environmental standards.

All emissions comply with current environmental standards.

What about reality?

Don’t you worry about that!

The eyes no longer have it: the figures do.