Split Reality: Virtual Worlds of American Culture from 1692-2017
Virtuality—specifically the influence of the immaterial digital world—has been identified as an accomplice of twenty-first century media driven crises. From arguments that video games cause mass shootings to the emergence of “alt-facts” in the 2016 Presidential election, our encounters with digital media have prompted questions about what is real and, more importantly, how do we know it. Split Reality explores an extended history of virtuality to argue that these challenges are new versions of old anxieties. I approach the virtual as a realm of immaterial experience different from but deeply connected to the material world. While immaterial contexts inform our experiences of the world, they have often been considered sources of illusory, counterfeit, or otherwise lesser information. This perceived illegitimacy motivates the eradication of immaterial contexts from daily experience through assertions that the material world is the only source of viable information. These attempts do not account for the importance of representation, the imagination, or the virtual to the construction of meaning and, therefore, of reality. The second half of Split Reality focuses how twentieth century shifts towards embracing virtual worlds allowed thinkers to imagine alternative realities as critical tools to change how audiences understood and acted in the material world. These writers were able to imagine media forms that maximized the potential of virtual worlds as critical tools will minimizing their tendency toward delusion by accepting, rather than ignoring, the influence of the immaterial world as a legitimate source of reality. This acceptance is sorely needed to cope with digital culture, as I demonstrate in the emergence of “alt-facts” in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election as an example of what can happen when we are inattentive to the existence and influence of the virtual worlds around us.
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