The other day, I was in a used book store, and I found a copy of a book I had read a long time ago, a book that indirectly has a lot to say with regard to what I write about. Flatland is a story written in the second half of the nineteenth century by Edwin A. Abbott, a famous teacher and headmaster from England. It has very simply become a classic. It is the story about A. Square who lives in a world of two dimensions. He describes his own world as well as his encounters with the king of Lineland who lives in a world of one dimension. A. Square tries to convince the king of the reality of the world of two dimensions. In turn, there is the Sphere from the world of Spaceland who tries to convince A. Square of the reality of a world of three dimensions. The book is very good for explaining some important ideas in math. And although it was written over one hundred years ago, it may have some bearing on the way people experience the world today.
Yes, we all still live our day-to-day lives in the world of three dimensions of Spaceland. But the more we sit in front of all kinds of screens – movie screens, televisions, video games, computers, smartphones and tablets – our eyes and our minds start to live in a world of two dimensions. Yes, we see three-dimensional images, three-dimensional processes and three-dimensional events on those screens. And yet our minds know that we are seeing two-dimensional representations of three dimensions. Particularly with the advent of digital technology, where images are built of pixels, there is a level on which all these screen representations can be reduced to clusters of flat colored dots.
The question is what overall effect does constant encounters with two-dimensional representations have to do with our daily lives. I would submit that it has a subtle but very important effect that grows incrementally from childhood. The most important thing to start with is that although our bodies still live in the three dimensionality of the Spaceland of the Sphere, our eyes increasingly live in the two dimensionality of Flatland just like A. Square. Now in the book Flatland, the inhabitants of Flatland and of Lineland were able to live relatively normal lives within the constrictions of the dimensions to which they were allotted. However, the mental Flatland of humans today limits the kinds of things that they can do in a very fundamental way. The mental Flatland of people today is not the same as the Flatland in Abbott’s story. A. Square was living on the same plane as the two-dimensional world he experienced. People today are living outside of the plane and looking at it frontally. But by constantly looking at a flat plane, people become subtly transformed.
With their two eyes, humans have developed stereoscopic vision, which allows them to naturally see the world in three dimensions. With this stereoscopic vision, it is almost as if people could grab onto the world with their eyes. It is as if they had prehensile eyes to go with their prehensile hands. This is important, because one has to be able to somehow physically or mentally hold onto an entity that has a surface in order to make an imprint on it. One has to allow oneself to be visually held in order to receive an imprint. One has to experience being able to visually ground oneself in order to have a template for making and receiving imprints with respect to other entities. And stereoscopic vision is an important component of this active engagement by a person in his field of experience in order to be able to make and receive imprints.
If one is simply looking at screens all day, one is no longer exercising the stereoscopic vision that gives him his sense of three-dimensionality, that allows him to participate fully in primary experience. And there is a merger of one’s experience in front of the screens with his experience away from the screens such that the three dimensional world of his primary experience begins to subtly flatten. This profoundly affects a person’s capacity to ground himself, to hold onto entities mentally and to be held by other people mentally for the making and preserving of imprints.
In such a situation, a person tends to become a passive observer of life rather than an active interactor with life. The primary modality for dealing with life becomes observation rather than interaction. This relates to tasks and projects as well as to relationships. When the world is primarily perceived as flat and in front of a person, there is little place for manoeuver within the world. Plus, when the experiences and events that one encounters are flat and in front of him, only a part of him is stimulated to life, even though there is a simulation on the screen of a primary experience.
This screen experience is not to be confused in its effects and consequences with reading books. Reading a book has both primary experience aspects and mediated experience aspects. Although reading books does involve looking at the flat surfaces of pages, those pages are bound within a three-dimensional book that we are holding, and we are actively turning the pages within the book and pushing back on the binding and moving the book in different positions. So we are still, to some extent, visual grabbing the discrete stimuli of words from an entity that we are holding onto and manipulating in different ways in space within primary experience. This primary experience aspect of a book doesn’t exist in a computer. And although we can move a smartphone and kindle around, we cannot spatially manipulate it the way we can a book. We are never allowed with a book to think that we are entering a world that can replace the primary experience world of elemental sensation that holds both defined discrete stimuli as well as organic blendable continual stimuli. We have to use our stereoscopic vision as we turn pages, and so there is a prehensile visual aspect to our experience of books. There are imprints from the three-dimensional book that are better received and preserved than what we get from our experience in cyberspace.
In general, in life, if we want to be able to make, preserve and receive organic imprints, if we want to have rich vibrant experiences in life and to prepare for death, then we must exercise the prehensile qualities of our stereoscopic vision by living more in a world of primary sensory experience and diminish our involvement with cyberspace.
This is not simply some abstract academic notion. As our field of experience flattens out and we become more passive towards the world, our capacity to maintain the deep-bonded relationships of family and marriage diminishes. We become more solipsistic, more withdrawn into ourselves. Three-dimensional face time with other people becomes special rather than the norm, and because it occurs more rarely, we lose our capacity to handle it naturally. It becomes exhausting. And family relationships and marriage become weaker and fall apart, as well as friendships and community. The relationship foundations that keep the human race going start to crumble. The human race from three-dimensional Spaceland puts itself in jeopardy, when it starts trying to live its life in its own version of Flatland.
© 2014 Laurence Mesirow