Concept vs Reality, a Cautionary Tale

Procrastination! It has been more than a month since my last post. It is not like I have nothing to write about. In fact, I have a long list, my head full of words that are trying to find their way out. The problem has been simple – plain old boring lack of motivation! You might catch me talking for more than my share at dinners or in the car with friends, but when the time comes to sit at the computer and stare at that screen, that same computer I have been trying to get away from for so long, my mind simply disappears. It goes away, fleeing the scene like a child that has absolutely no desire of taking a bath! I sit on that chair, pressing the keys randomly as if I was waiting for some magical event – a kind of trance where my fingers would start moving without me thinking about it. But then the minutes pass, my mind wanders, my eyes look away – out the window – and next thing I know, I have moved on to something else. Maybe coming clean about my lack of concentration and laziness will force me forward. The first step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging you have a problem right?

Hello, my name is Daniel (Hello Daniel). I have been lazy for over a month now. There, I’ve said it! Now let’s do some writing!

DLD_DanielFox_2013_22Last month I attended the conference DLD in Munich, where I was doing some creative photography. DLD stands for Digital Lifestyle Design. It was truly incredible to meet and hear so many fascinating people, creative in so many ways, and all-out trying to make the world a better place. But every time I find myself in these events, every time I hear these talks, I am always left with a bitter aftertaste. Let me explain why in two parts.

The first part is about concept and reality. The second is published on the EPIC conservation blog and is titled – Our Salvation in God Technologius.

Air Force Captain Theodore Van Kirk, navigator of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay that dropped the atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan said in 2005:

“I pray no man will have to witness that sight again. Such a terrible waste, such a loss of life. We unleashed the first atomic bomb, and I hope there will never be another. I pray that we have learned a lesson for all time. But I’m not sure that we have.”

There is a reason why today the world is still afraid of nuclear – we still have a physical memory of its destructive power. Whether it is the Second World War or the Chernobyl disaster, the damages were so visceral that it’s stayed in our cultural collective memory. Independently of how beneficial nuclear energy could be for a sustainable world, no one wants to go for it.

nuclear-bomb-explosion2There was a time when our world lived in a reality – we were connected to real things, real consequences, our connection to the world was physical. Nowadays, things couldn’t be more different. Life has become a concept. Our connection to our world is through theories, algorithms, and computers. Nature is a remote “beautified” possession, an ideology of a pristine static environment. Our “zero casualties” wars are conducted by drones, piloted by video gamers who sit behind a screen and go back home to their families at the end of the day. Collateral damage is only something they see and calculate, not feel. None of these soldiers go home and have nightmares from the horrors of war. The consequences of our actions are pushed out, hiding away the destructive effect our lifestyle and choice of values has. And with all of this, our arrogance grows to new heights.

We have to be careful in our semantics and what we pretend to understand. Loving the cuteness of polar bears does not make someone connected to nature. Fighting a war with drones does not mean you understand what war is. Talking about garbage in the ocean doesn’t make you an environmentalist. Being a vegetarian does not make you a friend of the planet. Being an expert in coding and algorithms surely doesn’t make you expert in life. Having thousands of friends on Facebook doesn’t mean you are a nice person to be around. Being famous doesn’t mean you bring value to society. And having all this technology available doesn’t make us better or more advance. The debate has become really important not only in our relationship with nature, but also with violence. The last shooting in the USA and the need for gun reforms has led to pointing fingers to the usual culprits, with the usual answer – “Violence has always existed!” Yes, it has, but our relationship with it was real, physical. Today, violence is a game, a concept, a virtual experience. The world is constantly exposed to violence, but from its seat in front of a television or while playing a video game. Movies have become more and more violently graphic due to the technology in special effects.


The most popular video games are the bloody and violent ones where the players kill and butcher their way around. But all of this is only a concept. Even bullying has lost it sense of reality, except for the ones who suffer from it. Hiding behind the screen, kids no longer censor themselves and their mean and cruel behaviour finds false courage in anonymity. In the past, you needed to have balls and arrogance to play bully.  Now you only need to be a coward to terrorise your school. If that was not enough, once home, a child would usually be clear of the bullies, but now victims can’t hide because the attackers find their way into their rooms, into their computers, into their “online identities”. How can we expect the children to have any sense of consequences to their actions when the world around them glamourises damages and feeds on misery?

We are entering a new age where robots will start to perform more and more tasks and with them they will take away our last connection to reality. Will we fully drown ourselves in an ocean of virtuality and concepts? I have written before on how knowledge is our Achille’s Heel

“… from within our cities, sitting behind computers or staring down at our “smart” phones, we claim our superiority and gaze at the world around us in a conceited way. Detached from any realities, we think of aging as a disease, that good parenting means monitoring our children every single second, that consuming green will fix our consumerism, that the idea of implanting a device in our brain to fix an imbalance is pure genius, that people who gamble our savings have a right to do so, that Facebook is real, that the web brings us closer, that food is only a recipe of carbs, proteins, sugars, and fats, and that nature is only a resource that demands to be quantified and managed…”

and about our flawed perception of nature.

“… It is no longer a destination but rather the emotionally charged and personified notion of an animal’s struggle to survive, whether it is the “march of the emperor penguin” or the “fate of the polar bears”. We now live in a world where natural realities are being blown out of proportion and every minute struggle in an animal’s life is over empathised for. Living in cities, feeding ourselves from grocery stores and spending our weekends in the park around the corner, the natural world has become a beautified concept, a Disney story and a pretty picture on the wall…” 

In the book “Concept & Reality in Early Buddhist Thought” the author refers to the mind’s conceptual proliferation, its tendency to create a screen of concepts by which it misinterprets the basic data of experience. From behind our television and our computers, it has become too easy to conceptualise the world, life, ourselves, our issues, our challenges. At DLD, there was excitement in the air, a sense of euphoria, talking about all this new data we are gathering, all these doors that technology is opening – and how all of this will make our lives better, how it will come and take away all our problems. Really? Aren’t we forgetting the most fundamental reality? As much as all this information, all these possibilities, are painting a really bright and promising future, the truth is that, at the end of the day, we are humans, not machines.

All this reminded me of the NOVA’s documentary Mind Over Money, with Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago School of Economics with their rational expectations and their belief that economics has nothing to do with human behaviour.  That it can all be boiled down to equations and formulas – a disconnected utopian world of theories… look where it has led us.

The beauty of our lives – of life – does not find its root in numbers, codes and algorithms. Following a recipe to the letter doesn’t mean it will create the perfect dish. It is the human touch that brings the real value. John Maeda was on the dot at DLD 2013 when he said, talking about design: “The beauty comes from what you experience, the emotions, the facial expressions, the subtleties and for that there is no design thinking algorithm”.

Growing Up Online on PBS
Digital Nation on PBS
Sherry Turkle’s TED talk


  1. […] war to education, there is not an inch of our lives that hasn’t been affected. While the other essay looked at data and the dangers of living in a world of concepts – disconnected from […]

  2. […] war to education, there is not an inch of our lives that hasn’t been affected. While the other essay looked at data and the dangers of living in a world of concepts – disconnected from […]

  3. […] year, in my post Concept vs Reality, a Cautionary Tale, I wrote about my worries of a world disconnected physically from reality, entrenched in a culture […]

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