Digital Content & Reality: Living Vicariously vs. Living

Last updated on 16 January 2023

With digital experiences getting so engaging, are we settling for less in life than we should be?

The Lines are Blurring

We consume lots of digital content. Its increasing richness drives our thirst for it and vice versa. As content gets better, it engages us more, which drives us to keep improving it. It’s a virtuous or vicious circle, depending whom you ask…

Virtual reality is virtual

One factor is the content itself. We’re getting better at telling stories, creating worlds with which people can emotionally connect. The other factor is how the content is delivered. Big-screen ambi-light televisions, IMAX cinemas, mixed (virtual & augmented) reality, and brain stimulation all deliver this great content with ever-higher fidelity, closer to reality than ever.

The point is that we, as a society, have become increasingly satisfied to experience things vicariously through digital content. Video games, movies, & TV shows let us be race car drivers, superheroes, soldiers, supermodels, lovers, or athletes.

So, What is Real?

Digital content gets richer and more engaging every day, but in most ways, it remains a representation of external reality. Playing Call of Duty is not fighting in a war, and watching Midnight in Paris is not visiting France and falling in love.

High-quality simulations make it easy for us to settle for them, rather than going for the real thing.

However, vicarious reality can be helpful. We can learn things we wouldn’t otherwise learn by being exposed to situations and cultures to which we otherwise wouldn’t be exposed. For example, people who are physically or financially unable to travel the world can do so from their living rooms with National Geographic.

Where Does it Go Wrong?

People who might want to travel the world might be content with experience it through digital content. People who might want to lead more interesting lives might be seduced by the safety and ease of digital content to experience their dream lives through a screen, rather than doing it for real.

Just to Be Clear

Please understand, this is not to say that digital content is evil, nor it is to say that making it more engaging is a bad thing. What is “bad” or “good” is how we use it and how we allow it to affect our lives.

The relationship I see between digital content and external reality comes from my own worldview, which comes from my own experiences and relationship to technology. Children growing up now, for example, have a completely different relationship to technology and digital content than I do. People growing up in developing economies like Africa or India also differ in those relationships.

So, What Are You Gonna Do About It?

I am a total fiction junkie in that I love books, TV shows, movies, video games, online articles, and anything else that let me live vicariously. Digital content has affected my life by me allowing it to make me complacent and lazy.

Photo of my feet in black sand, at a hidden beach on Corfu, Greece
A hidden beach on Corfu, Greece (thank you, Xenia)

No more! I want to live!

I will spend less time watching TV shows online and more time traveling on weekends. I will spend less time watching people in movies and start acting again. Instead of experiencing beauty and art at home alone, behind a computer, I will go experience it outside with friends.

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
The Cliffs of Moher, in Ireland (thank you, Hester)

I want to learn crafts and languages, play with children, meet new people, make new friends, and fall in love. I want to explore new places, fly, sail, dive, swim, and run. I want to create, build, destroy, and rebuild. Sometimes, I’ll catch a movie, watch my favorite TV shows, and play silly games on my mobile phone…

That’s just for myself though; what is your relationship digital content, and how do you want it to be in your life?

Cover image: paragliding near Füssen, Austria