Sleepwalking on Information

“Our awareness seems to shrink in direct ratio as communications expand; the world is open to us as never before, and we walk about as prisoners, each in his private portable cage. And meanwhile the watch goes on ticking.”

Reads like it was written yesterday, right?

But no. It’s an excerpt from the essay “On Disbelieving Atrocities,” written by Arthur Koestler in January of 1944. The author means to portray the phenomenal ability of the British and American populations to dismiss what was happening in Germany, Greece, Poland, and France as gross exaggerations.

There is a bug in our human operating system. An error that makes it difficult to maintain empathy over long distances, and in large quantities. The example given in the essay is that if we see a dog get run over in front of our house, we are more emotionally affected than by reading in the newspaper that thousands of people were tortured and executed in grotesque ways in Poland.

This doesn’t make us immoral. It is not a choice. It’s a programming error. And it is one that is amplified by distraction, by the megaphones of information that assault our senses. The more information we process in our day-to-day life, the more insensitive we become in relation to what is happening in the world around us.

And today, in 2019, the megaphones are in greater quantity, and of greater power, than they ever were.

The modern paradox: to be awake, you have to limit your exposure to information. Curation, then, becomes more important than ever before.

A Stranger’s Kindness

The best online games (or games with online components) are those that are designed to provide moments of spontaneous cooperation. That is, they are made to be played solo, but in a way that the player’s fate inevitably intersects with that of other players.

Most modern MMOs work like this. Even 15 years ago, there were few moments more fantastic in World of Warcraft than saving a stranger (or being saved by one) from an enemy ambush. But even the simple gesture of curing or blessing a stranger met on the road made our hearts smile. In modern WoW, these situations are less common, but not extinct.

But the ultimate exponent of this philosophy is probably the Dark Souls series. Here are games that require the player to display mastery over them; games that do not forgive mistakes… Unless… You find a mark left by the spirit of another player, ready to help you with information about the upcoming dangers, or even by offering a spiritual hand to fight by your side. Even in death, these spirits are generous – they allow us to witness a replay of their final moments, giving us the chance to deduce the nature of the deadly perils ahead.

You can’t arrange to play Dark Souls with a friend, at least not without some sort of trickery. And that’s by design. The message is powerful: in your darkest moments, there is no balm like the unexpected help of a stranger.

Photo Credit: Gotham Game Chronicles Flickr via Compfight cc