In 1964, the literary critic Northrop Frye published a short book, titled The Educated Imagination, in which he tried to summarize his ideas on the relevance of literature to life. In it, he asserted that we all find ourselves confronting a world of nature, which is oblivious to our values and desires. It is a world that is inhuman in shape, manifesting no larger intelligence or morality that we can discern.
Our response to this experience, Frye said, is to turn nature into a “human world” that looks more like home. Although he expresses it somewhat differently, it is obvious from the text that he believed we create this “human world” a number of ways. One way we do so is by reconstructing our physical environment, replacing it with something of our own design. We build roads, farms, cities, and so on. Another way we do so is by producing literature, which allows us to explore alternative models of human experience. Here, instead of re-creating physical reality in our own image, we invent fictional versions of reality that let us see a vision of the world as we can imagine it and as we want it to be.
The collection of essays that follows examines what has become of our effort to create what Northrop Frye referred to as a human world as we approach the last years of the twentieth century. It describes the way we are beginning to fulfill a dream that is at least as old as civilization, by learning how to control nature or physical reality, and also create believable simulations of reality that are, in essence, new kinds of fiction.
It focuses much of its attention on the most impressive of these new forms of simulation, which are able to to make it seem that the imaginary places and situations we know from literature have come to life. Here, it examines zoo exhibits that place us inside artificial rain forests, and theme parks that surround us with fabricated landscapes so we seem to be inside everything from the Old West to the age of dinosaurs. It also looks at virtual realities, movie rides and 3D movies, which immerse us in images to create the illusion we are in other times and places.
Like all forms of fiction, these simulations depict, not the world as it is, but a vision of the world transformed by the imagination. They take everything we know from popular literature, as well as drama and the visual arts — from epic journeys and final battles to images of paradise — and they put us inside it. Many also allow us to participate in what they portray, giving us the illusion that we can fly in virtual realities or that we are on ersatz safaris in those artificial jungles. In effect, they make it possible for art to pretend it is life, and for us to take the role of the characters we are familiar with from more traditional forms of fiction.
In addition, an effort is made to examine a larger group of simulations that aren’t as elaborate or don’t immerse us as completely as those referred to above, but that still draw us into lifelike fantasies. Here, interpretations are offered of battle simulation games such as paintball and laser tag, in which players become mock combatants; and of video and computer games that let us incarnate in the simulated realm on the screen in the form of an image under our control.
This collection of essays also examines movies and television, which give us the sense that we are looking in on invented worlds from the outside. It describes the way even nonfiction television now creates simulations that only seem to be something authentic. In the theater of politics; in the hyped up news stories about danger, venality and power; even in nature documentaries that promise to take us to lost worlds, we see reality being seamlessly turned into fiction. But unlike many other kinds of fiction, these try to trick us into believing that they are showing us the world, rather than a mix of fact and falsehood.
As part of this analysis, an effort is made to examine the way most of these invented worlds create the illusion we are transcending the limits of everyday life. Those movie rides, for example, let us experience what it might be like to travel through time and space. Computer games let us pretend we are escaping the limits of morality and engaging in acts of ghoulishness and evil, or that we are ideal selves who manifest the virtues of courage and selflessness. Theme parks, such as Disney World, and television commercials, draw us into simulations of paradise in which we seem to escape the fallen state of society.
Unfortunately, the forms of freedom offered by these creations usually turn out to be illusions, not merely in the sense that they are based on fakery and special effects, but also in the sense that they offer us false or incomplete ideas about what is worth striving for in life. In effect, many offer substitute satisfactions that encourage us to to ward off an awareness of the difficult truths of the self and society.
At the same time, many of these fictions express — in an inadequate or disguised way — our most basic desires, which are to live a full life, see other people treated fairly, and share in a good society. Some deserve to be described as works of moral fiction, because they let us experience our deepest hopes for emancipation and happiness. We can thus find in the high-tech fictions of contemporary culture (as we can in all fiction), an expression of humanity’s desire to achieve freedom and learn the truths of the human condition, and its fear of such a possibility.
In addition to offering the kind of psychological and literary analysis described above, this collection of essays also looks at the way the governing classes in society (and those who will join the governing classes) achieve wealth and power by creating and selling simulations. These governing groups read what is on our minds, often through marketing studies, and then offer us fictions that let us play out our fears and desires. They sell us fake politicians and fake realities, each of which offers its own unique forms of satisfaction and escape.
Finally, these essays describe how science and technology are allowing us to reshape the world so it conforms to our desires, just as simulation is allowing us to invent imitation worlds that do the same thing. At the end, it is argued that we are in the early stages of a world civilization that is characterized by the ability to manipulate the world of nature and worlds of illusion.
The intent of these essays is to offer an empirical and systematic theory, grounded in social science and literary criticism, that can allow us to make simulations as transparent as possible, so we can understand the ways they express human nature. Ultimately, this work is based on an ethical vision that judges this new culture by how it contributes to our quest for a richer life and a more rational society, and that also judges this culture by asking if it encourages us to use our new powers to seek after true or false forms of freedom. In terms of Frye’s ideas, the book asks what may be the central question of our age: if we are going to replace nature with a truly human world, which aspects of our humanity will it be modeled after?