Fiction, Reality, and Attention
The first week of 2021 has proved a humbling reminder that the forces that shaped 2020 were not interrupted by the changing calendar. On January 6th, rioters stormed the US Capitol building, emboldened by mob fervor and a tangled web of conspiracy theory. Days later, the full scope of the tragedy and horror is still revealing itself, as the death toll rises and footage of the violence spreads. But despite the all-too-real consequences, there was something uncannily unreal about the riot as it was happening. Though some participants appear to have been poised to take hostages, their overall aim seems to have been symbolic, even theatrical. Many seemed less interested in wielding real political power than in snapping photos for social media. Despite their obvious gravity, the events of January 6th defy easy categorization, because they so thoroughly blur the line between terrestrial and virtual reality.
The social critic Walter Lippmann warned about our potential to be swept up in fantasy worlds as early as 1922 in his landmark book, Public Opinion. Responding to the rise of mass media and the looming threat of totalitarianism, Lippmann laments that “under certain conditions men respond as powerfully to fictions as they do to realities, and...in many cases they help to create the very fictions to which they respond.” The common thread in such cases, he argues, is “the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment,” typically made up of vivid “pictures” furnished by media and culture. But to the extent that they motivate action, such pictures necessarily come to impact the real world:
“To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment, but in the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. Then comes the sensation of butting one’s head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer’s tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment.”
The tendency to construct and respond to elaborate mental fictions runs deep in human nature, and indeed is unavoidable when we have to act on the world beyond our immediate perception. We get by, as Lippmann suggests, because these fictions can be falsified by encounters with reality. This repeated collision with reality is part of what separates mere fantasy from our most refined scientific pursuits. But the internet has turned fantasy worlds into a feature of our daily environment, making them more immersive and potent than ever before. We can live ever longer before there is a tear in the texture of our fictitious worlds. As the columnist Ross Douthat notes, the riot “extended from an immersive narrative that made many of its participants fervently believe that they were actors in a world-historical drama, saviors or re-founders of the American Republic.” This narrative can still safely be called fiction, but it can’t be dismissed as such, because politicians in the highest quarters of power have shown their willingness to accommodate it. And in their capitulation, they make the fantasy real.
It is easy to forget, amid these existential stakes, that our individual and collective pictures of reality are built up from a thousand tiny choices about how to use our attention. “Each thinker...” William James writes in The Principles of Psychology, “has dominant habits of attention; and these practically elect from among the various worlds some one to be for him the world of ultimate realities...whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real; whenever an object so appeals to us that we turn to it, accept it, fill our mind with it, or practically take account of it, so far it is real for us, and we believe it.” Sometimes we choose what to attend to, and thereby choose among the worlds we might inhabit. But increasingly, these choices are made for us, on the basis of incentives we would not endorse. Our attention is fractured and captured by negative emotion. We should not be surprised if, over time, our vision of reality takes on these characteristics, too. The Capitol rioters embodied, in their belligerence and incoherence, all the qualities of the virtual pseudoreality from which they emerged.
If we want our politics to be functional, unified, coherent, and reflective, we will need to encourage these qualities in our patterns of attention, individually and collectively. Just as individual distraction leads to procrastination and weakness of will, collective distraction leads to dysfunction and a loss of common purpose. But purposelessness is unstable. If our moment-to-moment experience is dominated by decontextualized shards of meaning, we will cling to conspiracy theory to ward off nihilism. The chain reaction that ends in political upheaval begins with our attention: how we use it, and how it is influenced. The world we choose to attend to will become the world we make real.