There are ghosts among us.
Not like Casper, the bubbly kid-friendly ghost, or like some green glob that “don’t look good” from Ghostbusters. The ghosts of Duke are everywhere, in classrooms, on the quads, at the ePrint stations. Like all good ghosts, they try to blend in and, when they can be spotted, they must look as human as possible.
Who are these beings of the netherworld? They are the “plugees,” normal humans who have chosen to plug into the electronic universe, be it through serial text messaging, ever shuffling iPod playlists or video game marathons.
Walking across campus, it’s hard not to notice that every third person has been implanted with some ear-festering device. And with new technologies constantly being devised to “make our lives easier,” the ability to check out of life is becoming more egalitarian in scope. It’s possible that in just a few more classes of Duke students, a majority on campus will fade in physical composition and become modern-world ghosts, connected to the real world only in the fact that their electronic banter must flow through real hardware.
To some extent, there is really no point to rage against the machine. This article was written with an electronic word processor, fact checked using Internet research and edited through specialized software. There are legitimate uses for these electronic devices, some that could even promote more human-to-human interaction.
But, like in any good ghost story, the shades who wander the earth hold on dearly to some vital secret. Behind that word processor window, behind the web browser with 13 open tabs, behind the open documents folder attesting to just how studious the computer’s owner is, there lies a seemingly innocent icon, one that probably looks cheerier than the rest of its desktop brethren. All it takes is a double click and the computer becomes a gateway into a new world. Alice falls into the rabbit hole as the computer, rather than showing you spelling errors within a midterm essay, now asks one seemingly innocuous question:
As the atom-splitting innovation of all electronic manifestations, the video game has the potential to bring people together or lock away individual souls in a Wonderland of the fake. If you don’t believe, take a walk through the computer clusters all around campus. Some ghosts have become so transparent that they no longer care if you can see right through them. Humans spending days at the same computer, playing the same game, listening to the same music, absorbed by the same false reality.
Witnessing all of this brings up an ethical question: Is there a moment when those in the real world should intervene on a ghost’s behalf? The ghosts immortalized by Patrick Swayze and Bill Cosby were able to ask for help. But what if our ghosts are more like Harry Potter’s Myrtle, abandoned in some odd corner of campus to deal with their problems alone? Should we grab our magic wands, jump onto a broomstick and fly in to the rescue? Or do we just watch as these ghosts fall deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole? We’ve pretty much come to a social consensus that substance abusers should sober up, stay clean and return to normal lives. What about the person addicted to virtual reality?
Perhaps many of these gaming or earphone wearing ghosts were pushed into their lifestyles by some harshness of the real world. In the video game world, Mario and Luigi will always let you boss them around on their adventures to save Princess Peach. Crash Bandicoot and Sonic the Hedgehog will never refuse your wish to see them spin in circles. Niko Bellic will never hesitate to steal a tricked-out Humvee and run over crowds of pedestrians at your behest.
And today, video games have eliminated the chance of failure! There is no longer such a thing as “Game Over.” If something goes wrong, the player can always restart from the last saved instance. This security and sense of control is just not there in the real world. Then how do you convince a ghost disenchanted with reality to put down the controller when the virtual world seems to offer so much more?
Like any good ghost story, there must be a way to reanimate these lost souls. If we are to throw a rope down into the rabbit hole, we have to promise that reality offers something greater than Wonderland. But if so many people have tuned out, have chosen to plug in rather than walk through campus outside an iPod bubble, can we actually make that promise? And if we cannot, are we the reason why a person chooses a World of Warcraft over a world of reality?
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Elad Gross is a Trinity senior. His column runs every other Friday.