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Human Connection in the Age of "Virtualization"

Excerpted from Daisaku Ikeda's

2004 Peace Proposal to the United Nations

Identity and community
One hundred years ago, when the world was in the thrall of imperialism and colonialism,
the founding president of the Soka Gakkai, Tsunesaburo Makiguchi (1871–1944), described [in The Geography of Human Life] these forces as “national egotism.” He also declared, “The state does not exist apart from the individual: the purpose of the state is to fulfill the aspirations that are the content of the hearts of individuals." He further asserted that the ultimate objective of both individual lives and states must be “the way of humanity” or humanitarianism, something that can only be realized in actions whose aim is not limited to one’s own happiness but includes the happiness of others.

In his philosophy of education, Makiguchi expresses a strong sympathy with the American thinker John Dewey (1859–1952), and in this context, Dewey’s ideas about the nature of a public identity as the basis for democracy are of interest. In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey quotes W. H. Hudson’s description of life in a village in Wiltshire (England).

Each house has its center of human life with life of bird and beast, and the centers were in touch with one another, connected like a row of children linked together by their hands … I imagined the case of a cottager at one end of the village occupied in chopping up a tough piece of wood or stump and accidentally letting fall his heavy sharp axe on to his foot, inflicting a grievous wound. The tidings of the accident would fly from mouth to mouth to the other extremity of the village, a mile distant; not only would each villager quickly know of it, but have at the same time a vivid mental image of his fellow villager at the moment of his misadventure, the sharp glittering axe falling on to his foot, the red blood flowing from the wound; and he would at the same time feel the wound in his own foot and the shock to his system.

The disaster that has befallen one of their fellows is not simply known as fact by the villagers, it is felt and experienced as a shared and personal pain. This vital sensitivity and awareness of life is the core of a public identity. It is this overwhelming sense of reality that leaves such a strong impression.

In a small community such as this not only humans but also animal life and even insentient nature retain the distinct outlines of their separateness and “otherness” while at the same time being intimately connected and bound to each other within the framework of shared destiny. It is only by entering into and participating in the community that people can achieve a solid sense of identity, positioning and giving meaning to their own life and death within a greater whole.

Dewey declares, “With such a condition of intimacy, the state is an impertinence."

This is perhaps reminiscent of two characters in the works of Tolstoy who are said to be semiautobiographical—Olenin in The Cossacks and Levin in Anna Karenina—urban intellectuals who happen upon experiences very close to revelation in which their souls are elevated and merge with the life of all beings. (But this should not be mistaken for a call, along the lines of Rousseau, for a “return to nature” which was the subject of Voltaire’s jibe: “When I read your works, I feel like walking on all fours.” As the fact that Rousseau went on to construct a social theory of popular sovereignty proves, it is impossible to eliminate all that is artificial and truly return to nature.)

What Dewey was examining in his book was the nature of public virtue and public interest in the years after World War I, as the masses started to gain full entry into the political process. He was tackling the question of how—in a world in which villages and other small-scale communities had been dismantled in the process of creating the modern state—to effect the transformation from a “Great Society” (great only in its scale) to a “Great Community” whose constituents identify themselves as members of a “Public.” And as Dewey indicates, it is difficult if not impossible to create this Great Community in the absence of some means of preserving and transmitting the core sense of identity that is the basis of public virtue and public interest in small communities.

Dewey saw the mass media as playing a key role in forming the Great Community. I am afraid, however, that it takes little consideration to answer the question of whether the media has fully or adequately played such a role in the years since Dewey set out these ideas. While responsibility for this cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the media, I personally feel that a cynical indifference to others has become far more pervasive than it was in his time. The challenge Dewey defined for us has remained unmet and, if anything, the problem has been received by our age in exacerbated form.

Indeed, it has been further accelerated by two major currents of our age: globalization and virtualization, the intertwined trends that are driving postindustrial societies. There has been a reaction against globalization in recent years sparked in large part by the lopsided benefits accruing to its central proponent, the United States. The spread and penetration of information networks, meanwhile, shows no sign of slowing; it is far too early to pass judgment on the final balance of the benefits and drawbacks, the positive and negative aspects of this complex and far-reaching phenomenon. Even so, the virtual representation of reality is clearly at the heart of the information society, and it is the implications of this that I would like to examine next.

The disconnect of virtual reality
Rapidly evolving information technology is heir to the core values of modernization and
uses the appeal of convenience and efficiency to both sate and stimulate desire. One result
has been the weakening of the frameworks—family, community, workplace, school,
state—from which society has conventionally been configured. Physical distances that
separate people have lost meaning through the creation of global networks; events on the
other side of the globe enter our lives instantaneously through the medium of computers
and television. This has brought a vast and largely beneficial expansion of freedom of
action and of choice relative to goods and services, hobbies and interests, employment and
residence. Choice is increasingly being extended to family composition and even

We must also be aware, however, of the pitfalls of the virtualization on which so much of this new freedom hinges.

The spread of the Internet has meant that the way in which information and wealth are
generated, conveyed and experienced has become increasingly virtual. In a sense, of course, information is by its nature virtual. The original function of money, meanwhile, was as a token of exchange for goods and services produced by actual economic activities. To the extent, however, that it is detached from such activities and becomes the object of
speculation, desires are amplified without limit and the resistance and stability that are the special qualities of reality are lost. The result is cycles of unbridled greed as the quest for money generates further desire. This is the addictive allure of virtual wealth.

The only effective counterbalance is to keep firmly in view the fact that virtual information and wealth, while they can supplement and enhance our experience of reality, cannot replace it. Computers and communications technologies can never be a substitute for the actual human contact of dialogue, the face-to-face interaction of meetings and classroom instruction, for example. And as the hero of Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe discovers on his uninhabited desert island, money is no substitute for goods or services, much less for human companionship.

Virtual reality is fundamentally incompatible with an uncomfortable, even painful—yet
essential—aspect of human experience: the way our encounters with others force us to face and confront ourselves, and the inner struggle that this sparks. Buddhism speaks of the twin sufferings of being forced to part from those we love and to be in the company of those we hate. Efficiency and convenience are frequently interpreted to mean the avoidance of such struggles. There is a certain irony in the fact that these measures of ease actually render modern life an inhospitable environment for developing self-mastery and a concomitant interest in the public good.

Though contemporary society is heavily dependent on communications and information
technology, it is nonetheless composed of and supported by the activities of people. The
ideal of the age may be a network of “free individuals” who have broken the bonds of
traditional ties and encumbrances. To be genuinely free, however, they must be
self-standing, disciplined and grounded in reality; they must be able to render clear
judgments without being carried away by the torrents of information that wash around them. But these are the hardest qualities to develop in a virtualized society that provides scant opportunity for the training and tempering of individuals. How can this dilemma be

The answer, I believe, lies close to home but requires that we take a different, perhaps
counterintuitive approach. It is the raw sense of reality, the unmediated responsiveness to
living and to pain, that can breathe new life into this stifling virtual world. If we could but
learn, like Dewey’s Wiltshire villagers, to feel the wound and shock of others’ pain as our

I even believe that such awareness and sensitivity represents the single greatest deterrent to war.



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