March 07, 2005

In search of a better world

Every morning on my way to work I pass two homeless men. One of them is usually up and walking around. I always pass him somewhere between the subway station and my office. I usually pass the other one in front of 7-11 where he is sitting and sipping a hot drink from a cup bearing the label of a nearby coffee shop. The drink seldom appears to be coffee, though. Rather, it is normally some kind of tea (sometimes green, sometimes brown).

These men either have or had parents. At one time they were children. Neither one seems psychotic, but both demonstrate a variety of neurotic tendencies including obsession, lack of concern for personal hygiene, and some degree of detachment from the world around them. To these two men, the rest of us are mere apparitions wandering through a world half-dreamed and only fitfully acknowledged as being directly related to their internalized reality.

There are also two people I often see when I am playing Lineage II. One them plays a female dark elf, the other plays a male human, both are fighters. These two are what we call "chaotic". That is to say, they spend most of their game time hunting down and attacking other players, or even just killing players they happen across out in the wilds of the game world. They talk to one another in the main shout channel with no regard to the simple reality that others can read every word they type, they insult players and non-player characters with equal zeal, and will spend hours enthusiastically hacking away at in-town NPCs that do not fight back and cannot be killed.

Notice the parallels? I do, everyday. In a very real sense, the homeless men in the street and the two habitual player-killers ("PKers", as they say) in the game both share the same dissonance with their environment. Both pairs of people find little or no connection between their internalized reality and the one they are interacting with. "Reality", for both pairs, simply does not exist in the same sense that it exists to other people participating in it. For the two homeless men, "Tokyo" is a virtual reality that is of little or no concern to them personally, and the same is true for the two PKers in Lineage II. They simply don't care, because the reality they share with the rest of us has no substantial meaning for them.

However, and here is where I break ranks with the rest of the world, the inability of these four people to internalize their world does not lessen or remove the need for the rest of us to internalize their existence in our reality. Refusing to acknowledge their existence, their needs, their desires, their dreams, and their hopes, starts each one of us down the same internal road each of them is currently traveling. The marginalization of any person simply because we find their version of reality unpleasant is the first step we take to becoming that person.

If there is any difference between East and West, then that difference is reflected in the four people I have described above, which of course, is really no difference at all. The Eastern world has been plagued with overpopulation and a severe shortage of resources for many generations. This is a situation we in the West are only just now finding ourselves faced with. Populations in Europe and North America have risen dramatically since WWII, and now we find ourselves in a world where there are far too many people and not nearly enough productive occupations for them. To make matters worse, "outsourcing" in recent years has begun moving the few jobs that do remain possible into those countries where the devaluation of individuals has had generations to become fully entrenched.

The West is rapidly adopting one of the absolute worst elements of Eastern philosophy: dehumanization. Individuals are no longer important. "Mass media", "mass market", and "the wants of the masses" have become standard elements of our business and political dialogues. Politicians and business people no longer concern themselves with "customers", merely with "the needs of the mass market". Advertising campaigns do not target people with complete freedom of taste and choice, instead, they use sociology and cultural research that has been collected over the past six decades to target any of a number of "mass markets" such as "middle-income housewives with two or more children under the age of 12". The assumption of our world has become that no one person matters at all. Groups, demographics, "masses" of people are all assumed to feel exactly the same way. If someone dares to disagree, they are quickly labeled "merely an anomaly that can safely be ignored".

I am American. I live in Tokyo. Once upon a time this was not a bad thing at all. People were impressed and businesses went out of their way to find ways for me to send them my money in exchange for their products and services. Nowadays though, it seems that every single day I come upon another powerful effort aimed at dividing the world according to geographic regions in forced compliance to the assumptions of a young fool fresh out of marketing school. Since I don't fit the demographics they teach at Harvard, I am "safely ignored" and it does not matter how many times I mail customer service, phone managers, or otherwise attempt to open a communication channel, the response is always the same, "Please feel free to use the Japanese version of our store/website/market outlet conveniently located in Tokyo". But the part they don't mention is that same "local" office is exclusively staffed by young Japanese who don't know English and don't care to learn it. After all, I've been in Japan for twenty years, right? I must be the same as the Japanese!

I'm not. I'm still American. I still prefer a barbecue pit with five pounds of charcoal to a stoneware hibachi just the right size for grilling a single fish. Rush hour trains every morning put me in a murderous rage, and any time I have to deal with the Japanese government I find myself amazed at how murderously difficult everything becomes. In Japan, there are only "ignorant masses" against whatever person happens to be sitting behind the desk or shop counter. With 2000 years of overpopulation behind them, I can almost sympathize with some poor kid fresh out of high school trying to answer questions posed in English by an enraged foreigner twice his size. I can't justify their recalcitrance, but I can understand it.

So why is it every day that goes by sees more and more American businesses treating me the same way? I can't order cards through the Wizards of the Coast online store, I have to triple verify my credit card to order books from even though I have been dealing with them for over a decade, new discussion forums that I sign up for usually send not one, but two e-mail verifications if I dare to apply in English using an e-mail ending in .jp. Worst of all, any time I send in a support ticket to report a bug or apply for a new Beta test the game companies either ignore me completely or "politely" refer me to the Japanese-language only version of their company.

Enough is enough! There needs to be a new revolution in cyberspace. Instead of demanding ever smaller geographic divisions, we need to be demanding less division and more globalization that emphasizes the importance of individuals! Exceptions like me are the rule in the modern world. As travel becomes easier and more free-flowing, we will quickly become the majority. If things go as I expect them to, within another generation "national" borders will be nothing more than lines on a pretty globe that no one pays attention to anymore. We need to start planning now on ways to insure that anyone, anywhere, speaking any language whatsoever, can order anything at all from any company in the world and arrange to have it shipped to them.

The downside, of course, is that crime and customer fraud will increase as well. The solution is not forced regionalization. The only solution possible is increased consumer awareness and an improved education system that teaches every subject from a global perspective. If we do not stop the global trend toward objectification and dehumanization of the individual and stop it now, then the only path remaining to open borders and a global community will be a long, bloody, disastrous war. If we choose that route, then the lack of borders will not come about because we want it to, but because there will be nothing left but ragtag bands of parasitic survivors living off the ruins of our present age.

So which will it be, my friends: a global community built on compassion and openness for individuals, or a global ruin populated by scattered groups struggling to survive one more day? The outcome depends on the choices we each make on a daily basis.

I know we are building a new world, but I cannot help and wonder exactly what kind of a world are we building?